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May 10, 2013 6:33 pm
Letters from Everest: A First-Hand Account from the Epic First Ascent, by George Lowe, Silverbear, RRP£12, 176 pages
Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent, by Mick Conefrey, Oneworld, RRP£9.99, 336 pages
Shipton & Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration, by Jim Perrin, Hutchinson, RRP£25, 416 pages
The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering After the Enlightenment, by Peter H Hansen, Harvard, RRP£25.95, 392 pages
The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent, by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones, Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary, Thames and Hudson, RRP£24.95/RRP$35.95, 240 pages
Everest: The Summit of Achievement, by Stephen Venables, Bloomsbury, RRP£35, 252 pages
Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!” It was hardly “one giant leap for mankind” but those were the words with which Edmund Hillary greeted his best friend George Lowe after descending from the summit of Everest on May 29 1953.
While they may not have been poetic, Hillary’s words summed up the relief felt, after decades of thwarted plans, at having finally climbed to the highest point on earth – and done so under the British flag.
Lowe, who died in March aged 89, was the last survivor of the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition and was often described as its “forgotten man”. The New Zealander had been included in the party at the request of his countryman Hillary, an old climbing partner. Lowe played a critical role in its success: he cut steps up the steep 4,000ft Lhotse Face, which opened the way for the final assault, and helped establish the last camp, 1,000ft below the summit, from which Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would set out for the top.
This month’s 60th anniversary of the conquest of the mountain is marked by the publication of not one but two books by Lowe, one a book of letters, the other photographs. Letters from Everest collects his correspondence with his sister Betty back home in New Zealand and offers a poignant, funny, beautifully written glimpse into that fabled expedition. While some of these letters have been quoted from before – most recently in Mick Conefrey’s excellent Everest 1953 – it is the uninterrupted and authentic voice of Lowe, often having to thaw his ink before putting pen to paper, that is so moving. Here he is, writing at Base Camp on June 2 1953, as the news was announced to the world: “Ed [Hillary] was the dominant member of the expedition and his final effort was right in keeping with what he had been doing all along. I am not discrediting Tenzing’s wonderful endurance – but he was very second to Ed. It would be a pity if anyone thought Tenzing led Ed up. They were a superb team together.”
Since it was first climbed, Everest has generated a mountain of books that would take a determined character, backed by a team of hardy librarians, to conquer. From the first flurry by expedition members – John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest (1953); Wilfrid Noyce’s South Col: One Man’s Adventure on the Ascent of Everest 1953 (1954); Edmund Hillary’s High Adventure (1955) and their embedded Times reporter Jan Morris’s Coronation Everest (1958) – to the current blizzard of books, what all have sought to do in their way is make sense of the achievement: why it matters, what it says about those who took part and what it means to the rest of us.
Everest has long been a very British obsession. The deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine near the top in 1924 had only made it more so: there was a corner of a foreign mountain that was forever England. As Wade Davis explored in Into the Silence (2011), his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning account of the expeditions of the early 1920s, those years saw climbers with a very militaristic mindset – an outlook born of their experiences in the trenches – attempt to conquer the mountain.
After Mallory’s death, Everest remained unfinished business. The eventual success in 1953, announced on the very day a new queen was crowned, was expected to usher in a New Elizabethan Age. Hillary was offered a knighthood for his troubles and, as a loyal New Zealander, was duty-bound to accept, although it left him “miserable rather than pleased”. Tenzing on the other hand, classified as an Indian citizen, was not offered one and could not accept any British honours “as symbols of British domination”.
It is this thorny matter of nationality, sovereignty and the importance of being first that Peter H Hansen, associate professor of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, examines in his book The Summits of Modern Man. The importance to the British of being the first to the top expressed a vision of sovereignty and masculinity, argues Hansen, that was wrapped into the notions of statehood, empire, and its waning. “An ascent envisioned before 1914 to represent British authority in India and launched in the 1920s when the British empire had reached its widest extent, succeeded only in the 1950s amid the dismantling of the empire and the beginning of the Cold War.”
He goes on: “The imperialist or nationalist rhetoric has often obscured the extent to which Himalayan expeditions were always cross-cultural collaborations of British or Germans with Indians, Sikkimese, Bhotias, Sherpas, and Tibetans.”
