It was on this day, the 29th May, sixty years ago, that two men – Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal – stepped onto the highest point on Planet Earth, five vertical miles above the palm trees and distant twinkling ocean waters I can currently see from my window. And on that day my dad, along with the other members of the 1953 British Expedition that was endeavoring to claim those virgin snows for a fading empire, busied himself on the lower reaches of the mountain, anxiously awaiting news from the wind-swept slopes above .
When the news finally broke in England of the British expedition’s successful ascent (and it was an ascent in every sense of the word: physically, logistically, aspirationally, scientifically and – perhaps most importantly to a country still struggling with the lingering privations of the War – spiritually), it was the morning of the young Queen’s Coronation. The ultimate production number now had the ultimate curtain-raiser. Can you imagine what was going through her head as she labored out of her royal jammies (hand-tailored by Royal Appointment) into her coronation robes? “Top that, Victoria!”
Back on Everest, as the successful climbers returned to the lower camps, they were greeted with tea (for Tenzing, on the left), warm lemonade (for Hillary, on the right), and, I fervently want to believe, a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits (it’s a British thing). They’d certainly earned it.
And as you look at the film of the returning conquerors of the high, thin air, there you can see my father, smiling along with everybody else, all stoically clapping each other on the back with typical British restraint. It’s one of those occasions when I marvel at my countrymen’s inclination towards emotional restraint in circumstances that would send Americans (and most nationalities, let’s be honest) into fevered paroxysms of celebration. In fact, as my father wrote: “No member of the party was particularly elated…. Our first feelings in success were those of relief.” Relief that no one had died in the attempt, and, perhaps, relief that no other country had nabbed the prize from under the noses of the British, who had always felt the mountain was theirs to claim (the Swiss had come within 800 ft. of the summit the year before).
In the evocative documentary of the 1953 Ascent, The Conquest of Everest (which is also mildly – but understandably – jingoistic, and occasionally inaccurate), you can see dad laboring through the trickiest part of the climb — the icefall — fixing ropes and cutting foot-holds for the legions of sherpas and climbers who will follow, carrying supplies destined for the upper reaches of the mountain.
The icefall is aptly named. It’s as if a god of earlier mythology — a titan, perhaps, in the mood for mischief — had taken a series of high waterfalls and raging rapids, frozen and enlarged them, then put them on a slow-moving rubber conveyor-belt which will stop, stretch, then restart with a massive ping!, sending avalanches of snow and ice hurtling down through the canyons of vertical white and deep-frozen blue. Hidden crevasses with hungry mouths and bottomless maws lurk beneath the sparkling surface, ready to swallow unwary interlopers. The bottom of the icefall occasionally yields up the dismembered corpses of its hapless victims.
The narrator sets the scene in those deliciously clipped BBC tones of the period, savoring every last ‘r’ of the script’s alliteration: “The ice is always on the move — crrrrracking, rrrrroarrrring, rrrrrumbling… Ward is fixing guide ropes…. This place has a name — the climbers called it ‘The Nutcracker’: no one knew if it was opening — or closing.” Cut to an avalanche sweeping down the mountain. When I first watched this footage aged around 8, I thought: “My god, that’s my dad!!! ” and, even though he was sitting next to me: “He’s going to die!!”
Yup, these were our home movies and family snapshots.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This story actually begins a few years earlier, in 1951, after the Chinese had invaded Tibet, cutting it off from the outside world. It was through Tibet, which bordered Everest to the north, that every assault on the mountain had hitherto been made. Nepal, to the South, was unknown territory: barely mapped or explored by Westerners.
My dad, then 25, was already a highly skilled and respected climber. When it came to hanging on in life, he did it literally – and often – usually leading the routes he was climbing.
Well-versed in the history of Everest exploration he played a hunch and descended into the spectacularly disorganized archives in the basement of the Royal Geographical Society. He rummaged around in drawers full of loose, un-filed materials, examining thousands of photos from earlier expeditions for clues as to what lay on the mountain’s southern side, until – in a true Indiana Jones moment – he found what he had only suspected might be there. Out of an unmarked brown envelope tumbled secret photos of Everest taken by spy planes during the war, and (music swells, camera zooms in) a forgotten map, compiled from photos and a photogrammetric survey carried out in 1935. A sketchy map, with plenty of empty space on it, but a map nevertheless.
It all added up to clear evidence of a possible route up Everest from the south, through Nepal.
He took his findings to the newly-formed Himalayan Committee, which was responsible for administering all expeditions to the region. In bravura bureaucratic fashion, it immediately distinguished itself by pouring cold water on the whole idea. Undeterred, he began organizing an expedition anyway. He brought in Bill Murray, a pioneer of Scottish winter climbing, and therefore familiar with some of the more extreme weather conditions they could expect to find on Everest.
Also onboard was Tom Bourdillon, a rocket scientist, and one of the best British climbers of his generation. With the addition of Eric Shipton, an iconoclastic veteran of Everest, as expedition leader, the Himalayan Committee finally acceded, and The Times newspaper provided the necessary financial backing.
Further members of the team assembled as the expedition trekked in through the foothills of the Himalayas. The sherpas were led by the legendary Angtharkay, described by Shipton as “absolutely steady in any crisis — outstandingly the best of all the sherpas I have known.” Then, one day on the trail, as described by my father in Everest: One Thousand Years of Exploration: “two New Zealanders, Earle Riddiford and Edmund Hillary, came surging up the hill brandishing enormous Victorian-style ice-axes. Expecting to see a group of well-dressed Englishmen, they were surprised and perhaps a little disconcerted to find that, if anything, we were scruffier than they were.”
