May 3, 2013 6:11 pm

Remembering the Everest expedition

On the climb’s 60th anniversary, the sole reporter on the expedition that conquered Everest returns to the Welsh hotel that served as the team’s training camp
Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary©Royal Geographic Society

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary drinking tea after their successful ascent of Everest in 1953

In the lee of Snowdon (Eryri to the Welsh) stands the inn Pen-y-Gwryd (PYG to generations of climbers), and here I have come to think about Mount Everest (Chomolungma to the Sherpas). Sixty years ago this month, that greatest of all mountains was climbed for the first time, by the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition, and most of the expedition’s climbers had cherished memories of PYG.

The hotel had long been one of the great haunts of the British climbing community and was used as a training base for the Everest team. So familiar was it to them that for decades after 1953 they came here to celebrate the anniversaries of the great ascent. There were 14 men in the climbing team – including one Sherpa, two New Zealanders and a couple of Welshmen (and on the mountain they were supported by twice that number of high-altitude Sherpa porters).

Read Jan Morris’s original 1953 report

The Times carried news of the success on Everest on June 2, 1953, the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, but the first full report – reproduced here – did not appear for another six days

Take a look at this clutch of the 1953 climbers, for example, in a picture on a wall of the bar. Fit and vigorous in their prime, they are lined up rather self-consciously for the camera at some early reunion long ago.

Year by year, by the nature of things, their numbers grew fewer until now, 60 years on, almost all are gone. Their spirits still haunt PYG, though, and as I wander around the inn’s snug rooms and corridors their faces still look down at me from their pictures on the walls. The grand old place is full of 1953’s mementos – boots that climbed on Everest then, goggles that prevented snow blindness, mugs and crampons, scrawled messages, maps, ice-axes and many photographs.

In the lee of Snowdon? Sixty years on, wandering among them is almost like being in the lee of Everest too.

What was to become of them all, after that apex of their lives? Well, the two who were the first on the summit became international celebrities, known the world over, commemorated in street names and postage stamps. The expedition leader became a revered figure of the British Great and Good. Others went on to further famous achievements of adventuring and mountaineering, or distinction in their various professions. Several produced books, one became the head of a university college and two, young men still, were martyrs to their passion and died on other high and distant rocks.

Do they look happy, when I pause in the bar to say hello? They do, they do. One and all, I feel, lived lives fulfilled, even those who died young. I dare say Everest made them but they all repaid the debt by living well and usefully afterwards, and their photographs at PYG don’t strike me as poignant at all, or even nostalgic, but prophetically content.

Here’s a later group now. Here the climbers are grouped laughing with wives, friends, comrades and cheerful hangers-on around the familiar door of Pen-y-Gwryd. They still look proud, as middle age creeps up on them, and who wouldn’t be? They had been the first to reach the last great terrestrial objective, and as the song had it, “They can’t take that away from me.” So far as I know, nobody has ever had a bad thing to say about the conduct of the 1953 British Everest Expedition.

Map of Snowdonia

But as a mountaineering achievement, as against a human example, the first ascent of Everest has lost some lustre down the decades. Partly this is because by now thousands of people have been to the top of that mountain, from children to pensioners, sometimes shepherded there by tourist companies, sometimes all alone and without supplementary oxygen. Partly it is, to my mind, because the 1953 expedition now seems aesthetically incongruous.

Its leader, Colonel John Hunt, died in 1998 as Baron Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, Knight of the Garter. Here is his picture on the smoking room wall, a fine figure of a man – a good man too, as everyone agreed, and a soldier through and through. In 1953 he had displaced a very different sort of mountaineer, the mercurial individualist Eric Shipton, as the expedition’s leader, and he had organised things in the way one would expect of a former staff officer to General Montgomery.

Pen-y-Gwryd hotel©David Barnes

The Pen-y-Gwryd hotel in Snowdonia

It was a huge project, lavishly equipped, meticulously organised. Its mountains of gear were carried to the mountain by hundreds of Nepalese porters. Shipton believed in small lightweight exploratory expeditions, living as far as possible off the land. Hunt believed in an older style of mountaineering, and ran his expedition on military lines. Many climbers to this day feel that the Montgomerian manner of 1953 jarred with the lofty mystique of the mountain, just as I myself have always sneakingly thought that the use of supplementary oxygen to get to the top was somehow unfair. But I banish the thought, as John Hunt returns my gaze so steadily, so straight, and I remind myself how lofty were his ideals, how fervently he despised the vulgar notion of “conquering” a mountain; and I remember, too, the little silver crucifix that he asked Edmund Hillary to bury in the snows of Everest’s summit.

. . .

Somewhere at PYG there is a portrait photograph of the inn’s owner in 1953, the legendary Christopher Briggs, himself a dauntless member of the Snowdon Mountain Rescue Team and essential to the Alpinist ethos of the place. He looks majestic, dressed in his official regalia as High Sheriff of Caernarfonshire, an appointee of the Crown itself, and his figure here is a reminder that the 1953 Everest expedition was to become more than a sporting exploit, but a national demonstration.

