John Hemming looks up at the adventurers who stood above the world
As director of the Royal Geographical Society I organised scores of lectures by mountaineers, most of which seemed to be about the crowd-puller Mount Everest. I marvelled at how climbers - strong, brave and skilled athletes whom one would imagine to be tongue-tied loners - proved to be great communicators. The majority are eloquent speakers who can be lyrical writers. They have all the ingredients for compelling lectures or books: a clear objective with natural rather than human hazards to overcome, opportunities for modesty, humour and moments of edge-of-seat danger and excitement.
It is fitting that the 50th anniversary of the first climb of the world's highest mountain sees a new edition of John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest . Written by the expedition's leader (with 20 pages on "The summit" by Edmund Hillary) this is one of the greatest classics of adventure literature; it outsold the Bible in its first year of publication.
Hunt was a serving brigadier in the British Army in Germany when a committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society asked him to lead the 1953 attempt, in preference to Eric Shipton who was then Britain's most famous mountaineer. It was felt that this mighty and dangerous mountain could finally be ascended (Hunt hated "conquered") only by inspired leadership and military-style planning. The committee vacillated and blundered into this choice. As my predecessor at the RGS commented, they made the right decision but in the worst way. Hunt was a model leader, wonderful with people, all of whom loved him, but decisive when necessary, fair-minded and modest, a strong mountaineer, and above all a meticulous planner and pragmatic manager. It was these latter qualities Shipton lacked.
Hunt's famous book is inevitably somewhat dated because we know the plot and sequel so well. But it is refreshing to reread the narrative of the expedition, written by the leader immediately after it happened. It could still serve as a management primer. Hunt discusses every aspect of preparation - from choosing the team, to equipment, stores, finances and the all-important oxygen apparatus that was perfected by the physiologist Griffith Pugh - and then explains how each obstacle and problem was overcome.
All went reasonably to plan. The 14 climbers (who included the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealanders Hillary and George Lowe) and 34 Sherpa porters, battled past the crevasses and seracs of the Khumbu icefall and the mighty wall of the Lhotse face. Each one carried supplies up to ever-higher and smaller camps, in a logistical pyramid. Hunt gives full credit to the Sherpas and to the expeditions that had tackled Everest during the previous 30 years. He dismisses any notion that the mountain was unclimbable: "It was romantic to suppose that some spell had been cast over the final keep, that a barrier had been reached at about 28,000ft beyond which even stout spirits could not pass."
The 1953 expedition was a large and carefully orchestrated team effort. Hunt had three pairs of his best climbers ready for the final assault. Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans ascended the south summit (28,700ft), but high winds and faulty oxygen equipment prevented their reaching the ultimate prize. Three days later, on May 29 1953, the two excellent mountaineers Hillary and Tenzing got there. With characteristic understatement, Hillary described the final moment after hours of exhausting climbing as "a few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on top". The two embraced, took the famous picture and admired the view in every direction.
As they staggered back towards the highest camp that evening, they gave a thumbs-up sign. Hillary paid a delightful tribute to Hunt: "To see the unashamed joy spread over the tired, strained face of our gallant and determined leader was to me reward enough in itself." To his compatriot Lowe he said: "Well, we knocked the bastard off!"
The 50th anniversary of that epic knocking-off is marked by two magnificent books. Confusingly, both are called Everest (with different subtitles), both by Everest mountaineers, both profusely illustrated and elegantly published, and they cover much the same ground: narratives of all the early attempts, retelling of the 1953 ascent, the aftermath with highlights of later achievements and short biographies of each mountaineer. Each of these books contributes funds to the Royal Geographical Society, the Alpine Club or their joint offspring the Mount Everest Foundation. (Created from profits earned by Hunt's original team, the Mount Everest Foundation has supported British mountaineers ever since.)
