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The only way is up

  • Written by  Mick Conefrey
  • Published in Explorers
The only way is up Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
01 Jun
2013
Even with the most meticulous plans and the biggest team ever assembled for an attempt on Everest, the success of the 1953 expedition came down to a series of gambles and a bit of luck with the weather

On the morning of 8 October 1952, Charles Wylie looked out of his window on the first floor of the Royal Geographical Society headquarters in Kensington and saw a dusty-looking shooting brake draw into the car park below. Moments later, Colonel John Hunt climbed out. It was his first day in the office as leader of the British 1953 Everest Expedition.

The previous two months had been among the most controversial in British mountaineering’s history. Eric Shipton, the man the papers called ‘Mr Everest’, had been due to lead the British team. In 1951, he led a reconnaissance expedition to Everest’s south side, and in 1952, he took an ill-fated training expedition to nearby Cho Oyu. It went so badly that he was forced to resign in controversial circumstances.

Hunt was largely unknown in British circles, and many feared that he would run the 1953 expedition along military lines. Wylie, however, had no such concerns. He, too, was a career soldier and could already tell from their communications thus far that Hunt was an exceptionally good leader. Charming, passionate and well organised, Hunt quickly won over his detractors.

The core of his team was the powerful group of mountaineers that Shipton had assembled over the previous two years. Charles Evans and Alfred Gregory were both veterans of Cho Oyu, and Tom Bourdillon had been on both the 1951 and 1952 expeditions. Likewise, the two New Zealanders, George Lowe and Ed Hillary, had both proved themselves on Shipton’s previous expeditions.

But whereas Shipton always preferred to keep it small, Hunt opted to increase the size of the climbing team. He brought in Wilfrid Noyce, a very well-regarded climber who was the only member of the team personally known to him. Wylie, the expedition’s organising secretary, was an Olympic-class athlete and a talented climber who could speak fluent Nepali. In addition to these experienced men, Hunt took a chance on two young hopefuls with good Alpine records: George Band and Mike Westmacott.

Hunt’s team was further boosted by the presence of Mike Ward as expedition doctor and Griffith Pugh as its scientific advisor. Ward was a very powerful climber and had been the instigator of the 1951 reconnaissance, while Pugh was a scientist from the Medical Research Council and an accomplished skier.

 

METICULOUS PREPARATION

There’s little doubt that the 1953 expedition was the best prepared in Everest’s history. Hunt planned meticulously, drawing up a detailed plan of attack and giving each member of the team a particular area to research and look after. Band was put in charge of communications and food, Westmacott, a former sapper, investigated bridging and tents.

The fact that Hillary was thousands of miles away in New Zealand didn’t get him off the hook – he was put in charge of procuring sleeping bags, cooking equipment and honey.

Initially, they found it difficult to raise funds, but when Prince Philip agreed to become the expedition patron, purse strings were loosened. It was 1953, coronation year, and British newspapers were full of optimistic stories about the ‘New Elizabethan Age’. What better gift could anyone offer the new monarch than the first ascent of Everest, the ultimate trophy mountain?

In early March, the team arrived in Kathmandu and headed straight for the British embassy. Over the previous two years, the British ambassador in Nepal, Christopher Summerhayes, had been an important ally to Shipton and the last two expeditions.

The team was completed when Tenzing Norgay arrived to head up the Sherpa contingent, which eventually numbered more than 30 men. Initially, Hunt was responsible for press duties before two journalists arrived from The Times: Arthur Hutchinson, who stayed in Kathmandu, and James Morris, who joined the team on the mountain.

Morris and Hutchinson weren’t the only journalists covering the expedition in Kathmandu. In addition to several local Nepalese pressmen, a number of Indian reporters had come to cover the story. As the expedition progressed, the press corps was further expanded with British correspondents from the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. All were equally frustrated by the exclusive deal that the expedition had struck with The Times. A minor irritant to Hunt at the beginning of the expedition, malicious reporting was to develop into a significant problem by the end.

 

INTO THE FIELD

On 10 March, the team finally left Kathmandu. There were so many porters that Hunt elected to split the expedition into two parties. He was relieved to be in the field, away from all of the administrative hassles that had followed him from Britain, but the walk in to Everest wasn’t quite as relaxing as he had hoped.