To the British at large then, the fact that the top of the world was first reached by a British expedition – that the Union flag was the first to float up there – that the whole event was, as it were, a facet of Hope and Glory, seemed a confirmation of national greatness. It all seemed only proper. It was right that two far-flung New Zealanders should be members of the team – were they not British too? It was right that the Himalayas, for so long almost an appendage of the British Raj, should be the scene of the triumph. Noblesse oblige gloried in the presence of a splendid Sherpa on the summit, along with a New Zealander. There are many people still alive today who shared the patriotic thrill of it all.

photograph of Everest expedition members©David Barnes

A signed photograph of expedition members outside the hotel

Two or three generations on, though, the recollection is slightly tinged with disillusionment. We see now that historically this was a last fling of the British empire – itself, for better or for worse, a colossal adventure. In its way the expedition was an innocent sort of imperialism, and the tacky conception of Everest’s “conquest” was only a late echo of a thousand less benevolent campaigns of empire. Au fond they were still sahibs who sailed out to the east that year, to lead those hundreds of native porters on the long trek to the mountain. It could never happen again. It was, we see now, a last hurrah of old-school Britishness.

And there was irony to it, because in that very year, that very month of May, a new Queen of England was to be crowned in London: and since she was to be Elizabeth II, patriots declared that her coronation in 1953 would be the start of a new Elizabethan age, a revival of the most glorious period of English history.

. . .

Everest memorabilia©David Barnes

A display of Everest memorabilia at the hotel (including the mug from which Hillary is drinking in the main picture)

It never came about, did it? But as it happened Coronation Day and Everest Day almost coincided, and the conjunction really did seem a token of the divine favour. It is curiously commemorated here at Pen-y-Gwyrd. Among the books, ropes and crampons is a piece of paper with a coded list of names from the expedition – phrase codenames such as Assault Postponed or Weather Deteriorating, each phrase denoting a different climber. Press competition during the expedition had been extreme, with swarming scores of journalists from many nations competing to scoop the world with news of its failure, success or tragedy.

One newspaper, The Times of London, had supported the expedition financially so, in consequence, I was permitted as its reporter to be embedded with the expedition itself. On May 29 1953, I was some 22,000 feet up the mountain when word reached me that the summit had been achieved.

I had in mind the imminent Coronation Day but also the competition from rival newspapers and so, consulting that cipher in the PYG glass case, dispatched the following message: “Snow Conditions Bad STOP Advanced Base Abandoned Yesterday All Well,” which meant, in fact, that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit of Everest on May 29, and that everyone on the expedition was OK.

The uncoded message was published in The Times on the very morning of Coronation Day, June 2, and so the legend of Everest 1953 was sealed in loyal celebration. Thousands thronged the rainy streets of London that morning to watch the coronation procession pass by, with its horsemen and its golden coach, and for them a culminating thrill was to hear the news that, only four days before, a British expedition had been the first to climb the greatest of all the mountains. “All This”, as one headline later trumpeted, “And Everest Too.”

. . .

As I now read the words of that innocent deception and raise a Guinness to old heroes with the green of Snowdon outside the window, I can hear the cheers and trumpets still, and I can all but feel the snowy air of that greater mountain on the other side of the world. For above the fireplace of the Pen-y-Gwryd smoking room there is a glass case with a small chunk of rock in it. It is a fragment from the summit of Everest itself, given to the inn by Ed Hillary (Sir Edmund, Knight of the Garter, died 2008) in memory of a long friendship.

It seems to glint a little and, as I peer at it through the reflections of the glass, I fancy it is looking back at me, inscrutably. It is smiling gently, I prefer to think, but, perhaps, with a fond tear too.

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Details

The Pen-y-Gwryd hotel (www.pyg.co.uk) has rooms from £42 per person per night, including breakfast. For more on the area, see www.visitwales.co.uk

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Everest: 60 years of summit fever

3,694 The number of people who have successfully climbed Everest

240 The number who have died trying

190 The number of climbers who reached the summit on May 23 2010, more than the combined total from 1953 to 1983

$10,000 Minimum permit fee for climbing the mountain. The US applies for the most permits, followed by India, UK, China and Japan

$60,000 Cost of a 64-day expedition to climb Everest with Dream Guides, including oxygen and one Sherpa per client

$3.1m Total government revenue from sale of Everest climbing permits in 2012

13 Age of the youngest climber, Jordan Romero of California

80 Age of the oldest climber to reach the summit, Min Bahadur Sherchan of Nepal. An 80-year-old Japanese mountaineer, who has undergone heart surgery four times, is attempting the climb this month, accompanied by a cardiac doctor

3 minutes 50 seconds Length of time French pilot Didier Delsalle spent on the summit, having landed there in a helicopter in May 2005

8 hours 10 minutes Fastest ascent, by Pemba Dorje Sherpa, in 2004

11 minutes Fastest descent, by Jean-Marc Boivin of France, the first person to paraglide from the summit

21 Record number of ascents by one person, Apa Sherpa of Nepal

55 Characters in the first tweet from the summit, sent Oct 15 2010

100 Number of people reportedly involved in fight between Sherpas and western climbers on the mountain last weekend

Source: Richard Salisbury, Himalayan Database

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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