Rick has died

My friend, Rick Allen, has died. A few days ago he was caught in an avalanche on K2, the world’s second highest peak and hardest to climb, and swept to his death.

Rick was 68 years old. He’d climbed for over 40 years, and was recognised as one of the world’s top mountaineers. K2, located on the border of China and Pakistan, is 8,611 metres (28,251 ft) high, only 238 metres less than Mount Everest but considered far more deadly. One climber dies on K2 for every four who reach the summit. Rick was attempting a new route up the south east face, raising money for Partners UK, a humanitarian charity which provides emergency relief during crisis events.

Now Rick has died, and been buried near the foot of K2. Being laid to rest among the world’s highest mountains is exactly what Rick would want.

He was my friend during my ten years as a minister in Aberdeen. During that time Rick came to faith in Christ, was baptised, became one of our church members, and married his wife Alison (who later worked with me in the church office). After their wedding service, Rick and Alison exited beneath an arch of ice axes held aloft by climbing buddies. (Alison, sadly, died some years later.)

Rick was my best encourager when I ventured into the Scottish mountains. I told him a nervous church member had said I was certain to die if I continued to climb alone. But Rick told me ‘Of course there are dangers, but there’s no reason you can’t climb on your own if you master a compass and map, have the right equipment, and use common sense.’ I accepted his wisdom. It would have been hard to argue since he was a renowned Himalayan mountaineer, and I was an utter novice.

Rick urged me to buy an ice axe, essential for digging into snow to haul yourself up and, even more importantly, he taught me how to lean my weight on the axe to brake a slide downhill. I kept that axe for years, even after we’d moved to the Thames Valley in the south of England where there’s almost no snow and definitely no mountains.

Rick taught me much more than how to use an ice axe. I’ve been reflecting on some of these things since I heard of his death.

A good life is active, not passive    Rick wasn’t for letting life happen to him. Nor that life should be super-protected, like an ocean-going yacht moored permanently in a harbour. What he had – intellectually, socially, physically – was a gift to be used. There were great things to accomplish, and it would be a sin not to grasp every opportunity. You don’t retreat from challenges; you face them head on.

Around that time I was planning a visit to church workers in Pakistan. I’d never been to Asia, and was particularly nervous about Pakistan. But I was helped by advice from another friend. George had spent many years in a developing country, and he told me two particularly valuable things:

  1. Banish any idea that ‘this ought to happen’ (such as assuming a train should run at its scheduled time).
  2. ‘Just go for it’. Take advantage of every experience, enjoy it, and find what’s good in it.

Both those lessons have served me well in Asia and down the years. But it’s the second I want to highlight because ‘go for it’ was precisely Rick’s attitude. Rick didn’t let life happen; he made it happen. He got the best from everything and gave his best to everything.

You can’t be afraid of big challenges    From ancient to modern times, people have attempted the seemingly impossible. They sailed great oceans not knowing when or where they’d land. They explored huge jungles well aware they might die from disease or hostility. They were launched into space trusting to less technology than we have today in one mobile phone. They didn’t have to do these things. And yet they did. There’s something hard-wired into our psyches to reach beyond what’s already known or done, to push further and further out the boundaries of human accomplishments.

There’s a semi-serious answer mountaineers give when asked, ‘Why did you climb that mountain?’ Answer: ‘Because it’s there’. That’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. The fuller answer is: ‘Because it’s there, and climbing it proves that mountain is not greater than what I can achieve.’

For most of us our ‘big challenges’ aren’t Everest or K2. But our challenges are still big for us:

  1. Can I really do this job?
  2. Will this relationship work?
  3. Should I step out in faith?
  4. Can I take on this responsibility?

We should ask whether a big challenge is the right challenge for us. But, Rick would say, no challenge should be refused just because it’s ‘big’. We’re made to take on big challenges.

But you must put in the work    I was driving in Aberdeen late one evening, and noticed a runner jogging up the hill carrying weights in both hands. It was Rick. I couldn’t have run up that hill minus weights and with a wind behind me, but Rick was pushing his body to its limits. When we talked about it later, he added an important point, that on a mountain, roped with others, perhaps in near-blizzard conditions, your life and  their lives depend on everyone being supremely fit. Hence he was putting in the work before his next big climb.

Years ago I listened to an interview with the politician and novelist Jeffrey Archer. He was answering a listener’s question about how to become famous. His answer was that you have to be famous for something. So, he asked, what are you good at? Cooking? If so, train to be the best cook in the country and be famous for that. If you’re good at athletics, train to win major championships and be famous for that. Or you might be a superb singer, or hilarious comedian – put in the work, become the best, and then you’ll be famous. It’s nonsense to think you can just be famous. You have to be famous for something, and that requires years of hard work.