What isn’t apparent from Lowe’s letters – although it’s a point that Conefrey teases out and Hansen also dissects – is just how complicated and fraught it was behind the scenes of the 1953 expedition. There had been a successful reconnaissance in 1951 under the leadership of the great Himalayan explorer Eric Shipton, known as “Mr Everest”, and he was considered without question the potential leader of any future British expedition. The following year the British had hopes of an attempt on the summit but were thwarted by the Swiss, who had applied first. While navigating the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, the Swiss climbers had marked their route with flags on bamboo wands. A year later, Lowe found these oddly marooned as the ice had moved. He wrote evocatively of the scene: “The continuity of their route is quite gone – here and there on an inaccessible block with 40ft walls all around is a Swiss flag like a surrealist’s dream of a golf course.”
In lieu of Everest, Shipton led a 1952 British expedition to climb another Himalayan peak, Cho Oyu. It was less than successful and led to concerns about his leadership and organisational ability. For the 1953 attempt on Everest, Shipton was replaced by Colonel John Hunt. A safe pair of hands, Hunt had what was needed to marshal the necessary men and equipment – as was ultimately shown by the success of the expedition.
In Shipton & Tilman, the great climbing writer Jim Perrin explores the relationship between Shipton (1907-1977) and Bill Tilman (1898-1977), two of the great Himalayan explorers of the 1930s, whose powerful partnership inspired many of the men in 1953 and continues to have a huge impact on mountaineering today. The “Shipton/Tilman style”, writes Perrin, “with its qualifying tag of ‘lightweight’, its eschewing of quasi-militarism in tackling ascents, its dialectical insistence on local diet, ‘living off the land’, and keeping expeditionary scale appropriate to the interests of indigenous mountain communities, is now a set formula for all that is most admirable in exploratory activity among the world’s great mountain ranges.”
Shipton was a maverick, preferring to freewheel and lead from the front, exploring as he went. With little interest in organisational or logistical bother, he was, indeed, ill-equipped for the complex planning required for a final ascent on the summit.
Though the book titles are sprinkled with the words “epic” and “legendary”, none of them can fully conjure the sheer scale of the task the team faced. For that, the camera is required. Stephen Venables’ Everest: Summit of Achievement, containing 400 photographs from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, has been reissued with a new preface. As a companion piece to Lowe’s letters there is a beautifully produced book of his photographs, The Conquest of Everest, that has been years in the making. It features a foreword by Lowe’s old pal Hillary – one of the last pieces he wrote before his death in 2008 – and essays by the great and good of the climbing community including Sir Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, and Reinhold Messner, who climbed Everest solo and without oxygen in 1980.
The photographs in both books are stunning and, in many cases, moving. Here was a group of decent men, unified under a common cause, working hard as a team in the face of an extreme and cruel beauty.
As the climbing season gets under way again, 60 years on, the romance of the mountain captured here has vanished. Teamwork has been replaced, it seems, by a commercialised individualism. Last month there was a high-altitude brawl between climbers and Sherpas. A 13-year-old has been to the top. An 80-year-old is attempting it this month. Tweets have been sent from the summit. If you are wondering what it’s like to climb the Lhotse Face or Hillary Step, the last sheer rockface before the summit, there are videos on YouTube.
Answering the question, “Why climb mountains?” Hunt, the expedition leader, wrote in 1954: “It is not sufficient to reply, ‘Because it is there’; the climbs are symbols of man’s conquest of himself and man’s smallness in relation to his environment.”
Messner, writing in The Conquest of Everest, echoes Shipton’s ethos: “Today, many people think they can just buy this prestige without the other investments. It is not a problem for me that so many people want to climb Everest with fixed ropes and paid guides, though I do think it is regressive for the sport as a whole. Everest has become a brand-name mountain, a trophy to be won on an expensive holiday, without gaining the necessary experience to survive or taking personal responsibility. Is this wrong? No, it is only foolish.
“Everest’s real value – as a symbol for our dreams and aspirations – depends on the spirit in which it is approached.” Sixty years on, it is clearer than ever that the spirit and approach of the 1953 expedition was the right one.
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