Born in Hull on the 12th May 1948, Joe Tasker grew up in a traditional Roman Catholic family and was the 2nd eldest of 10 children. His family moved to Teesside when Joe was just 7 but it wasn’t until a move to Billingham that Joe became interested in the outdoors, joining the Scouts and widening his horizons with trips to Lake District and the Cleveland Hills.
From a young age Joe had an natural appetite for high places. His family and friends recall him climbing up lamp posts and on the gates of the Middleborough transporter bridge. His antics were both an early rejection of the convention presented to him and a desire to explore one’s limits. However initially it appeared that convention might win out, and at the age of 13 Joe began at Ushaw Seminary College in Durham to study to become a priest. It proved though as confusing a time as ever for Joe, as whilst his studies progressed he also discovered rock climbing for the first time, placing Joe at a crossroads as to where he should focus his time.
In 1966 Joe began climbing in a quarry near Ushaw. One of his old teachers noted that an overhanging climb that took everyone else 10 minutes, Joe could climb in 2 minutes. Joe could hardly ignore such a natural talent and just two years later, at the age of 20, Joe made one of the hardest decisions of his life; leaving Ushaw college behind.
Writing Joe Tasker’s obituary, Dick Renshaw notes that ‘he was always grateful for the excellent education he had received and his amazing will power and stoicism may perhaps have been partly due to the somewhat Spartan way of life and to the Jesuit ideals of spiritual development through self-denial. He started his training as a priest but at twenty he realised that he did not have the vocation and decided to leave – the hardest decision of his life.’
After leaving college Joe worked as a dustbin man and then went on to study sociology at Manchester University. It was here he met his first climbing partner Dick Renshaw. Joe and Dick climbed together in the Alps in the 1970s and by 1975 had succeeded in climbing the North Face of the Eiger in winter. Soon after they went on their first major expedition to Dunagiri in the Himalaya. After driving all the way in a Ford Escort van they climbed Dunagiri in a light-weight alpine style ascent. However, on the descent they suffered a harrowing experience. Running out of food and fuel, Dick suffered frostbite to his fingers and the pair took four days to escape Dunagiri..
After their return from Dunagiri Joe was inspired to climb another Himalayan peak, however Dick was still recovering from frostbite and unable to climb. This lead Joe to seek out another climbing partner, finally meeting Pete Boardman who became as much a competitor as a partner. Although they had never climbed together it was clear that their personalities were a natural fit: ‘with some people it is not necessary to have climbed in their company to know that they… share the same spirit’
The next challenge for Joe, alongside his new climbing partner Pete Boardman was the unclimbed West Wall of Changabang (6864m). Joe’s predication that he and Pete would climb well together proved to be correct. They succeeded in the first ascent of the West Wall on the 15th October 1976.
After 1976 Joe’s mountaineering expeditions were mostly to the world’s three highest mountains; Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga. On the latter Joe, Pete Boardman and Doug Scott achieved the third and first lightweight ascent of Kangchenjunga on the 16th May 1979.
Expeditions however were not always successful, and always had a high level of risk, with Nick Escourt being swept away and killed by an avalanche on K2 in 1978. Still Joe’s commitment was unwavering though and continued to return. In 1980 he was back and determined to summit almost killing himself after becoming buried by an avalanche. Joe was never deterred by his experiences, despite the risks ‘visiting the mountains and become a way of life’, even taking priority over relationships back home which were constantly the under strain of his frequent expeditions.
His persistence often paid off, making the first ascent of Mount Kongur (7649m) in China on the 12th July 1981 alongside Pete Boardman, Chris Bonington and Al Rouse.
In the winter of 1980-1981 Joe Tasker was part of an eight-man expedition to climb the West Ridge of Everest without supplementary oxygen as Joe had achieved on Kangchenjunga in 1979. The expedition was unsuccessful and the team was defeated by illness, exhaustion and brutal weather conditions.
Joe returned to Everest in 1982. This expedition to climb the North East Ridge involved several members who Joe had been on previous expeditions with; Chris Bonington, Pete Boardman, Charlie Clarke and Dick Renshaw. For Joe it was also an opportunity to produce a climbing film to document the expedition. The team spent 2 months in the Everest vicinity, pushing basecamps steadily higher along the ridgeline; 7250m, 7700m and 8100m. Pete and Joe were clearly the fittest of the group and were the only members left on the final summit push. They were last seen on the evening of the 17th May climbing near the summit before they completely disappeared from view.
The next day Chris Bonington and advance base camp manager Adrian Gordon set off to climb the North Col in hope of gaining a view of the two climbers. For three days they waited before returning to base camp. Speaking at a press conference upon their return, Chris Bonington said that “on the 19th, the 20th, and 21st, we saw no sign of them and by the 21st I realised that, almost certainly, something had gone seriously wrong. One was injured or dead and the other had not been able to signal to us or get help. We were desperately worried.”
As well as an accomplished mountaineer Joe also wrote extensively, publishing Everest the Cruel Way in 1981 with Savage Arena posthumously published in 1982. Frequently delving deeply in to why mountains have such a strong appeal, his accounts have struck a chord with his contemporaries, and continue to resonate today. Joe’s vision and ambition when it came to the Greater Ranges was arguably unparalleled and, despite his death at the age of 34, made some of the most iconic ascents of the period pushing both technical grades and mountaineering style to new heights.