I’ve never forgotten that. Nor Rick’s example. And tried to live it out. Before I became General Director of BMS World Mission, I’d read books on management and been responsible for a moderately large church. But BMS was a multi-million pound organisation working in 40 countries with hundreds of staff and volunteers. Heading up BMS was way beyond anything I’d done before. So, despite what seemed an impossible workload, I studied for a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA). I read teaching materials and books on strategy, human resources, organisational structure, finance and more. When? Anytime I could, which included on planes, into the early hours of the morning during conferences, and while sitting on a thin mattress under a mosquito net in Angola. I put in the work, scored well in assignments and exams, and got my degree. Those studies helped greatly as I led BMS through change.

The biggest challenges are worthy of our best, and our best requires hard work.

Come to terms with the risks you are taking    Rick knew the risk of avalanches. He’d been caught in them before but survived, albeit with scars. Avalanches often occur after soft snow, but what comes thundering down a mountainside is everything that snow picks up on its descent such as rock, ice, and soil. It’s heavy and moves very fast. National Geographic explains: ‘A large, fully developed avalanche can weigh as much as a million tons. It can travel faster than 320 kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour).’*

Risk, though, doesn’t exist only in mountains. It’s part of everyday life. We accept risk when we cross the road, drive a car, take a flight, eat a meal. It’s risky to get out of bed. And it’s risky to stay in bed since many die in their sleep. In other words, you can’t live and avoid risk. We know that, and we accept a certain level of risk when we cross a bridge (it might collapse), walk down the street (a car might crash into us), mix with others (someone might attack us), and so on.

Rick wasn’t ignorant of mountaineering’s risks. Among his earlier near death accidents was one where he’d been given up for dead but then found still alive. (More details in news report links at the end of this blog.)

But at least two things pushed Rick on. One, Rick had faith, knew his Maker, and was ready to stand before him. That didn’t mean he wanted to die; just that he was ready to die whenever the time came. Two, Rick couldn’t have lived a life geared to self-protection. He had a great career in the oil industry, but would never have settled for that as his only purpose. He had higher goals (literally). He was a great climber, one of the best in the world. That demanded hard training but it was also a gift, a passion, almost a calling which drove him to supreme achievements. In 2012, Rick and his friend Sandy Allan were the first to conquer the Mozeno Ridge in Pakistan, for which they received the prestigious Golden Ice Axe award. Was that easy? Was that safe? It was neither. But these men had an inner drive that faced immense risk and pressed on nevertheless.

Very few will ever be elite mountaineers. But, for all of us, any significant challenge we face comes with risk. To refuse the risk is to refuse the challenge. But the rewards for facing the challenge are great.

Rick bought me a book    I read a lot of books. Non-fiction for information and mind-stretching ideas. Fiction for page-turning excitement, especially in novels where there seems no possibility of a good ending.

Never, though, have I found the drama, suspense and excitement of fiction in a non-fiction book. Until, that is, Rick gave me Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. +

From the earliest pages of Touching the Void you know how it must end, but as I read  the book I was unable to believe it could end that way. It’s a survival story from a high altitude climb in the Peruvian Andes that went horribly wrong. The book was published in 1988, and is still in print. I could not recommend the book too highly. (Over a million copies have been sold, and more than 20 translations made. The book has won awards, been turned into a 2003 film, and recently into a stage play.)

I loaned out my copy of Touching the Void and the inevitable happened: it wasn’t returned. So I bought it again. It’s that good, and that important. Never have I been so inspired by an account of human determination to survive. I’ll always be grateful to Rick for buying me that book. I’ve just taken it off my bookshelf. It’s time to read it again, and Rick will keep speaking to me through its pages.

If I could talk to Rick one final time, here’s what I’d say: ‘Rick, you inspired me and helped me. And you’ve done that for thousands more. Thank you. Now you’ve made the ultimate final ascent. May God bless you.’


The following news stories describe Rick’s accident, and give more information on his life, especially his climbing.



There are stories from the north of Scotland newspaper Press and Journal I’d encourage you to read, but any link I create embeds copyright protected photos! The way to find all the paper’s stories about Rick is by entering ‘press and journal Rick Allen’ in Google, and the stories will be listed.

* https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/avalanche/  During World War I Austrian and Italian troops fought in the Alps. In 1916 10,000 troops died in avalanches in a single day. In fact, avalanches killed more soldiers in World War I than poison gas did.

+ The book exists in several editions, the most recent published by Penguin: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1035723/touching-the-void/9781784875374.html

It’s available from most bookshops.