Mick Conefrey, Everest 1953: The Epic Story Of The First Ascent, Oneworld £20
The received picture of the 1953 British Everest expedition is of a seamless triumph, something to make up for the earlier failures of the 1920s and 30s. Mick Conefrey’s groundbreaking new book reveals how far from seamless it actually was.
John Hunt’s first summit team of two British climbers failed, partly due to his poor positioning of their final camp. Hillary and Tenzing were the foreign back-up, and were only given their chance because the New Zealander and the Sherpa had proved such a formidable load-carrying team on the approach. Tenzing had come close to summiting the mountain the year before in 1952 with the Swiss, and would have been equally happy to have done so with them. Now he was simply finishing the job. The British were still struggling to work out which system of bottled oxygen worked best, closed or open circuit. What really made the ascent possible was phenomenal luck with the weather – the best for many years – and the reconnaissance work done by Eric Shipton.
With his unruly hair and brilliantly written books, Shipton was the most charismatic mountaineer of his generation. In the public’s eyes, as Conefrey puts it, ‘he was Mr Everest’. When, just months before the expedition, the Himalayan committee dumped him as leader in the most brutal possible way to make way instead for John Hunt – a decision comparable to Harry Redknapp being passed over for Roy Hodgson – they were signalling a complete change of attitude.
Shipton had taken part in most of the British expeditions to Everest over the previous two decades. It was he who had suggested the successful south-western approach to the mountain rather than the usual northern, Tibetan side; he who recruited both Tenzing and Hillary; and he who led a team there in 1951 to establish that it was indeed a tenable route.
But he also exemplified a romantic, slightly cavalier approach to the planning of expeditions that grated on the old men of the Himalayan committee’s nerves. He publicly stated that ‘if mountaineering has any value, and its value after all is purely philosophical, it lies in the experience rather than the result. If competition and above all nationalism are allowed to enter into it, it becomes debased and meaningless.’ This was not what the committee wanted to hear. In their minds, there was only one possible successful outcome: getting to the top.
John Hunt, although virtually unknown in mountain circles, brought a more military approach. Despite initial opposition from the team he inherited from Shipton, he also proved a capable leader who inspired great affection.
Everest 1953 is excellent on the complicated emotions that swirled around the expedition. The hero of the story is the modest and down to earth Ed Hillary: on the summit he just took pictures of Tenzing, not himself, and pretended they had got there together; in fact, he had been the first man on top of the world. Moreover, he did what most walkers and mountaineers do when they finally get to their destination – take the opportunity to urinate – although this was less publicised at the time.
Conefrey has written a magnificent book that deserves to become the definitive version: we cannot hope for a more human, funny or meticulous account of what was a very British expedition.
an edited version of this review appeared in The Independent