Ian Howell on Mt Kenya; by Terry Burke (June 20th 1987)

Ian Howell on Mt Kenya; by Terry Burke (June 20th 1987)

It is with heavy hearts that we inform you that Ian Howell has passed away surrounded by family on November 26, 2018 in Bath, UK at the well-earned age of 82.

Ian pioneered many climbing routes in Kenya, including at Lukenya, Hell’s Gate, and Mt. Kenya. Astonishingly, he single-handedly built the bivouac hut on the summit of Nelion, in the process completing 13 solo ascents of Nelion in a few week period of 1970.

Longtime climbing partner Iain Allan writes: “He was a climbing force, such as we’ve never witnessed here before… I was privileged to share so many of these climbs with him.” Ian’s impact on Kenyan climbing was enormous and will continue to be felt for generations to come.

We are deeply indebted to Ian for his contributions to climbing in the country, and saddened by the loss to his family, his friends, and the MCK Community.

Please feel free to share stories or testimonies about Ian Howell below. We will keep this page on the MCK website.


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Alistair Brooks from Melbourne wrote on June 20, 2019:
Alistair “Rob” Brooks of Melbourne wrote on the Southern Hemisphere Mid-Winter’s Day, 2019:

It was a couple of days ago while sitting in the warm kitchen of my old rock climbing partner, Paul Andersen, having one of our many reflective chats over a brew of tea that he told me of Ian “Pin” Howell’s moving on to mountains previously unexplored. Paul met Pin during his long-ago days in South Africa where he spent as much time as possible climbing, including Mt Kenya’s Nelion. Paul has memories of his own about Pin, so I shan’t presume to intrude upon whatever revelatory tale he might contribute.

For me though, having read through the wide-ranging, wonderful tributes to the dear man from his many friends and the MCK Community, I have noted three things: first, Pin died in Bath, which is where I was born nearly 78 years ago; second, no one seems to have used the nickname that I am using for him, for he was as thin as a pin when I knew him, and that was how he was known in the climbing world of the day; and, third, none of the tributes appear go back as far as the one I am about to add for those patient enough to read it.

However vague initially, my tale about Pin, really begins back in 1960. I had been a member of Sir John Hunt’s British North East Greenland Expedition of that year, and his Second-in-Command was Malcolm Slesser, Scottish Mountaineering Club member and great extreme ice and snow route pioneering strategist. One wet November evening after Greenland, Malcolm and I were sitting in the Royal Geographical Society’s auditorium in London awaiting John Hunt’s first slide lecture on the expedition. Just before the lights were lowered and a hush descended upon the large assembled throng, Malcolm turned to me and said, “What about a trip to the Andes Rob?”

The three month long 1964 Scottish Andean Expedition was as wide-ranging in its scope as it was successful, that is, with the exception of our attempt on the vast East Face of Yerupaja. At 21,780 feet, it is second highest mountain in Peru, and third highest in all Latin America. We got a long way up the hill that year. And enjoying as we had the extremities of its verticality, and the quality of its rock, snow and ice, Malcolm and I vowed to return for a second go. And this is where Pin comes in, for Malcolm had heard of Pin’s already well-established mountaineering prowess and invited him to join us on a second attempt in 1966. Des Hadlum of Rock & Ice Club fame, along with the brilliantly eccentric climber, Mike Kosterlitz, made up our small, well-qualified team.

Within a few days of setting up Base Camp on the same spot as ’64, Malcolm got word his mother had died and so he returned to Scotland, wishing the remaining four of us the best of Celtic luck. And thus it was, after establishing three high, wonderfully airy camps and fixing ropes pretty much all the way, that we came within an ace of getting to the top, only to be turned back by the arrival of a most vicious and entirely unforeseen blizzard that came upon us over the main summit from the west.

The four of us had gathered at two most precarious, near vertical ice stances, one above the other, as the storm struck. Pin and Mike were just above Des and me, and I still recall Pin’s, as always, infectious grin as he peered down through the tearing, sleety snow, held up his ice axe in salute, and shouted “Right ho lads, dunno about you, but I reckon that’s it! We better get the hell out of here, and quickly!” There was no argument and, as it happened, it was a sensible decision. The hurricane-force wind was unrelenting, ensuring the ice blizzard embraced us in its vicious coils, trying to kill us right through the so many endless hours it took to down-climb the entire route in one go.

It was our fixed ropes that ensured our survival, but only by the very barest of margins. Yet, through it all, when Mike and Pin would catch up with Des and me, Pin would give us another grin, as if to say: we’re going to make it lads, no matter what! And we did. It was still snowing when, at long last, we arrived at Base Camp and, finally letting go of our heavy rucksacks, we dived into cozy sleeping bags utterly spent. The cold had been unimaginable. It had been impossible to stop for anything: had we done so, we knew we would die!

The end of the story is that Pin and I kept in touch for some years, he in Africa, me in British Columbia, exchanging often amusing, and sometimes desperate tales of our climbing adventures, which included me being invited to join the New Zealand Alpine Club expedition to Yerupaja in 1968. From the first time I had set eyes on it, I had been bewitched by the idea of doing the traverse all three peaks that comprise the mountain.

This we accomplished in ’68. Dubbed the most daring feat of Andean climbing at the time, it has never been repeated! Pin approved, as did Des and Mike, and, above all, so did my great friend and mountaineering mentor, Malcolm Slesser, who, like Pin, is off in high places with no need for a rope any more. Goodonya Pin! Orrabest, Rob.

Note re following the two photographs below: I took the first image when Pin and I went for a Rest Day’s walk out from Base Camp to get a good look through binoculars at the complicated upper parts of the East Face. We returned with the firm opinion that, despite a bagful difficulties, it could be climbed. In Quechua, the language of the Incas, Yerupaja means “mountain of the long grass”. There was plenty of it, as can be seen.

The second image of Pin I took high on Yerupaja’s East Face, nearing our Camp 3, which was a narrow-ledged rock bivouac, with just enough seating for the four of us; we balanced the stoves on our thighs to cook, with our lower legs hanging over the precipice. As will be seen, the image, complete with Pin’s famous morale-boosting grin, is on the front cover of the November 1966 edition of the London Illustrated News, which cost 2 shillings and six pence. I wrote the article.