Cometh the hour, cometh the many men (and women). The 2012 centenary of Captain Scott’s death inspired a series of heroic forays into print: glory-hungry (or just plain hungry) authors questing for something new to say about this much-described event.
Next year is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, and so we might expect more of the same, with an icy blasted peak instead of an icy blasted pole. For those who approach these commemorative sorties with a heavy heart, Mick Conefrey’s Everest 1953 should come as a vertiginous relief. The book is neither a flimsy reprise, nor a mercenary hatchet job. Instead, Conefrey crafts an exciting, moving account, with a few controversies revisited in an interesting way. He also refuses to fall into the trap of intuiting the meaning of all things from a single expedition, as sometimes happens when the festive chronicler runs short of new material, or tires of the subject halfway through.
Conefrey begins in the mid-19th century, with the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India, which used observation points to measure the tallest mountain of the Himalayas at 29,002 feet, just 27 feet short of the actual height. The Tibetans called it Chomolungma (‘goddess mother of the world’), but the Victorians named it, more prosaically, after George Everest, a former chief surveyor. In 1922, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached 27,300 feet; in 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared close to the top. Tibet banned any attempts on the mountain between 1925 and 1933; the second world war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced another hiatus. In 1951, the British sent an expedition, as did the Swiss in 1952. Conefrey briskly summarises these attempts, before focusing on the ascent of 1953.
It is a sad irony that so many reconstructions of epic journeys send the reader into a soporific trance, but Conefrey is careful to avoid this pitfall. He solemnly swears to unearth ‘controversy … and crises.’ His chapters end on cliff-hangers; his portraits of expedition members read like casting notes for a biopic: Eric Shipton, ‘Mr Everest’ of the 1930s, was ‘a fair-haired, blue-eyed, quintessentially British hero’, whose ejection from the 1953 team supplies one of the crises. Tom Bourdillon was a ‘proverbial “man mountain” ’; leader Colonel John Hunt was a ‘tiger’. The New Zealander Edmund Hillary makes his entrance as a ‘filthy, emaciated figure’, having come to Everest via the Garhwal Mountains. Tenzing Norgay was a Himalayan celebrity, ‘different’ from other Sherpas, obsessed with mountaineering. While most Sherpas confused the British by not seeming to mind if they bagged the final peak or not, Tenzing ‘had caught the bug and there was only one way to get relief’.
Conefrey takes us through the camps, porter routes, the great seracs of the Khumbu Icefall, the stifling Western Cwm, the ‘death zone’, the respective merits of open-circuit and closed-circuit oxygen equipment and the painful business, for Hunt, of choosing the summit parties. The first summit attempt, by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, was aborted 300 feet from the peak, leaving the way clear for Hillary and Tenzing.
Conefrey interweaves details of their ascent with descriptions of the mixed emotions of the team below — Bourdillon consumed by disappointment, Hunt having had a ‘partial mental and physical collapse’, weaving ‘drunkenly from side to side, unaware of his enfeebled state’. ‘The top of the world was a small, rounded bump … To one side puffball clouds hung over Tibet, to the other lay the valleys of Nepal.’ Tenzing ‘so far forgot himself’ as to embrace Hillary; Hillary so far forgot himself as to urinate across the hallowed spot. Later, there was a media-fuelled debate about whether Hillary or Tenzing reached the top first. Conefrey moves to scotch this controversy: all the evidence, he explains, suggests it was Hillary.
Occasionally, the modernist consciousness-hopping gets a bit over-elaborate — for instance, ‘Ed [Hillary] was nervous about meeting the British climbers. Would they be pukka sahibs: frightfully formal, gin and tonics, smoking jackets and stiff upper lips? Probably not … but you never knew with the Poms.’ And perhaps a few real dyed-in-the-Yak-wool Everest obsessives may wish for yet more seismic revelations. But, in all, this is a fascinating piece of documentary writing, as readable and poignant as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. Conefrey has stolen a march on the commemorative hordes, and it’s not even 2013.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012