On Belay With ... Jim Duff

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Oct 08, 2021

Welcome to "On Belay With..."! This is a series of short interviews with all sorts of folks involved in mountain medicine. Joining us at the belay today is Dr Jim Duff. Jim is the founder of the International Porter Protection Group and was a member of countless expeditions to the Greater Ranges, most notably the 1975 British Mt Everest South West Face Expedition. Stand by for some brilliant answers…

What was the last mountain you climbed?

Ben Lomond last week, only that's the one in Tasmania, 1500m, a four hour steep hike through forest and alpine brush to a rim of awe inspiring 200-metre dolerite cliffs. However that was only a walk and the last climb was two months ago on Mount Roland on jewel-like conglomerate.

Pitch 5 of Rysavy Ridge on Tasmania's Mount Roland 


What does the perfect mountain day consist of?

The next one! That sense of anticipation, preparation and then letting it unfold; but it's more perfect if there is some rock to caress.


What's been your worst mountain mishap?

In the Swiss Alps when I was 25, my recalcitrant partner wouldn't rope up on glaciers and I argued with a crevasse: ankle fracture, three thoracic wedge fractures. Still a right pain in the ass (my back that is, not my fearless partner Tom, who, sadly, died soloing the N face of Les Droites).

The east ridge of Khumbutse is visible on the left hand skyline


What's been your best mountain day?

Too hard to choose one!

South face of Storen in Norway, having hitch-hiked out there when I was 16. A great adventure from start to finish, that sense of stepping way beyond the everyday. 

The East Ridge of Khumbutse (6665m), always a dream to solo a Himalayan peak, the line stands out dramatically on the Rongbuk glacier. But it was a completely unacceptable risk that is now tattooed into my brain!


What mountain changed your life?

Sagarmatha*, first British ascent, new route, South West Face 1975. My first expedition, carrying loads as far as Camp 5.

Chomolungma*, first Australian ascent, new route on North Face 1984.

Camp 2 on the South West Face of Everest in 1975

That first expedition allowed me to mix with some of the best of British mountaineering including Dougal Haston, Doug Scott, Hamish MacInnes, Tut Braithwaite, Mick Burke and Chris Bonington. Plus expedition Sirdar, Pertemba and his deputy Ang Phu Sherpa. The latter became a mate through our penchant for getting drunk on chang! Ang Phu was the first person to summit the mountain twice, but subsequently died on the West Ridge in 1979. 

The second expedition was an astounding effort by five young Australian climbers, new route, no oxygen, no Sherpas, summit alpine style, three on the summit. This vegetarian team removed every scrap of gear and rubbish (ours and that of previous expeditions) from the mountain except the top bivvy tent and a bit of fixed rope low down.

And no, I have never summited this mountain and never had that burning desire, just being on the mountain was a huge privilege and I'm sad to see its desecration. As a reminder of the consequences of our adventurous pastime I note that the body's of seven friends are still resting up there, tellingly none of them are on the South Col route.


What's been your best bit of mountain kit?

It's changed with age.  

Youth: P.A.s (the first modern rock shoe, brilliant after walking boots) - I borrowed a pair to climb Kipling Groove when I was 15, and saved for months to buy my own.

Middle age (ie 25+): Hamish MacInnes' droopy Terrordactyl ice axe that made ice climbing a little less frightening and so much better than cutting hand holds in steep ice. 

Old Age: A yacht, nothing beats sailing to your climb!

Crossing the Pentland Firth to the Orkneys. The 137m high Old Man of Hoy (E1 5b) in the background

What makes a great mountain partner? Has anyone come close?

Mike Goff (who's now in his 80s) fits the bill. The things that makes Mike a great companion is that he’s still alive as well as his stoicism and imperturbability when it hits the fan. A little less important are his sense of humour and a diametrically opposite character to mine that has led to huge dust ups, always resolved by love (you are allowed to use the L word once over 70). 

Mike, a great sense of humour and tough as nails!

What's been your biggest mountain disappointment?

On a second expedition into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, having taken some Indian students up Devistan 6678m, Mike and I got within a spit and a whistle of summiting beautiful Rishikot. The monsoon rolled in and the whole region became one big avalanche. 

I don't even want to think about that awful debacle on the West Ridge of K2...


What is your "dream" mountain objective? 

That's it, a dream, I often daydream mountains and climbs past and that brilliant company of climbers. Mind you climbing into a warm bed after a day out is also a dream objective! 


Give us a mountain tip!

One tip, why be so stingy?

Get up and going at least two hours before the time you estimated for the route; an alpine start is any time after midnight, a Himalayan one any time before.

I have tried to live by Dr Tom Longstaff's Himalayan adage "make camp by 2 o'clock and look after your porters", or anyone who helps you on your way.

If possible avoid being doctor and leader; while a great achievement if done well, it is tough and severely reduces your chances of summiting.


*Mt Everest is commonly known as Sagarmatha in Nepal and Chomolungma in Tibet.

Thanks Jim!

Jim’s excellent book, “Pocket First Aid and Wilderness Medicine” can be bought here.

Jim has contributed to a series of brilliant posts on our blog. If you haven't read them why not give them a try? A brilliant interview with Jim can be found here. His writings on his reasons to climb,  high altitude psychosis and climbing in wet conditions are just a click away!

Over the winter the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) will be hosting a series of webinars. Why not join us? Details can be found here.

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the BMMS? See this link for details.

What do Diggory NorthChris SloanKaren GreeneStuart AllanEdi AlbertAbigail ForsythJon MorganTom YeomanMarika BlackhamDavid Cambray DeakinJon Ellerton and David Hildebrandt all have in common? The answer is they’ve all taken part in "On Belay With...". If you would like to join them please get in touch!

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