Rick Allen, who has died in an avalanche on K2 aged 67, was one of the finest high-altitude mountaineers of his generation; he excelled at climbing long and demanding new routes on the highest mountains of the Himalayas.
In 2012, at an age when many climbers consider retiring, he set off to attempt the 26,660ft Nanga Parbat’s unclimbed Mazeno Ridge with Sandy Allan. Between them, they had an age of 112. At almost six miles, with eight subsidiary peaks, the ridge is arguably the longest on any of the 8,000m mountains.
It had been the subject of nine attempts when the pair set off from base camp on July 2, initially with four others, with enough food for 10 days. For a week they traversed a knife-edge ridge, a balancing act between avalanche-prone slopes on one side and friable snow close to the edge on the other.
On the 11th they made their first summit attempt but turned back. The party then split, with Allen and Allan vowing to push on. Their meagre rations were bolstered by a discarded 37-year-old tin of fruit they discovered; that night they ate their last two digestive biscuits, then set off early the next day, summitting at 6.30pm on July 15.
Returning to their snowcave desperately thirsty, they discovered to their horror that the lighter had stopped working. “We were used to not having any food on a mountain,” Allen recalled. “That didn’t worry us, but this was a new game. The idea of not having any liquid was scary.”
Over the next three days they descended the Diamir face, which had been unclimbed for two years, eventually arriving safely at the Diamir base camp on the morning of July 18, perilously close to exhaustion. “We were off the scale medically,” said Allen.
Richard Frank Allen was born in London on November 6 1954, the only child of parents who were themselves only children. After growing up in the south of England, Allen studied Chemical Engineering at Birmingham University. It was there that he developed the two interests that would stay constant for the rest of his life – climbing and the Church.
After working initially in the Middle East, during the 1980s he was drawn to the North Sea oil and gas industry, which had the added attraction of summer and winter climbing in the Cairngorms. Allen worked for Texaco and stayed with them after the company was acquired by Chevron. After starting out in process engineering he became a health, safety and risk specialist, ending his career in Perth, Western Australia.
Chevron took a surprisingly tolerant view of his hobby, and Allen was able to climb all over the world. He made first ascents in Scotland and the Alps – many routes were done solo when he could not find partners. But he found his calling at high altitude.
Notable climbs besides the Mazeno Ridge included a new route on the south face of Ganesh II (23,353ft) in Nepal over a period of 12 days in 1984 with Nikola Kekus; a new route up the south-east face of Pumori (23,494ft) in 1986 with Sandy Allan; and a new, direct line up the north face of Dhaulagiri (26,795ft) in 1993 with a Russian expedition. Allen approved of the cabbage soup and smoked Volga fish diet but he failed to win the Russians over to the merits of drinking tea. He also summitted Everest in 2000 after two failed attempts in the 1980s.
Safety may have been Allen’s speciality at work, but it was not always a maxim he followed with his own life. He was known to push the risk threshold, and over the years had had a number of close calls. On Makalu (27,766ft) in 1988 he was swept away by an avalanche while climbing with the Yorkshireman Alan Hinkes.
“It was like a chicken factory, all blood and feathers,” Hinkes noted afterwards. During the night, Hinkes kept hourly watch on the injured Allen. “I thought he was going to die, his head had burst open. I remember at one point he woke up and through a blood encrusted mouth said, ‘I’m not dead yet’. He was a tough cookie.”
Allen was avalanched again seriously while skiing the Haute Route in the Alps in 2004. When his companions found him he had no pulse or blood pressure – one of them was a doctor – and had broken several bones. But he was back ice climbing by the end of the year.
There were other dramas in the Alps, and then in 2018 he was presumed dead again after falling from an ice cliff during a solo climb to the summit of Pakistan’s Broad Peak, at 26,414ft the world’s 12th highest mountain. However, his rucksack was eventually spotted by a cook at the mountain’s base camp and a drone was used to locate him and to guide rescuers to his location.
He had promised friends he would stick to the normal route on K2, known as “the Savage Mountain” for its high attrition rate. But during the expedition Allen decided to change plans and attempt a new route up the unclimbed south-east face. It was while ascending that he was avalanched for the last time.
A devout Christian, Allen was a member of the Gerrard Street Baptist Church in Aberdeen and was involved in many local community projects. At the time of his death he was a key member of the leadership of Partners Relief And Development UK, an emergency relief charity, and his K2 climb was to raise funds for it.
For his climb of the Mazeno Ridge, he and Allan were awarded a Piolet d’Or award, the highest honour in mountaineering.
Allen was a private man who kept his interests separate. Incredibly fit, he was also a keen runner and cyclist, but he was not immune to the risks he took. Before leaving for the Mazeno Ridge in 2012, he wrote an email to friends: “If you are someone who prays, please pray for us. If not, please pray anyway.”
Rick Allen married Alison Grigor in 1988; it was said by friends that she was the only person from whom he would take advice. She died in 1999 and he married, secondly, Zukhra Zuptarova. They divorced, and he is survived by a stepdaughter and stepson from that marriage.
Rick Allen, born November 6 1954, death announced on July 25 2021