Coronation Everest

On the eve of its 45th anniversary, Jan Morris recalls the first ascent of Mount Everest -- an innocent expedition that embodied a different age, and that changed the lives of its participants forever.


Jan Morris
May 4, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

What a difference a generation makes! In a few weeks it will be 45 years since a British expedition became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the top of the world, yet already it seems an event out of another age. Unless you are old enough to remember the day -- May 29, 1953 -- it is hard to imagine what a thrill it was, how it helped to inspirit half the world and how transcendentally important the climbing of a mountain could seem in those days of lost simplicity.

It was the year of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, fondly proposed by contemporary English pundits as the start of the new Elizabethan Age. The British Empire, though clearly on the way out, was a proud living entity for most Britons. The United Kingdom was a unity still, almost every citizen was an enthusiastic monarchist and a kingdom that had recently emerged battle-scarred, bloody but unbowed from a fearful war was all too ready to be confirmed in its belief that British was best. What could be better, and more British, than being the first to climb Mount Everest?

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For to the British, Everest had a symbolic importance not just as the highest peak of them all, but as a traditionally "British" mountain. It was named for a British surveyor-general of India, it stood like a watchpost above the northern marches of British India and for half a century successive British expeditions had tried to get to the top of it. It had been, so to speak, a fief of the Raj, and although now that India was independent, climbers from other countries were beginning to eye Everest, still among mountaineers it was generally thought of as a British specialty.

So that spring an almost allegorically British team set off for Nepal, the 12th full-scale expedition to make an attempt on Everest from one side or the other. Its leader had been one of Field Marshal Montgomery's staff officers, and it included two New Zealanders (in those days thought of just as overseas Britons), a clutch of former public schoolboys and army officers and one correspondent of the London Times, the venerable organ of the Establishment that had helped to finance nearly all Everest expeditions since the first in 1921.

The reporter was, as it happens, me.

What a difference an age makes! When the expedition, with its
long, long train of Sherpas and Nepali porters, trekked away from
Kathmandu through the foothills toward Everest, it was
recognizably a formation of Empire -- Empire at its most amiable,
in its last enlightened days, but still decidedly in the style of the Raj.
This was a party of British sahibs with their native attendants, and it
looked like it. The porters, men and women, were much as they had
been a century before, when the old explorers had first penetrated
these mountain parts; the sahibs sported all the traditional
eccentricities of Britons in the imperial field, the wide variety of
hats, shirts and walking sticks, the well-known peculiarities of
temperament, the eclectic tastes in reading matter from thrillers to
"The Oxford Book of Greek Verse."

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Col. John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, had soldiered in India
for years; his family had served the Raj for generations. A Gurkha
officer was in charge of the logistics, and the most experienced of
the Sherpas had been promoted, like a native officer in the army of
British India, out of porterdom to be one of the climbing party. A
wide variety of professions was represented, too -- scientists of one
sort and another, two surgeons, a cameraman, a bee-keeper, the
manager of a travel agency and a couple of schoolmasters, one of
them also being the requisite poet. Nearly all had lately served in
Her Majesty's armed forces, and all were bound into comradeship
by two common factors: their passion for the craft and mystery of
mountain-climbing and their unquestioning Britishness.

I say the mystery, because in those days Himalayan climbing was
still infused with a dedication that edged toward the spiritual.
Legacies tragic and poetical had been bequeathed by previous
expeditions -- some high-flown prose, tales of gentlemanly heroism
and faithful native sacrifice, above all the romantic disappearance,
high on the mountain 29 years before, of George Leigh Mallory
and Andrew Irvine. The knowledge that Everest was sacred to the
Sherpas touched the imaginations of these men; Hunt himself
declined to talk about the possible "conquest" of the mountain, only
its ascent. Chomolungma -- Goddess Mother of the Earth -- was the
Sherpa name for the mountain, and nobody in that expedition
scoffed at it. This was a late expression of imperial tradition, but
there was nothing jingo or philistine about it.