Moving along broken trails, crossing raging rivers on rickety bridges, suffering through the tail-end of monsoon season and all its attendant miseries of rain, mud and leeches, the team made the first walk-in to what would later become the world’s busiest (and filthiest) camp site: Everest base camp.
In his autobiography my father wrote: “I was continuously amazed by the stark beauty of the mountains and by the steepness and incisiveness of their faces and ridges. The sherpas always rejoiced in the beauty of their country and though I thought this might be a case of special pleading, the three days’ walk up to the foot of the Khumbu glacier represents one of the most memorable experiences that I have ever had.”
They passed by the monastery of Thyangboche, at 12,000 feet standing as gaunt (if not as precipitously) as the monastery in Powell and Pressburger’s hallucinatory Himalayan fantasy, Black Narcissus.
Looming over Thyangboche monastery is one of the most spectacular mountains in the world, Ama Dablam: ‘Ama’ meaning mother, and ‘Dablam’ meaning the locket in which Sherpa women keep their valuables.
“A gigantic tooth, rearing into the sky”, wrote my father, “it dominated the monastery and the whole area, its upper wedged-shaped ice slopes serrated by the wind and glistening in the sun. The lower part spread out massively into knife-edged black rock-ridges. This was without question the most staggering of all the peaks that I had ever seen”
My dad would return to the mountain during the pioneering Silver Hut expedition of 1960/61, when a team of climber scientists would live a whole winter at an altitude of over 19,000 feet, performing high altitude research. He would lead a successful first ascent of Ama Dablam, but not without incredible drama along the way. Near the summit, a sherpa fell, breaking his leg. Being so high on such a tricky technical route, all ice and precipices, this could have been a death sentence. Instead my dad got him down safely by trussing him up like a chicken, then carrying him down vertical rock and ice faces in relays with other team members — one climber with the sherpa on his back would descend, unable to look at his feet, while his companion would physically move his feet from one toe-hold to another.
But now, here, in the shadow of Ama Dablam, poised on the edge of this pioneering adventure in their own Shangri-la, these last true explorers of the British Empire paused and looked towards the distant bulk of Everest, a conglomeration of peaks whose huge mass dwarfs everything around it.
Above the sheer wall of Lhotse peaks the distant summit – swept almost black by the wind — barely visible as it claws at the dark blue of space like some vast volcanic spur of alien rock.
“Walking, as I had that day, straight towards the Everest group of peaks”, my father wrote, “I had been overwhelmed by the sheer audacity and steepness of the more immediate mountains that seemed to hang over my head. In the distance I could just see the top of Everest peeping over the nearer wall formed by Everest and Lhotse, which never seemed to get closer. The crest of the Everest-Lhotse wall, 25-26,000 feet, towered at least two vertical miles above my head. At its base were rock pinnacles and snow humps of 21,000 feet which on their own might have been considered peaks, yet in this setting appeared insignificant.”
They arrived at the foot of the Khumbu glacier, “a horrible maze of ice lumps, and covered in unstable stones. To carry loads up this way was to have a glimpse into purgatory.”
They were at the gateway to the Western Cwm, a massive snow valley which swept upwards towards the steep Lhotse face that led up to the South Col, the inhospitable staging-post from which the summit attack could be launched. Two years later, it was the struggle to ascend this 4000 ft. wall to the South Col that would almost be the undoing of the British attempt on the summit.
But now, between them and the Cwm, lay the daunting obstacle of the icefall.
It was decided they were not all fit enough to tackle this yet, so they split up to scan this massive complex of constantly shifting ice towers and crevasses from neighbouring peaks and slopes.
During the following days my father embarked on the type of exploratory mountaineering — walking and climbing off the map, if you will — that was to become his passion for the rest of his life.
“This was my first taste of mountain exploration and I was fascinated by the mystery of penetration into unknown country. The disciplines and margins of mountain travel are as absolute as those of any scientific subject…. The uppermost feeling was an intense curiosity to see what the next bit of country looked like.”
“The urge to go on and on, continually finding out what is round the corner or over a pass, together with the pleasure of seeing it all fit in place, like a giant’s jigsaw, became to me one of the most fascinating aspects of mountaineering, and this was my first experience of it.”
The team reconvened at the base of the icefall, fully aware of the considerable danger that awaited them from hidden crevasses and flash avalanches that swept through its icy terrain.
But they were determined to break through to the Western Cwm, to look up through its snow fields towards their eventual goal.
In the movie of this moment, these men look down the valley which leads back to Thyangboche, last outpost of civilization. They turn and look at each other, channeling craggy Sam Shepard in “The Right Stuff” as he eyes his experimental jet-plane with a view to breaking the sound barrier. In silence the decision is made. They hoist their rucksacks, grab their ice axes, and turn into the wind.
Moving off, they disappear into their map’s white empty spaces, and the cold embrace of the icefall.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series of reminiscences about my father’s role in the historic expeditions to climb Mt. Everest. You can read Part 2 – “My Dad, the Yeti, and Me” here, and Part 3 – “My Dad on Everest and Beyond”, here.