Duncan Tunstall (1962 – 2022)

Duncan Tunstall climbing in Glen Esk in the Southern Cairngorms. Duncan added hundreds of new routes across Scotland and was at his happiest when pioneering adventurous new ground. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

My friend Duncan Tunstall died last month. Duncan lived with an inoperable brain tumour for 20 years, but this never stopped him living life to the full. Duncan had huge energy, great imagination, and an unstoppable love for adventure. He made first ascents in the Karakorum, China and the Alps and climbed well over 200 new routes in Scotland.

Duncan joined the North London Mountaineering Club in the 1980s and enjoyed many climbing adventures with Mick Fowler and friends on the loose sea cliffs in the South-West. In 1987 he visited the Karakorum with Stephen Venables and Phil Bartlett where they made the first ascent of the spectacular Solu Tower (5957m) on the Biafo-Solu divide, just south of the Hispar Pass. He returned to Pakistan in 1991 and ventured up the little-known Nobande Sobande Glacier where he made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Hanispur (c5900m) with Wiz Pasteur and Angus Atkinson.

Other expeditions followed including an attempt on the West Ridge of Nilkanth (6596m) in the Indian Garwhal with Chris Pasteur in 1993, and ascents in the Russian Altai Mountains with Mick Fowler and Paul Allison in 1998. In 2005, Duncan made his finest ascent in the Greater Ranges when he climbed the 1300m-high North Face of the impressive Xiashe (5833m) in Sichuan, China with Ed Douglas. Their new route took five days and was the second ascent of the peak by just a few days.

In the early 2000s Duncan was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He decided to leave his job as an oil trader in London and move, with his wife Jacqui to Aboyne in Aberdeenshire where he spent his time volunteering for local charities and exploring the Southern Cairngorms. His desire to look round new corners soon led to first ascents on Lochnagar and Beinn a’Bhuird, but Duncan was always attracted to the unusual. He thoroughly explored Glen Esk in the Angus Glens, an area rarely visited by climbers. He made the awe inspiring 200m-high Earn Crag his own with first ascents of Dschubba (V,7) and High Grade Low Grade (VII,8) with Andy Nisbet and Dave Almond – all big five pitch routes on very steep and adventurous terrain. On Craig Maskeldie he added Snowlake Reunion (IV,5) with Stephen Venables and the magnificent eight-pitch long Once in a Blue Moon (VII,7) with Henning Wackerhage and myself.

Although Duncan was powerfully built, he was surprisingly good on his feet as a rock climber and very skilled at ascending loose rock. He led me up the first ascent of Golden Buttress – serious six pitch E3 on Earn Crag with confidence and style. We enjoyed many adventures together from climbing sea stacks to seeking out new crags, but our finest undertaking was the first ascent of the SW Spur of Punta Baretti on the south side of Mont Blanc in 2009. Duncan was the perfect partner for this Walker Spur scale adventure that was very much a leap into the unknown. On the second day, Duncan’s skill with unstable ground was essential, and he sent tons of rock crashing to the glacier a thousand meters below when we encountered a huge band of rotten schist. We had three bivouacs and Duncan constructed excellent head-to-toe platforms whilst I cooked dinner each night.

Closer to home, Duncan added dozens of routes to the sea cliffs at Longhaven – some of the longest on the Aberdeenshire Coast – and from 2008 to 2014 he developed the crags at Vat Burn in Deeside resulting in an excellent new venue with over 130 climbs. Duncan did not lead all the routes and generously offered them to his friends once the lines were cleaned – the list of first ascensionists includes Andy Nisbet, Mark Atkins, Stephen Venables, Jamie Andrew and Julian Lines. In 2015 Duncan moved on to clean Bellamore Craig under the summit of Pannanaich Hill and another 80 routes were added to the area. These Deeside climbs are Duncan’s legacy – his efforts resulted in over 200 routes that will be enjoyed for generations of climbers to come.

Duncan was considerably more than just a climber. He was so full of life, that at times, it was both intoxicating and unnerving to be with someone who didn’t know whether the current day was to be their last. Duncan had a quick intelligence and was a stimulating conversationalist. His mind darted from one thing to the other, often obliquely and at a tangent, but always sharp and insightful. Being in Duncan’s company was both exhilarating and exhausting, but he was also generous and kind.

Stephen Venables described Duncan as one of the loudest, bluntest, kindest, most loyal and most provocative companions he had ever had in the mountains. There is no doubt that Duncan Tunstall was both a force of nature and one of climbing’s great characters – the world is a lesser place for his passing.

About Simon Richardson

Simon Richardson is a passionate Scottish winter climber
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