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Besides, the trek through Nepal offered the arcane excitement of
the almost unknown. All the prewar expeditions had approached
Everest from the north, through Tibet. Only a handful of outsiders
had ever followed this southern route, and the journey lay through
countrysides and societies that were still marvelously strange.
Nowadays so many trekkers go this way that the track is often thick
with their litter; in 1953 plastic was still unknown in Sherpa
country, radios and binoculars were marvels, there were no
wheeled vehicles and to the people along the way the sahibs of the
passing expedition were as curiously fascinating as they themselves
were to the sahibs.

And I can remember the moment when I first saw the summit of
Everest itself, with its high plume of driven snow streaming away
like a talisman. Nowhere on earth, I thought then, was more
compellingly strange. There was nothing at all up there, nothing but
snow, ice and rock, but that high patch of desolation was one of the
most celebrated places on the earth's surface. Many human lives had
been lost, over the decades, trying to reach it, yet no single soul had
ever stood there. By now hundreds of people have been to the top
of Everest; then it seemed to me as remote and wonderful as the
moon itself -- and how many of us, in 1953, seriously supposed that
anyone would ever stand on the moon?

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Today those cosmopolitan multitudes of climbers make it to the top
of Everest largely in order to say they have done it. In 1953 the
impulse was subtly different: Mountaineers wanted to ascend the
Goddess Mother of the Earth "because," in George Mallory's
mystic words, "it was there." They wanted to prove that it was
physically possible, they wanted to measure themselves against this
mighty challenge, they wanted to bring honor to their nation and
perhaps fame to themselves.

Still, Hunt's was an expedition that took no chances. It was huge. It
was conducted with military thoroughness. It took months. Once the
lowland Nepali bearers had dumped their burdens and gone home,
16 sahibs and 34 high-altitude Sherpa porters were left on the flank
of Everest, meticulously organized to project two of their number
to the top. The world watched them, and especially the British
world. Week by week, scrambling up and down the mountainside
myself, I sent back to the Times reports of their progress -- by
runner.

By Sherpa runner, hastening over the 200 miles of intervening
mountain country to get my dispatches to the cable-head! The very
words sound archaic now, when a correspondent can send a report
from Mount Everest direct from his laptop via satellite, and another
generation of reporters hardly knows what a cable is, let alone a
runner! But seen over the gulf of 45 years, almost everything about
the expedition seems wonderfully old-fashioned. We had no
long-distance radio, but we did have the contemporary equivalent
of a mobile phone, to communicate up on the mountain -- a heavy
gray metal box, slung around the neck to dangle upon one's chest,
with a large rubber mouthpiece sticking up like a ventilator. The
climber's boots, I suppose now, were frightfully clumsy. The tents
were, I imagine, awkward and heavy. The sleeping bags were
cumbersome. The oxygen masks and cylinders were like something
out of the First World War.

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And old-fashioned too, I suppose, was the nature of the camaraderie
that bound those sahibs together. By the nature of things there was
bound to be competition among them -- who would not wish to be
the first man to stand on the top of the world? It was competition,
though, of a muted, stiff-upper-lip kind. Nobody voiced it. There
was no football frenzy to this adventure; few even mentioned the
awful possibility that, if the expedition failed, some damned
foreigners might be the first to climb Everest. There was no
speculation, so far as I know, about the possibility of honors or
rewards. Everyone was ambitious, I do not doubt, but the most
blatantly ambitious of all was me -- and I was less concerned about
the possibility of climbing Everest than I was about the possibility
of getting a scoop.

