Tribute to Tom (Founding Member of the UMIST Climbing Club)

I studied at UMIST between 1973-1976, when I first met Richard “Tom” Thomas, who was founding the UMIST Climbing Club. The idea was not to compete with the MUMC, but just get more funds and resources (the minivan!) for climbing, as we all climbed together. After a miserable fresher’s meet at Stanage, it was when I climbed with Tom at the next meet at Froggatt, that I fell in love with climbing! We often climbed together over the next two years, with a highlight being Phaedra, at Gogarth (also with Kev McGrath of the MUMC).

Then Tom went to the Antarctic to work as a scientist’s helper, when he fell in love with the idea of accessing remote unclimbed peaks by boat, a la Bill Tilman.

Being inspired by another fellow MUMC climber Ken Wilkinson (of Time for Tea (Millstone) fame), who went off to work for Schlumberger and earn big bucks, I followed in Ken’s footsteps. On a chance day out climbing at Stanage to celebrate Ian & Barbara Nightingale’s (also of the MUMC) 50th birthday, I met up again with Tom and after talking about the money you could make at Schlumberger, he hatched the plan of also joining them to make enough money to build his own boat.

Eventually we ended up sharing a house and working together in Norway for Schlumberger in both Stavanger and Bergen, where we did so great multi-day logging jobs together rolling out the CSU (Computer Service Unit) to customers like Statoil, but more importantly started developing this almost virgin climbing part of the world. Together with local climbers Nils Engelstad and John Fivelsdal, we were founder members of Bratte Rogalands Venner (Friends of steep Rogaland (the area around Stavanger)). Our first new route in Stavanger was Original Route at Dale, when Tom was the stand-by engineer, and got into loads of trouble by leaving the massive “portable” ‘phone at the base of the crag, when all hell broke out offshore! This was followed by Anglo Saxon on Tau, Comfortably Numb on Dirdalen, and Lysediagonal in Lysefjord, being the first routes on these magnificent crags. In Bergen we did new routes on Sotra Island, and climbed the frozen waterfall in the centre of town one winter, much to the surprise and amazement of the locals!

Tom was a legend in Schlumberger, not only for being a brilliant engineer, loved by colleagues and customers alike, but for his famous graph on his office wall of boat budget versus monthly earnings, with a crossover point being the date he would quit. This he did, and as a swan song he joined John and myself in Paris (where I was training), when we went off to the south of France to climb on many of the cliffs in the new Pete Livesey guide to the area late 1981. After this I went on to work for Schlumberger in Africa, whilst Tom started to work on his boat, that was being built in Faversham in Kent. I was fortunate to be able to catch up with Tom on Northanger in 1982 during its fitting out phase, that Tom and his owner-partner, Mike Sharp, were doing themselves, as in the attached photos. Northanger is a 54 foot ocean sailing yacht, twin mast, with a steel hull and lifting keel for accessing shallow estuaries in the Arctic or Antarctic.

Tom’s adventures with Northanger started in 1983, and included:

. 1984 the ascent of Mount St. Elias in Alaska, 18,008 feet, the highest peak to have been climbed from sea level

. 1985-86 the ascent of Mount Francais on Smith Island, Antarctica

. 1988-89 the first British vessel to complete the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Canadian Arctic, over 2 years, after being stopped by heavy sea ice near Herschel Island.

Tragically, after the Northwest Passage success, Northanger sailed south to the coast mountain range of British Columbia, where Tom lost his life in a rock and ice avalanche while attempting to scale Mount Waddington, the highest peak in the Coast Range. More details can be read about Tom and Northanger in the following link:

It was a wonderful privilege to have known Tom, and shared many challenging experiences with him. Hard as it was when I visited his parents in Stratford after his death, it was nice to celebrate his life and achievements with them. Tom died way too young, but died “with his boots on” living his dream, in the spirit of Bill Tilman, and remains a major inspiration for me, and all who remember him.

Mike Blenkinsop, UMIST CC President 1975-76.