Charles Evans, Brian Wilkins, and Ed Hillary in the Himalayas at Barun base camp, May 8, 1954.

Cricket physicist who climbed with Ed and is Damien’s dad

All my grandparents were born in Ireland, and came here as gold seekers, farm labourers, and domestic servants. My father Timothy was upwardly mobile. At 25, with land and a half ownership of the Railway Hotel in Heriot, he had already  acquired the means allowing him to indulge his passion for owning and training race horses. The best man at his wedding (and executor of his will) was Charles Todd, who formed The Todd Motor Company, one of New Zealand’s largest dealers. 

With their three boys, Timothy and my mother settled on a farm on the northern edge of Mosgiel. I was born five years later in 1925. But, in 1928, as a passenger in a car being driven home from the Tapanui races by an intoxicated driver, my father was killed. The Great Depression was on us. Land leased to Chinese market gardeners brought some income, but the leasee of the other half of the farm was broke. We were asset rich but hard up. Two years old at the time of the accident, I remembered nothing of my father. Two of my elder brothers, twins, were 11 years older than me, and the other nine years older. In a sense I was an only child.

I went to school at St Mary’s school in Mosgiel and then took the train daily to secondary schooling in Dunedin. I liked the mouth organ band and the Latin. Someone said they were educated during the vacations from Oxford. With me it was during my visits to The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute in the Octagon. It was established by the early settlers and still provides adult education and classes for members. They encouraged high school age membership. My mother, though lacking schooling beyond primary, insisted I join. I devoured books and magazines on mountaineering. Fast forward; I’m 28 and appearing in pictures and stories in one of those magazines, the Illustrated London News.

Brian Wilkins on top of Mt Earnslaw at age 79 (Mt Aspiring in background).

Chemistry was my choice at the University of Otago. I played club cricket and was intrigued by the behaviour of a cricket ball. At the same time, I joined friends who were planning a trip among the Rees and Dart mountains beyond Queenstown. Cricket, mountaineering, chemistry; three doors were opening.

I was a cautious climber. Is there any other sort, not dead? I was surprised to read, in a review of my climbing memoir, Among Secret Beauties, a claim that I had taken unjustifiable risks. But I do admit to being ambitious, pushing out, to be ready some day to go to the Himalayas or the Andes. In 1957, making the first ascent of the north-east ridge of Mt Aspiring, our party of four, on what we planned to be a one-day climb, was caught out in a violent storm right at the top of the ridge. We survived by digging with our ice axes to make a small cave in an ice patch on the rock. We huddled there for 40 hours without sleeping bags and with only a day’s snacks as food. How long would the storm last? After the snow and wind lessened we could move, but in our condition, it took us three more days to get back to our climbing base, another snow cave, still high on the northern slopes of the mountain.  From there two of us got out to French Ridge hut, but the other two coming later needed three weeks in hospital for frostbite.

We survived on Mt Aspiring by applying knowledge passed on to us by older New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) climbers, coaching us on the snowy winter hills near Duntroon. I was always grateful to the NZAC and to companions who trusted me as I trusted them. On another climb, the first west-to-east traverse of the twin peaks of Mt Earnslaw, my companion slipped and nearly dragged me off the West Peak. More recently a climber died while, attempting to solo this route. Reflecting on these escapes on Mt Aspiring and Mt Earnslaw, to which I add a near miss in the Himalayas, I see myself as having gained strength from the survival. My skills and judgment were improved  gradually over a number of years on less demanding climbs.

In 1951 the NZAC decided to send an expedition, in 1954, to the Barun mountains near Everest. Nepal had recently opened up to the world and a magnificent playground of unclimbed peaks awaited us. I was one of about 70 climbers who applied to join. The great ice peaks of the Southern Alps were good training for the Himalayas, as was about to be demonstrated in 1953, when Ed Hillary climbed Everest.

