Lt. Col. H.R.A. (Tony) Streather OBE
Lt. Col. H.R.A. (Tony) Streather OBE, who died on 31st October aged 92, was an army man and mountaineer who learned his trade as a soldier on the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan Alongside his military duties, he became a leading light in the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering in the 1950s; getting close to the summit of K2, making first ascents of both Tirich Mir and the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, as well as leading a successful ascent of Everest in the 1970s. He was the first person to climb two peaks of over 25,000 feet.
Harold Reginald Antony Streather was born in Golders Green on March 24 1926, the middle of three children to Gertrude and Reginald Streather, a successful house builder. Tony was educated in Radlett and then at University College School in Hampstead where he was head boy and captain of the rugby IV. Inspired by a recent talk about the Indian Army, when joining up in 1945, he applied for officer training in the subcontinent and took a commission in the 1st Battalion Rajputana Rifles, based at Fort Sandeman (now Zhob) in Baluchistan. After Partition in 1947 he served under a Pakistani commanding officer in the Chitral Scouts, taking responsibility for a thousand men, 183 horses and 50 camels. It was on patrol, crossing the high passes of the Hindu Kush, often under threat of ambush, that, out of necessity, he learned his mountaineering. In 1950 when Arne Naess’s Norwegian expedition arrived in Pakistan to attempt the unclimbed Tirich Mir, Streather was enrolled as Transport Officer. Fluent in Pushtu and Urdu, he was an invaluable liaison with the local porters. Like them, he usually trekked in ‘chaplis’ – stout-soled sandals, with scraps of goatskin wrapped round them for venturing above the snowline – but the Norwegians persuaded him to don climbing boots for the final push to the 7,778 metres summit. The following year he fought in the Korean war with his regiment, the Glosters.
Success on Tirich Mir – one of the highest summits yet climbed – made Streather an obvious choice for the 1953 Everest expedition but he was turned down on the grounds of insufficient technical alpine experience – ironic in the light of his invitation, a few weeks later, to join an American attempt on the much harder K2. Recalling the expedition fifty years later, Streather remarked, ‘I think when they first met me in Rawalpindi, the Americans were expecting a relic of the old Raj who had spent his time beating the locals. They couldn’t believe it when the natives seemed to get on so well with me.’ Once again, his official role was liaison and transport officer but, as the leader Charles Houston put it, ‘he just carried on up the mountain with us’.
Unlike many modern expeditions, the eight men used no supplementary oxygen and virtually no fixed ropes. After six weeks they were close to the unclimbed summit. But at Camp 8, almost 8,000 metres above sea level, they were hit by one of K2’s notorious storms, and were stuck in their tents for six days. Art Gilkey collapsed with a thrombophlebitis – a blood clot in his leg, which soon moved to his lungs. Despite Gilkey’s hopeless predicament, and the still unsettled weather, Houston decided that the whole team would try to get him off the mountain, trussed up in a sleeping bag and tent.
They made a valiant attempt and at the end of one gruelling day had almost dragged Gilkey down to Camp 7, when one man slipped, dragging the rest with him before Pete Schoening saved the whole team with a brilliant ice axe arrest. But shortly after that miraculous escape an avalanche swept away Gilkey in his improvised stretcher. Even without the burden of a paralysed man, it took them another five days to get down the mountain. Decades later Houston said that if the avalanche had not taken Gilkey, they would probably all have died, but he remained adamant that it was unthinkable to abandon a team mate while he was still alive.
Streather returned to the subcontinent in 1955 to attempt the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga, on the Nepal-Sikkim border. The expedition was led by the genial surgeon, Charles Evans, who had so nearly reached the top of Everest in 1953. Unlike Everest, Kangchenjunga was virtually unknown and the expedition was billed as a ‘reconnaissance’, but the reconnaissance was so successful that four people reached a point just a few feet below the highest snow pinnacle, stopping there out of deference to local religious belief. The first pair, George Band and Joe Brown, had a momentous summit day, with Brown – perhaps the best rock climber in the world at that time – turning his oxygen up to six litres a minute to climb a steep crack up a rock outcrop over 8,500 metres above sea level.