We did it, as you know. I got my scoop -- and it changed my life
forever. Far more importantly, Edmund Hillary the New Zealander
and Tenzing Norgay the Sherpa stood together on Everest's
summit, and John Hunt their benign commander became the
Montgomery of the snows. I shall remember until the day I die the
sensations when, at 21,000 feet on the mountain's flank, the rest of
us welcomed the pair of them back from the summit -- the sun (or
so it seems in memory) so preternaturally bright, the snow so
particularly pristine, the great mountains smiling all around, the
exuberance of us all so vivid as to be almost tangible, and Col. Hunt
even going so far as to hug his two champions, like a football
manager today.

Partly by chance, partly by cunning and hard labor, the news of the
ascent broke in London on the very day of Queen Elizabeth's
coronation, and fusing with all the lavish ceremonial of the
occasion, aroused unforgettable emotions of pride and patriotism.
Even now, all over the world people often greet me with nostalgic
wonder -- "my goodness, the person who sent the news from
Everest on Coronation Day!" For Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing, of
course, it meant fame of another dimension. Hunt and Hillary were
both knighted within the week, Tenzing as a non-Briton was
awarded the George Medal, and all three became household names
around the world.

No adventurers, before or since, were more honored and feted in
the months after their great achievement, not even astronauts
coming home from the moon. In the British historical consciousness
they instantly joined the long roster of national heroes: Livingstone
and Captain Scott, General Gordon, even perhaps Drake and Sir
Walter Raleigh. The symbolic coincidence of Everest and
coronation seemed like a providential benediction upon the British
people as a whole.

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The people felt they deserved it, too. They alone had fought the
grim fight, start to finish, against the ghastly Nazis. They had won a
famous victory at terrible cost to themselves. Their country was
still impoverished by their sacrifice, still threadbare and uncertain
of itself. The national celebration called Festival of Britain, two
years before, had been a deliberate attempt to restore the nation's
morale and self-confidence after so many dingy years: Coronation
Everest seemed to seal the process, and made people feel that the
grand old kingdom was making yet another fresh start at last. "All
This and Everest Too" was a much admired headline of the day,
and it seemed to express something fundamental about the twin
events: ancient grandeur given new life by a bold adventure -- and
an adventure, too, on those distant frontiers of the east that the
British had so long ago made their own.

The euphoria did not last. It was not the start of a New Elizabethan
Age after all. The dissolution of the British Empire continued, and
before long New Zealanders were almost as foreign to the British
as -- well, as Sherpas, say. But the achievement itself, after all these
years, has not lost its delight. Reaching the top of Everest has
become a commonplace, but the meaning of that moment in 1953
can never be repeated. It was an alpha and an omega. It was the
first ascent of the greatest of mountains; it was a last harmless
triumph of an empire.

All those climbers, long ago, made successes of life after Everest.
Some of them went on to make other notable ascents, at least half
dozen published books and most of them achieved distinction in one
professional field or another. Sir John Hunt became, in the fullness
of time, Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, one of the universally
respected Great and Good. Sir Edmund Hillary became New
Zealand's High Commissioner in India and a beloved worker in the
cause of Sherpa progress and well-being. Tenzing Norgay became
the most famous Sherpa who ever lived. Most of the team met,
from time to time, at reunions in the mountains of north Wales, and
those who can will be meeting there again on the 45th anniversary
later this month.

Some, though, have climbed on. Two died in accidents on lesser
mountains -- poet Wilfred Noyce among them. One died after long
years of multiple sclerosis. Three others were simply taken away,
like the great Tenzing, by old age after long exertion. They are not
forgotten, though, because the expedition itself has never been
forgotten. Around the world the memory of Everest '53 brings
pleasure to this day, because nothing about that adventure is bad. It
cannot be debunked. Nobody was hurt in it, nobody behaved
poorly, nobody made much money out of the experience, and its
memory possesses that rarest of modern enchantments, the allure of
innocence.

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When he came to write the official history of the first ascent, John
Hunt paid particular tribute to "my wife, Mrs. Goodfellow and
Mrs. Mowbray-Green" for sewing name-tapes on all the climbers'
clothing -- "thus avoiding a possible cause of contention among us
on the mountain."


Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

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