From the beginning, there had been tensions with the Sherpa team over accommodation and pay. These climaxed in early April when two men, Pasang Phutar, nicknamed ‘the Jockey’ for his other role on the Darjeeling racetrack, and Ang Dawa resigned.

It was an awkward moment, but Hunt was quietly relieved to lose ‘the Jockey’, who had caused trouble from the start. Local replacements were easily found, and the team was boosted by the arrival of Morris and the army officer and climber Jimmy Roberts with a large consignment of oxygen bottles.

After a series of acclimatisation climbs in early April, work started on Everest itself. Hillary established Base Camp in early April and made the first foray into the Khumbu Icefall. A dense labyrinth of crevasses surrounded by huge blocks of ice up to 15 metres tall, the icefall served as the gateway to Everest.

Hillary’s party was tasked with finding a safe route that could subsequently be used by teams of porters. It wasn’t easy, as the names they gave to various sections reveal: Hillary’s Horror, the Ghastly Crevasse and the Nutcracker.

 

THE FINAL PUSH

By early May, they had transported several tonnes of supplies through the icefall and found the site for Advanced Base Camp far into the Western Cwm. Bourdillon and Evans made a tentative reconnaissance of the Lhotse Face and reached 7,300 metres. When they returned to Base Camp, Hunt called a meeting to outline his plan for the final stages of the climb.

On 8 May, tensions were high. So far, everything had gone largely according to plan. There had been no accidents and despite a few outbreaks of ‘base-campitis’, an unpleasant mixture of diarrhoea and a sore throat, everyone was climbing well. They were a homogenous group with a real team spirit, but they all wanted to play as significant a role as possible, and several felt capable of going all the way to the summit.

In the event, Hunt’s choice of what he called ‘assault’ teams was fairly predictable: first Bourdillon and Evans, using experimental oxygen sets designed by Bourdillon and his father, and then Hillary and Tenzing, using the more traditional apparatus. In 1953, there was never any question of making an attempt without oxygen.

Before they could start, there was the rather large matter of transporting almost a tonne of supplies and equipment up the Lhotse Face, the 1,200-metre slope that ran from the Western Cwm up to the South Col. Having carefully studied the Swiss attempts of 1952, Hunt was convinced that to stand any chance of succeeding, they needed to establish a well-stocked camp on this windswept plateau between Everest and Lhotse. He put Lowe in charge of this stage of the climb. If everything were to go smoothly, they would be ready to make the first attempt on or around 15 May.

 

TAKING A RISK

Like all best-laid plans, it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. The weather deteriorated. Lowe’s assistants, Westmacott and Band, both fell ill, and Hunt grew increasingly impatient. The last two British expeditions of the 1930s had been scuppered by the early arrival of the monsoon and he feared that history might be about to repeat itself.

In the end, after ten very difficult days, Hunt brought Lowe down and sent up the two teams of Sherpas before the route had been established. They climbed to the halfway point but were reluctant to go any further, so Noyce took the Sherpa Annullu and climbed up to the South Col. Throwing his carefully plotted movement schedule to the wind, Hunt took a risk and sent up Hillary and Tenzing to urge the main Sherpa teams on.

On the following day, Wylie shepherded the Sherpas up the mountain, ably assisted by Hillary and Tenzing. They were several days behind schedule but this was an awesome achievement, 13 Sherpas carrying more than 180 kilograms of gear all the way to the South Col, none using oxygen.

After several tense days, the expedition now moved up a gear. Evans and Bourdillon set off up the Lhotse Face with Hunt, Da Namgyal and Ang Tensing in support. They reached the South Col on 24 May, but it was such a difficult and exhausting climb that they had to take a rest day before making the first attempt on the summit.

High above them stretched the South East Ridge of Everest, 900 metres of steep rock and ice leading to the summit. As both Hillary and the Swiss climber Raymond Lambert remarked, it almost looked like another mountain perched on top of the South Col. If Bourdillon and Evans were to succeed, they would have to climb up and back in a single day.