A few months later and we 10 selected climbers are in the Himalayas. While the others are away exploring, Ed, Jim McFarlane, and I tackle a 20,244ft (6170m) peak, a climb described by Ed as “steep and exposed”. It was Ed’s first Himalayan climb since Everest. We are being tested, even Ed; what shape is he in after his gruelling worldwide lecture tour? Will Jim and I acclimatise to altitude? We all pass, and, as a bonus, get a view from the summit that reveals a feasible route on to nearby Mt Makalu, the world’s fourth highest peak.

In the upper Barun we were assessing future possibilities. Jim and I went up to a col from where we performed a sort of ceremonial rite, putting a foot onto the snow of Tibet. Ed went back with some sherpas to prepare for our return to Base the following day.

The sherpas left Ed Hillary dangling at about 15m. Going nowhere Ed records thinking, “What a funny way to die”

Returning from the Nepal-Tibet border, Jim and I were roped together with me in the lead. We thought we were avoiding an area of crevasses but I stepped on to a thin roof of ice, and fell, dragging Jim in after me. At the bottom of the crevasse he lay badly bruised and unable to move. I had been knocked unconscious; my aluminium snow goggles flattened against my brow. To alert Ed and get help for Jim, I chimneyed up between two ice walls later measured as 60 ft, straight up.  While I remained in the camp nursing a bloodied head, Ed went back with five sherpas, crucially only two of them experienced climbers. They found two holes in the ice, one through which we fell, and the other my escape hole. Ed shouted down and Jim responded clearly. They lowered a rope but it didn’t reach Jim maybe because it was getting dark, or because I told Ed I thought it was about 10-15m whereas it was later measured as 18.3m. Ed then got the sherpas to lower him down to Jim. They had a fixed grip on the rope and as they lowered they walked towards the opening. What had begun as relatively uncomplicated rope work now cast them in the role of abandoning their chief sahib, a most famous personage, into the dark of a bottomless void. They stopped lowering and left him dangling at about 15m. Going nowhere Ed records thinking, “What a funny way to die.” When he eventually got them to pull him up, the rope had cut down into the ice but they kept on pulling and nearly killed him. “I could feel the strength draining out of me,” he wrote. They then lowered sleeping bags to Jim and returned to our camp. Next morning I was lowered down my escape hole to attach a rope to Jim. We got him out but the frostbite he suffered during the night required the amputation of the front half of both feet.

It made headlines; Jim and I falling into the crevasse, and Ed’s subsequent role. Ed and Tensing had recently become the most talked-about climbers on the planet. Now we were appearing in the world’s media. Two weeks later, when Ed nearly died from altitude-induced breathing problems, we had to lower him on a stretcher, off ice below Mt Kangchungtse. But we bounced back to climb an impressive tally of 21 peaks higher than 20,000ft, and become a highly successful Himalayan expedition. I liked Ed and I think he forgave me for burning a hole in his new sleeping bag when I knocked over a candle on our first night sharing a tent.


After graduating with a BSc, I went to work for Kempthorne Prosser & Co, which made fertiliser and manufactured pharmaceuticals, as their analyst. I checked a variety of products for seven years – tablets, syrups, emulsions, extracts, tinctures, lotions, ointments, oils, resins, infusions, powders, flowers, seeds, roots, barks, and leaves. The storeroom, occupying a whole floor of the building in Stafford St, looked and smelled like an exotic market.

Mr Wilkins teaching Naenae College students the structure of sodium chloride.

Later, after completing a part-time Masters degree in chemistry, I took a leap into high school science teaching. About this time I met and married my wife Pauline. Among the many gifts she brought to us was her reassuring conviction that I would overcome my intermittent speech impediment to the extent that it would not interfere with my professional career. All this came true. For my part I adopted a carefully prepared and executed  lesson by lesson approach, building confidence. I could have enjoyed the job for life as head of science at Naenae College. But a new type of institution was emerging. The Central Institute of Technology (CIT) was set to open in 1971, and needed highly qualified staff.

