Everest 1953: the Epic Story of the First Ascent By Mick Conefrey, One World, £20
At first glance this book appears to be yet another contribution to the already voluminous literature that Mount Everest seems to inspire, simply by virtue of being the highest point on the terrestrial globe. From Walt Unsworth’s magisterial Everest, to recent books about the tragedies when (mostly) Western climbers have lost their lives, to accounts of the first ascents by differently abled climbers, Everest literature would fill a pretty large shelf of a good mountaineering library. Other mountains may present greater challenges — K2 and Nanga Parbat, for instance — but don’t have the same presence in print. Yet the numerous ascents of the peak rarely rate headlines today, unlike the furore which greeted the first ascent by the British expedition led by John Hunt. The book would appear to be an early attempt to cash in on the 60th anniversary of the first ascent, due in May 2013.
First impressions — as Jane Austen famously reminded us — can be mistaken. For those readers who give it a second glance, this a most rewarding book. Although some of the material can be found in Unsworth, Mick Conefrey has produced a well written account, using previously unavailable material, including interviews with survivors and their families, as well as their personal diaries. The result is a more interesting and nuanced story — a corrective to the triumphalist narrative provided by James Morris, The Times correspondent embedded (to use a contemporary term) with the expedition, and the somewhat wooden account by John Hunt, the expedition leader in The Ascent of Everest. Hillary’s account of the actual ascent is much more vivid.
While Conefrey does not shy away from the controversies generated about the expedition and in its aftermath, this is very far from the recent spate of revisionist and debunking accounts like David Roberts’ True Summit, which revealed the “backstory” of Maurice Herzog’s iconic Annapurna, the account of the first ever ascent of an 8000m peak. On the contrary, “The remarkable thing about the Everest family is how close it stayed for so many years…their comradeship set them apart from the other big Himalayan expeditions of the period. The Austro-German expedition that climbed Nanga Parbat fell out spectacularly afterwards and the Italian K2 expedition ended in lawsuits and lifetime feuds.”
Conefrey wants to remind readers of an era now seen as ancient history in the contemporary climate of guided commercial climbs and “hypertrophied commercial individualism” — the memorable phrase of Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver in their compendious survey of Himalayan climbing, Fallen Giants. This was a time of genuine comradeship and team spirit, despite the Western climbers’ often colonial attitudes towards the Sherpas whose unsung labour underlay all expeditions. (The achievement of Tenzing Norgay changed all that, and Conefrey is gently critical of John Hunt’s faint praise of him: “Within the limitations of his experience, Tenzing is a brilliant climber and an excellent companion”. Conefrey comments: “Obviously a self taught Sherpa was not going to have the same skills as a trained and certified Swiss guide, but Tenzing had reached the highest point on earth, a peak that was twice the height of any in the Alps.”) To their credit neither Edmund Hillary nor Tenzing Norgay ever claimed that theirs was an individual achievement.
To readers without access to Hunt’s book or Hillary’s two volumes of autobiography, Everest 1953 is a good start. The book begins with a brisk survey of the discovery and triangulation of Everest, and the early unsuccessful expeditions from the Northern side, reinforcing the idea that Everest was “our mountain” — in the same way that the Italians laid claim to K2 and the Germans to Nanga Parbat. The closure of Tibet and the opening of Nepal after the Second World War opened the possibilities of a southern approach.
Conefrey begins with the 1951 Reconnaissance Expedition, whose originator was doctor-climber Michael Ward (in the tradition of Howard Somerville and Everest deputy leader, Charles Evans), but which was led by the iconic British climber-explorer of the 1930s, Eric Shipton. Shipton was “famously ascetic”; ironically, his approach to climbing — small and lightly equipped — is now more valued by those who scorn the successful military style expeditions of the 1950s. This expedition included Ward, Tom Bourdillon and Edmund Hillary — who would later play significant roles in the 1953 expedition. From the outset Hillary, fresh from the hardscrabble traditions of New Zealand climbing, impressed all with his thrusting determined approach. It was this expedition that showed the possibility of the Southern approach through the Western Cwm, despite the formidable obstacle of the Khumbu Icefall.
The success of this somewhat freewheeling expedition convinced Shipton that he would be the automatic choice to lead British attempts on Everest. Yet the eventual leader was the military man, John Hunt. The somewhat shabby story of Shipton’s removal as leader is now told in full detail, as well as the shambolic Cho Oyu expedition, which has been one of the “black holes” in the history of post-war British mountaineering, which put paid to his chances. In the event, Hunt proved to be the ideal leader — an excellent organizer, but no Colonel Blimp.
To those who wonder whether this well worn tale can be told anew, Conefrey offers a riveting account. The planning and organization are there, but so too are human frailties and conflicts. Beginning with a Sherpa mutiny — when the porters protested against their living conditions in a garage in Kathmandu by urinating in public — Conefrey never underplays the physical challenges of the Khumbu Icefall and the altitude, but provides human details by referring to the climbers’ private reflections from their diaries. So we have Tom Bourdillon’s thoughts of leaving his newly married wife — and how Charles Evans persuaded him to give up just short of the peak by telling him that he would never see her again. A defective oxygen cylinder prevented the summit being claimed by the British team, and paved the way for a former New Zealand beekeeper and a Tibetan to claim the ultimate prize. We see John Hunt climbing beyond his capacities to the South Col and suffering terrible altitude sickness — and then giving way for better trained climbers. Hillary’s account provides the basis for the final ascent, and puts an end to another media fuelled controversy — whether Hillary or Tenzing got there first.
Conefrey also provides a sensible account of the media frenzy that accompanied the ascent — and that the expedition members found negotiating as treacherous as the Khumbu Icefall. Tenzing, perhaps, found himself at the greatest disadvantage, pulled this way and that between Nepal and India, both determined to claim him for their own. Also interesting is the way in which the Times contrived to get the first account transmitted to England to coincide with the Queen’s coronation, with the full assistance of the British Embassy in Nepal. The success of the expedition gave a Britain still recovering from the war and the loss of empire a reason for optimism; the same feelings would be associated with the coupling of the London Olympics and the same Queen’s diamond jubilee.
In some ways, Everest 1953 was a victim of its own success: a British tradition of “glorious failures” like Ernest Shackleton, Captain Scott and Mallory found it difficult to accept a generally well organized expedition where no one died or got severe frostbite. It is to Conefrey’s credit that he proves that success can be as interesting as failure. As he writes: “Everest 1953 is a complex story, a mountaineering tale first and foremost, but also a narrative rich in cultural impact.”