 

THE FIRST ATTEMPT

They awoke at dawn on the morning of 26 May, having slept the night in their clothes in order to make an early getaway. After glugging down some lukewarm lemon juice prepared the night before, they emerged from the tent into the biting cold of an Everest dawn. Evans had barely taken a few steps before he collapsed, breathless. Bourdillon repaired his oxygen set and they tried again, only for the same thing to happen.

Whereas Hillary and Tenzing were planning to use traditional ‘open circuit’ oxygen sets, essentially an oxygen bottle connected to a mask with a regulator in between, Bourdillon and Evans were using a new ‘closed circuit’ design in which exhaled oxygen was partially recycled. In theory, it was much more efficient, significantly increasing a climber’s endurance, but it was also more complex, so there was more to go wrong. By the time Bourdillon got to the bottom of the problem, they had lost two hours.

As they despondently crossed the South Col and began the long haul up the South East Ridge, they could see Hunt and Da Namgyal in front of them. In preparation for Hillary and Tenzing’s attempt, Hunt was aiming to carry a tent and some oxygen bottles up to an intermediate camp about 450 metres higher. At around 10am, Bourdillon and Evans passed them, climbing well.

In spite of their early problems, their oxygen sets were now working perfectly and they were making good progress. But not for long. After a change of oxygen bottle and recycling canister, Evans’s set began to malfunction again. He forced himself to carry on, but struggled to keep up with Bourdillon.

At around 1pm, Lowe let out a whoop. On his way up the Lhotse Face with Hillary and Tenzing, he had spotted Bourdillon and Evans not far below the South Summit, a sharp pinnacle on the South East Ridge just 99 vertical metres below the true summit. Perhaps, he wondered, there might not have to be a second attempt.

 

A DIFFICULT DECISION

When Hillary’s party reached the South Col, they found Hunt, who had just returned, exhausted, and told him the good news. The Sherpas shouted for joy when they saw Bourdillon and Evans disappearing over the South Summit before the clouds closed in. ‘Everest has had it,’ Any Nyima told Hunt, not realising that the first pair hadn’t quite reached the top.

High up at 8,750 metres, Bourdillon and Evans were arguing over what to do next. By Evans’s calculation, they had just enough oxygen left to reach the summit, but no more. There was no question in his mind that now was the time to turn back.

Bourdillon wasn’t so sure. They were so close. He could see that Evans was having problems, but his own set was working perfectly. Could he go on alone?

Down on the South Col, the initial elation had given way to more sober reflection. It was 1.15pm. Bourdillon and Evans had around five hours of daylight left and probably a lot less oxygen. If they continued and something went wrong, the second attempt might turn into a rescue mission, jeopardising the whole expedition. If they turned around now, they would have achieved a great deal and might be able to bring back vital intelligence on the top half of the climb.

Up on the South Summit, Bourdillon calculated and recalculated his remaining oxygen. He badly wanted to reach the summit but was keenly aware of the risks. If he carried on, it would mean leaving his partner to descend alone with a faulty set.

Evans spoke up, warning Bourdillon that if he continued, he would never see his wife Jennifer again. Bourdillon walked along the South East Ridge to look at the final portion. He did the sums again and then turned his back on the summit.

 

A SERIES OF PROBLEMS

Later, Bourdillon described their descent as a ‘nightmare they both wished to forget’. They slipped repeatedly, pulling each other off, ‘yo-yoing’ their way down the mountain. When they finally reached the South Col two hours later, they were covered in icicles, like ‘creatures from another world’, according to Hillary.

The nightmare continued with a wretched night crammed into a tiny tent, buffeted by the wind. When dawn came, it was so gusty that Hillary and Tenzing decided to postpone their attempt, but there weren’t enough supplies for Bourdillon and Evans to stay high. When Bourdillon collapsed, Hunt agreed to help him down, leaving Lowe, Gregory and two Sherpas, Pemba and Angy Nyima, as the support party for the second attempt.

There were more problems on the following day when Hillary and Tenzing were due to start up to their intermediate camp. Pemba was so ill that he had to stay in camp, forcing the others to share out his load, not easy when they were planning to climb above 8,400 metres. They increased their loads further when they reached the supply dump left by Hunt and Da Namgyal two days earlier.