I am hard pressed to recommend which of the new Everest books a university librarian should choose. George Band's book concentrates on the climbers and the mountaineering achievements. His accounts of the pre-war expeditions are particularly good. From 1922 onwards, approaches were from the north across the Tibetan plateau to the Rongbuk glacier - because it was possible to obtain permission from the Dalai Lama, whereas Nepal was then closed to foreigners. We learn about the novice Geoffrey Bruce, who climbed largely unroped with the experienced George Finch and reached the then-highest ,300ft "unbelievably on his first real mountaineering expedition". There was also the handsome schoolmaster George Mallory, who climbed elegantly but was otherwise gauche and accident prone, and who liked nude bathing - both books have a picture of him wearing nothing but a trilby and rucksack. Mallory disappeared, with Sandy Irvine, high on Everest in 1924. Band and Stephen Venables both summarise the debate about whether the pair fell before or after reaching the summit (probably before) and the poignant discovery in 1999 of Mallory's bleached-white body tangled in a severed rope and with personal items such as an unpaid bill for fives gloves. To compare how the books handle this story, Venables is a finer writer but Band has an engaging straightforward style and more illustrations.
After the second world war, Tibet was closed by the brutal Chinese invasion whereas Nepal was opening. So approaches were now from the south side. Band gives a good summary of the pros and cons of the two approaches, with more advantages for the Nepalese route. He loves amusing anecdotes and exclamation marks. I counted five of the latter on the page telling how Hunt chose him, aged 23 and still a student, as the youngest member of the 1953 team. Band's book is engaging on what it felt like to be overwhelmed by the "avalanche of publicity and razzmatazz" that greeted the team when they returned to Britain just after Queen Elizabeth's coronation.
Merits of Venables' Everest, in addition to his elegant writing, are a wealth of pictures and a more rounded view of the subject. The RGS's curator of photography Joanna Wright has trawled through the society's unrivalled archive and presents stunning "albums" of each decade's climbs.
But despite both books' "lavish illustrations" neither should be dismissed as coffee-table works because of the high quality of their texts.
Most of the photographs in the Venables book are of indigenous peoples of Tibet and Nepal, dignified and very handsome. There is a real effort to give due regard to the Sherpas and Tibetans: a preface by the Dalai Lama; a chapter by Ed Douglas (editor of the Alpine Journal ) on the significance of Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for the mountain) in Hindu mythology; and another by Tenzing's son and daughter-in-law in praise of the Sherpas, the best of whom earned the proud title "Tiger of the snow". So this book is less Eurocentric and has some ethnographic value.
It also contains an introductory chapter by John Keay explaining the geological context of the Himalayas. Keay is well qualified to tell how the 19th-century Great Trigonometrical Survey of India gradually explored this part of the mountains and came to realise that it contained the world's highest peak. Their estimate of its height was only 33ft short of its actual 29,035ft (8,850m). The British surveyors duly named it after their previous boss, Sir George Everest, and this hubristic name has stuck.
Lastly, Venables and Reinhold Messner (respectively the first Briton and the first mountaineer to scale Everest without oxygen) consider the past 50 years of mountaineering feats, and they speculate about the few challenges that remain. The book has appendices of biographies of every mountaineer up to the first ascent, and a list of every climb since then; but its value is reduced by the lack of an index. From a mountaineering standpoint Band's book is easier to use as a work of reference, even if its prose rarely soars above base camp.
An Australian publisher has produced a stocking filler called Everest: Reflections from the Top . This gives the various thoughts of men and women as they stood on the summit, a rather pointless exercise since the interesting part is how they got there. Their reactions read like entries in a gushing visitors' book, ranging from "fantastic" to "anti-climax", admiring the view to worrying about getting down. The only virtue of this volume is that it raises funds for Hillary's Himalayan Trust. He has devoted much of his life to helping the Sherpas without whom he would not have reached the summit.
The four books reviewed here are by no means the only publications marking the half-century since the first ascent. Why this publishing frenzy? The reason is more than Mallory's famous answer to a journalist's question:
"Because it is there." Band says Mallory also gave further justifications:
"For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the spirit of man." Forget the scientific window-dressing, it is those adventures by many brave and generally admirable mountaineers, coupled with the world's obsession with number ones, that make the Everest story so compelling.
John Hemming was director, Royal Geographical Society, from 1975 to 1996. He is the author of many books, principally about South America.
Everest: Reflections from the Top
Editor - Christine Gee, Garry Weare and Margaret Gee Rider
ISBN - 18441 30525
Publisher - None
Price - £8.99
Pages - 141