Despite all I have seen and experienced, I still get the same simple thrill out of glimpsing a tiny patch of snow in a high mountain gully and feel the same urge to climb towards it.
To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.
The ascent of Everest was not the work of one day, nor even of those few unforgettable weeks in which we climbed… It is, in fact, a tale of sustained and tenacious endeavour by many, over a long period of time.
Sir John Hunt
Thank goodness. Now we can get on with some proper climbing.
History has a way of picking heroes and of either building them up, or pushing them down, they tend to stand and fall as individuals. The two names I knew from the ascent of Everest were Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay). These two individuals did a remarkable thing, they were the first people to stand on top of the world but I knew little about the events that got them there.
My schoolboy knowledge of the events of 1953 had overlooked the tremendous efforts of John Hunt, the leader of the expedition. John Hunt was just as famous as the Tenzing and Hilary at the time but I was born 15 years after 1953 and he no longer featured in the story I was told.
Names like Charles Evans, Tom Bourdillon, Griffith Pugh, George Band, George Lowe, Michael Westmacott and all the others were just as unknown by me, until now. The larger than life character of Eric Shipton was also a new one to me. Yet, each of these individuals played a significant part in the events that lead to two people standing higher than anyone else had ever stood.
The world has changed a huge amount since 1953, something that this book makes evident as a parallel story to the main event. We are so used to world where a couple of hundred people climb to the summit each year in organised groups that include everyday people. We are used to people flying into Nepal and travelling around by helicopter. We are used to modern breathing apparatus and mountain equipment making these endeavours reasonably safe. We expect communications to be instantaneous.
It wasn’t anything like that in 1953.
The journey to the roof of the world took an expedition with military planning and relied mostly on manpower to get the ten thousand pounds of equipment in place. Even with extensive planning the ultimate ascent relied on “tenacious endeavours” to overcome the unforeseen challenges, freak events, illness and unique weather conditions. In almost every situation the margin for error was tiny, a single decision made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans was the difference between their names being the ones written into the history books and those of Tenzing and Hilary.
Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey is a wonderful telling of the events and characters that accomplished this tremendous feat. I really enjoyed it’s wonderful story telling and engaging details but most of all I was struck by people’s ability to keep going when there’s a goal that they need to achieve.
The book also describes the events following the ascent which serves as a warning about the two sides of fame. Success did not lead to happiness for everyone involved.
Disclaimer: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it on Audible.