It wasn’t easy to find a site for the final camp, but in the middle of the afternoon, the others descended, leaving Hillary and Tenzing to hack out a small ledge just large enough for their tent. Hillary had squirreled away a veritable feast for their meal: sardines, biscuits, gallons of lemon juice and to cap it off, a tin of apricots – not quite so appetising when it slid out as a solid block.

 

PERFECT CONDITIONS

After another windy night, they awoke to almost perfect weather. The air was clear enough for Tenzing spot the Thyangboche monastery, 4,500 metres below. Up above, there was a small plume of snow around the summit, but the ferocious winds of the previous days had died down – for the moment at least.

At around 6.30am, they set off. They didn’t have enough oxygen to run their sets at the recommended rate and Hillary’s boots were badly frozen, but both were quietly confident. As they climbed up the South East Ridge, they occasionally spotted tracks left by Bourdillon and Evans. More importantly, at 8,600 metres they found the two oxygen bottles abandoned by the first pair when they changed cylinders. They were one third full – a welcome discovery.

The most difficult climbing came just below the South Summit. Bourdillon and Evans had stuck to the rock on the left, but Hillary opted for a more direct route that took them up a steep snow slope. It was a dangerous option: the loose, deep snow continually threatened to avalanche.

They both later acknowledged that this was the most dangerous climbing that they had ever done, but as Hillary confided to his diary, on Everest you had to raise your threshold of risk. Eventually, the slope eased off and just after 9am, they crested the South Summit, four hours ahead of Bourdillon and Evans.

They were now just 99 vertical metres from their goal, but there was one final challenge: a small rock face, or ‘step’, that Hillary had been thinking about since he had first spotted it through his binoculars at Thyangboche. To the left was a steep rock face, to the right a cornice and in the middle, a narrow chimney.

With Tenzing carefully belaying him, Hillary eased himself in and began wriggling upwards, digging his crampons in behind him, all the time worrying that the cornice might break away and send him hurtling down the Kanghshung Face into Tibet. It held, and a few minutes later, he reached the top. Tenzing was soon standing beside him.

 

ON TOP OF THE WORLD

Ahead lay the final undulations of the South East Ridge. They were now only a few dozen feet from the highest point, but the ridge seemed to go on forever. Finally, as they began to tire, came the last hump, and at 11.30am, they stood on the summit.

Taking a risk, they turned off their oxygen sets. Hillary held out his hand but this wasn’t enough for Tenzing, who wrapped his partner in a not-so-warm embrace. Tenzing unfurled the flags that were wrapped around the handle of his ice axe and held it aloft as Hillary took a series of photographs. Tenzing offered to reciprocate, but Hillary was more interested in photographing his next target mountain, Makalu, than having his own picture taken.

Tenzing buried some small offerings in the snow that his daughter had given to him, including a pencil and some sweets, prompting Hillary to remember the small crucifix that Hunt had entrusted to him, with a request to place it on the summit. Then, after 15 minutes, they opened their oxygen valves again and carefully descended the South East Ridge.

Down on the South Col, Lowe was dutifully awaiting their return. At 4pm, he marched out to greet them with flasks of warm lemon juice. Back at their tents, they met Noyce and Pasang Phutar II, who had been sent up by Hunt to help them get down.

While Hillary and Tenzing slowly warmed up and told the tale of their historic ascent, Noyce and Pasang Phutar II gathered up two sleeping bags and climbed to the edge of the col. Noyce had agreed a visual signal for Hunt: arrange the bags into a ‘T’ if Hillary and Tenzing had succeeded, side by side if they only reached the South Summit and a single bag if they had achieved nothing at all.

For ten minutes, they shivered on the snow, but down below, Hunt was none the wiser. The clouds had rolled in, wrapping the top of the mountain in an impenetrable haze. Had Hillary and Tenzing succeeded? Were they still alive? Would he have to organise a third attempt?

While Hillary and Lowe stayed up all night planning the climbs they intended to do back in New Zealand, Hunt lay in his sleeping bag, worrying the night away, hoping that the following day might bring welcome news.

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