Late that evening Brown and Band returned triumphant to the top camp, to find Tony Streather and the New Zealander, Norman Hardie, waiting their turn at the summit. According to Streather, Brown looked at him pityingly and joked, ‘no chance, Tony – you’re a hopeless rock climber.’ So it gave Streather and Hardie great pleasure the next day to find an easy snow gully round the side of the rock outcrop, leading gently to the summit.
Having served with the Gloucestershire Regiment in Korea in 1951, Streather was now stationed in Britain, working as an instructor at Sandhurst. After a lecture in 1957 to the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, he was asked to lead a student expedition to the unclimbed peak of Haramosh, in the Karakoram. He had only recently married and the couple had a young baby. ‘It was probably very irresponsible of me to go,’ he admitted later, ‘but it was very tempting to return to Pakistan and see old friends.’
The Haramosh expedition culminated in tragedy, subsequently recorded in Ralph Barker’s harrowing ‘The Last Blue Mountain’. In a complex sequence of events at around 6,500 metres, two of the students, Bernard Jillott and John Emery, were swept 300 metres over an ice cliff by an avalanche, coming to rest in a snow basin above an immense precipice, alive, but badly shocked and minus their essential ice axes. Over 24 hours had elapsed by the time Streather and a third student, Rae Culbert, had managed to climb down to them with food and a stove. Streather then tried to lead the team back up to the ridge, but exhausted and short of proper gear, they kept sliding back down into the basin, where they spent another night in the open. The next day Jillott and Emery managed to climb out, but Streather, on a separate rope, was pulled back down by Culbert. After the third night, Culbert was too weak to move. Streather had now lost his ice axe, and had to climb out on his own, using a frozen mitten to scoop snow out of the holds he had cut in the ice two days earlier. Recalling his struggle fifty years later, he said, ‘’I thought I was dead and I didn’t know why I was climbing, but I just knew I had to keep moving, for Sue and the baby. I had this incredible feeling that someone was helping me, pulling me out of a well.’ He later confided to a friend that had he not had a wife and child he would have remained to die with Culbert. At Camp 4 he found Emery waiting, barely alive. Jillott had taken a wrong turn and fallen over the other side of the ridge to his death. Even after a night’s sleep, Streather and Emery barely had the strength to stand up, let alone return for Culbert, who by now had probably died anyway.
As on K2, four years earlier, Streather was moved to tears by the compassion of the Hunza porters who came up from base camp to meet the half dead survivors tottering down the mountain. Back in Britain he was hurt that Jillott’s family would not speak to him. However Rae Culbert’s younger brother Bill remained in touch for the rest of Streather’s life, convinced that the older leader had done everything possible to try and save the young student: ‘there was nothing more he could do’.
Streather’s subsequent career included service with the Glosters in Cyprus, active service with the Queen Elizabeth’s Own Ghurka Rifles in the jungles of Borneo and service as the Glosters’ commanding officer in Berlin and Northern Ireland. He also headed up the Jungle Warfare Wing of the School of Infantry in the jungles of Malaya. He led youth expeditions for the John Hunt Exploration Group and Endevour Training, served as Alpine Club President and was leader of the 1976 British-Nepalese Army Expedition to Everest which put Bronco Lane and Brummie Stokes on the summit. As befitting the last British officer to serve on the Northwest Frontier, he was a keen polo player and loved hunting.
Streather retired from the army in 1977 and took up the post of Sport and Estates Officer at Sandhurst for ten years. In 1995 Tony and his wife Sue moved from Camberley to the village of Hindon in Wiltshire, where he became involved in local village life. Particularly acting as church warden for many years where he initiated the new duty of taking champagne up the narrow spiral staircase to the bell ringers on New Year’s Eve. He was always generous in his encouragement of younger soldiers and climbers, and helped to set up the schools’ expedition company World Challenge in the 1990s. He was admired universally for his modesty and old-fashioned courtesy.
He married in 1956 Mary (Sue) Huggan, who predeceased him. They are survived by their four children, Charlie, Peter, Phil and Sally and seven loving grandchildren who will all miss him dearly.
Born March 24 1926
Filed by Stephen Venables 07.09.2018