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Tragic climber Bill March was honoured by friend who took ashes to Everest

By Brentwood Gazette  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

  • 'Big Bill ' - BILL MARCH (1941- 1990 ) - seen just below the summit of MOUNT ROBSON (12,972 ft) highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, July 1977. One of the best known educational climbers of his time, he was Director of National Mountaineering Centre, Plas y Brenin, and from 1977 an Assistant Professor at Calgary University. Leader of the sucessful Canadian Everest Expedition 1982. ref: 1012168-BW (off colour) © JOHN.CLEARE / Mountain.Camera Picture Library

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NOTHING could have been more fitting than when Brentwood boy Bill March's ashes were scattered at the top of Mount Everest.

For although the mountaineering "legend" was unable to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain before his shock death at the age of just 49, one of his closest friends, Tom Whittaker, became the first disabled man in history to do so and left a part of "Big Bill" at the mountain forever.

Bill led the first ever Canadian expedition up Everest's South Col route 30 years ago this month.

Ahead of the trek he had told a Canadian newspaper "we climb for personal fulfilment".

It was a perilous adventure of immense pride for Bill, who among the mountaineering fraternity is as highly respected as Sir Chris Bonington and Italian adventurer, Reinhold Messner.

And although he survived the treacherous trip for as far as he went up the 8,848m Nepalese landmark, four of his party were not so lucky.

A cameraman fell victim to an ice fall and three sherpas were killed during an avalanche.

A front page article in the Gazette, dated September 10, 1982, carried the headline "Up to the top".

It read: "The 16-man team have reached nearly 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and hope to reach the top by mid-October."

Bill's parents, Julia and James March, were living in St George's Court, Brentwood, at the time and their son, who went to St Helen's Catholic Junior School in Sawyers Hall Lane, had already moved away with his Canadian wife Karen to her homeland, where he worked as a university professor of outdoor pursuits.

Mrs March said at the time: "I was a bit apprehensive when I first heard he would be climbing Everest.

"Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best."

A total of six other climbers dropped out of the climb en-route, including one of Bill's closest friends Rusty Baillie - the pair fell out over it and never repaired their relationship.

But Mr Whittaker, 64, was a close friend of Bill's for 13 years, right up until his sudden death.

Carrying a pouch around his neck containing part of Bill's remains was a tremendous honour for him, when he himself made history at the top of the mountain in 1998.

He described Bill as "an inspiration". He says without him his record-breaking ascent would never have happened.

"When I got the chance to go to Everest I went straight to Bill because he knew what my capabilities were.

"He told me that it would be such an amazing thing to do and explained that I was needed as part of a team, I would be playing an instrumental role in it and the others needed me."

In 1979, while already a talented mountaineer, Mr Whittaker lost a leg after being hit by a drink driver. But with Bill's support he carried on climbing and went on to make disabled mountaineering a recognised activity across the world.

But what Bill is most remembered for is his leadership of the 1982 Canadian Mount Everest Expedition Team. It went on to inspire a TV mini-series starring Star Trek actor William Shatner.

It made Laurie Skreslet the first Canadian ever to climb the mountain when on October 5th, 1982, he stood on top of the world. The trip had taken 52 days and cost $450,000, the same amount again was donated in supplies.

Tom added: "When Bill came in he wasn't everyone's choice to lead the expedition, there was some objection to it, maybe because he was not Canadian born, he was very definitely a man from Essex."

As well as the lives of 15 other climbers, Bill was responsible for 15 tonnes of food and equipment which had to be shifted 18,000ft up to Everest base camp by around 80 porters and 40 yaks and losing a single piece of certain equipment was potentially life-threatening.

John Cleare, 76, a veteran mountain photographer, knew Bill for 20 years after they met at an outdoor training centre in the Cairngorms. They went on to climb the Canadian Rockies.

He said: "It's (Everest) a mountain where if you make a small mistake you can easily kill yourself, it has no time for fools.

"He led it extremely well, he got people to the top and that is the leader's job.

"He wasn't on the mission to get to the top, but those who reached the summit did so on the shoulders of Bill, so to speak."

Bill, from an Irish Catholic family, grew up in Brentwood, and went to a faith secondary school in east London.

He began climbing while studying geography at King's College in London, and went on to become an author on the subject who "pioneered" new snow and ice climbing techniques.

John added: "There are one or two people in the world who have attracted publicity, Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner.

"They have courted fame and got their knighthoods or whatever, but Bill never did that.

"He was as good a mountaineer as any of them and recognised by his peers as being one of the best, and when he died he still had years ahead of him and was still fulfilling his ambitions."

"It is ironic that, having survived at the sharp end of a dangerous profession for 30 years, he should have died suddenly from a cerebral aneurysm while relaxing on a canoe expedition with his students at Toby Creek in British Columbia."

Shortly after his death in 1990, a memorial service for Bill's friends and family was held at Brentwood Cathedral.

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