It was time to act. In 1968 I applied for leave without pay to do a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry at the School of Pharmacy in the University of London. Pauline was up for adventure. Years earlier she and her friend, both just out of high school, had biked from Wellington to Auckland and back.  For her OE she worked on a newspaper in Smith’s Rhodesia. We now had five young children (add twins in the final year of three years in London) and no guaranteed financial support. An adventure it certainly was. At William Goodenough House in Bloomsbury we hovered on the edge of poverty. Our family can tell the stories; hoarding the shipboard baby food, the old Ford Anglia van with the windows illegally cut out of the metal side walls, the shuddering vibration when it got above 40 mph, no money to pay the bridge toll at Bristol on the way back from Ireland. Pauline typed theses to make us some money. I was proving to be competent at research. Then things got better. The NZ Pharmaceutical Society came up with a grant. Later the Department of Education gave me one year’s salary tax-free, while the University of London made me a junior lecturer. Borrowing from a kind relation allowed us to buy a new long-wheel-base Landrover. Seven of us and a big tent; an expedition on wheels. One night a force nine gale in northern Scotland lifted the tent wall; it was daylight before we discovered that it had left one of the babies exposed outside in her carry-cot.


In 1985 I began research into cricket, the results of which have now been published in three books  Cricketers used to think humid air was heavier than dry air, and that was why the ball swung more. In fact humid air is lighter than dry air.  Dressing room chat is not enough.

The CIT had a wind tunnel left unused from a discontinued aircraft engineering course. ‘You could study cricket balls in that’ a colleague suggested. I made gear to hold balls in the airstream and measure the forces on them; stationary balls, spinning balls, new balls, old balls, balls with their seams at every possible angle, balls set up so that the twisting force (torque) on them in flight, could be measured, and balls in humid and in dry atmospheres. Thousands of measurements, made during weekends and holidays. Years later I was given permission to use a wind tunnel at The University of Auckland. Moving out into the natural atmosphere, a colleague and I have recently cracked the difficult problem of proving that small-scale turbulence reduces swing.

Wind tunnel research, 1995: “A worn cricket ball is in the wind tunnel and I’m noting the force on it.” Photo courtesy of the University of Auckland.

Cricket pitches also came to my attention. Umpires and players were required to submit reports on them after each game. But the reports were sometimes contradictory. Funding was available from NZ Cricket for the NZ Turf Institute to solve the problem. When I was consulted I outlined the design of a machine to fire cricket balls at a pitch and measure pace and bounce. In 1994 New Zealand played the West Indies in a test at the Basin Reserve Wellington. I was given permission to use the just-completed machine to test the pitch both prior to the game and at the intervals. After a session two of the NZ test players asked me what I had found. When I told them the pitch had not changed they didn’t believe me; they knew it had got slower, they said. But I had designed my work carefully and I knew they were wrong. It was the ball that had changed, not the pitch.. The ball was coming off slower because it was getting more worn during play.

Clearly a new approach was needed if I was to bring all this new knowledge to the cricket community. The challenge was to create a new type of cricket book for both batters and bowlers. The more that batters and bowlers know about each other the better will be the contest. Cricketers also need to enter a treasure house called cutting and spinning. Both involve spin in the air and turn off the pitch. I advise cricketers at every level to explore and practice new skills, batting and bowling. Curving flight from spin swerve offers the prospect of rich rewards. When Richie Benaud heaped lavish praise on my second book I knew I had achieved something. Now, in my third and latest book I like to think I have done an even better job.


Cricket: The finer arts of a great game by Brian Wilkins ($35) is available from selected independent bookstores, Amazon, or by contacting the author on It brings together a lifetime of research into the fundamental science of cricket. Acknowledgements include Professor Richard Flay of the Department of Mechanical Engineering for allowing the author to use the wind tunnel, and Professor Damien Wilkins of the IIML at Victoria University (and the author’s son) for advice on text.

Brian Wilkins was born in 1925, and is the author of three books on the technical aspects of cricket which have received praise from Richie Benaud, Dale Hadlee, and Amol Rajan.

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