Entity Type:
Graham, William Woodman (1859-unknown)
Graham, William Woodman (1859-unknown)
The first climbing attempts in the Asian Greater Ranges were very much a low-key affair. The enigmatic barrister William Woodman Graham was the first to visit the area purely for climbing purposes. He had no interest at all in scientific exploration and travelled to the Indian Garhwal Himalaya in 1883 with a Swiss guide. He trekked around Kanchenjunga during the spring but was forced to retreat due to extreme cold, and also because one of the porters accidentally burned his climbing boots. He returned to the Garhwal in the summer, freshly shod and with a change of guide to explore the ranges surrounding the famously inaccessible Nanda Devi Sanctuary. They made an almost successful attempt on the 23,187 ft Dunagiri but were turned back by bad weather. The experience convinced Graham that he had nothing to fear from the rarefied atmosphere of these highest of mountains: ‘The air, or want of it, will prove no obstacle to the ascent of the very highest peaks’ was his prescient view. Graham made an attempt to penetrate the Nanda Devi Sanctuary by means of the difficult Rishi Ganga gorge but was turned back by illness amongst his porters and the enormous scale of the gorge. It would not be traversed for another half century. Graham next climbed a very high mountain. That much appears to be certain. What it actually was is still a matter of contention. It is possible, although unlikely, that it was the 22,500ft Changabang, a peak only ‘officially’ ascended for the first time in 1974. However, most authorities suspect Graham may have climbed a lower, 19,000-ft peak in the area, which was poorly mapped at the time, confusing the later reporting of his activities. He went on to climb another big mountain which he claimed was Kabru (24,002 ft). If so, this would have made it the highest mountain then climbed in the world. The debate over which peak he summited continues to this day – as does the mysterious Graham’s fate, for he disappears from climbing history’s radar after his momentous undertakings in the Himalaya. For many years it was claimed that he had lost all his money and emigrated to the US to become a cowboy. Satisfyingly romantic as this ending is, he had actually become the British Vice-Consul in a Mexican town. Graham had apparently made enemies in the Alpine Club (his application for membership resoundingly thrown out by an overwhelming majority of votes) and there appears to have been a deliberate rubbishing campaign against his reputation which has further muddied the facts of his achievements.
Further reading: Hold the Heights, Walt Unsworth, Hodder, 1993.
Biographical information is kindly supplied by Colin Wells. Image is supplied courtesy of the Salkeld Collection.
2006-08-06 00:00:00
Maxine Willett
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Graham, William Woodman (c.1859-unknown)