Monday 13 May 2024

Guest review by Graeme Fife: EVEREST 1953 by Mick Conefrey


"The final climb itself, a gripping story, loses none of its thrill"

Graeme Fife
is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday. His latest publication, Memory's Ransom, is published by Conrad Press.

British rock climbers pioneered the craze for Alpine exploration in the early nineteenth century, followed by nationals of those countries which might have laid a more immediate claim to proprietorship of the great alpine peaks in their country. Perhaps it may be put down to a Victorian thrust for exploration and conquest riding the crest of imperial expansion. The often incomprehensible obsession with ice and adversity – the polar expeditions – ensued. They formed a part, we may say, of the similar preoccupation with heroic failure which began with the Charge of the Light Brigade, the spilling of blood on foreign sand, a calamity puffed by Sir Henry Newbolt’s jingoist doggerel, Invictus, and finally belittled by the heroic triumph of the Battle of Britain. The fascination of ice perhaps began with Cabot’s search for the North-West Passage and underpins the drive to ‘conquer’ Everest – named for a Surveyor General of India; local names were rejected because of native hesitation about allowing foreigners entry. The Tibetan name, Qomolangma, means Holy Mother, and it must be clarified, mountains are never conquered; they may be climbed but remain a challenge forthwith.

Edward Whymper laid the benchmark. An English illustrator, born in 1861, he was sent to the Pennine Alps to make drawings and, fascinated by the daunting sight of the Matterhorn ‘peak of the Meadows’ near Zermatt, a mighty wind-whipped, partly snowbound pyramid of rock, a giant of those mountains, he determined to climb it. At 5.30 am on 13th July 1865, he and four other Britons with two Zermatt guides set off from Chamonix, bivouacked overnight and, at dawn next day began their assault. At 1.40 pm, Whymper and another climber ‘skipped up the final slope’ to the summit. (The word had not yet been debased as a verb – Americans again.) Descending, one man, roped to three others, slipped: fatally, all fell.

The triumph is reckoned by some to mark the end of the Golden Age of Alpine first assaults. Whymper is honoured with a statue in Chamonix.

In the 1920s, the outstanding climber George Mallory led three expeditions on Everest, the first two times eschewing oxygen - considered infra dig, albeit they happily used stimulants and other drugs. Two failures preceded their final attempt in 1924 when the climbers did use oxygen to combat the debilitating effect of perilously thin air. Mallory and his companion may have reached the top; nobody knows. but both men died and Mallory’s body was not found until 1999. He is alleged to have answered the question ‘Why try to climb it?’ with ‘Because it’s there.’

From that final effort, somehow, the British thought of Everest as ‘their’mountain and Edmund Hillary, a bee-keeper from New Zealand, exceptional Himalyan climber, took part in several exploratory expeditions mounted by British teams from the 1930s on.

The Swiss mounted their own attempts – all dependent on permission from the Nepalese government - and, in 1952, came very close, even as the organisation of another British expedition team proceeded, headed by Colonel John Hunt, a first-rate mountaineer. Nepalese Sherpas were routinely called upon to act as guides, porters and support climbers; one, Tensing Norgay, an exceptional mountaineer, climbed with the Swiss and, warming to their amiable attitude, found the more militaristic hauteur of the British far from conducive. Luckily, Hunt was no martinet but that rare species among miltary men, a fine, sympathetic leader with none of that egotism characteristic of so many British officers. Tensing’s inclusion in the 1953 team was fortuitous. Not only did he prove himself a priceless asset as a climber but he bonded closely with the highly experienced Hillary, another ‘outsider’ like him, to form an indelible partnership.

The politics, tensions, rivalries, accommodations of assembling the team, martialling the complicated manner of approach, preparation and final assault – who was to be chosen? – are skilfully narrated, without bias, even the drama of getting the news to London for Coronation Day in 1953, itself a mini epic; all described with meticulous detail and understanding. The final climb itself, a gripping story, loses none of its thrill, the outcome being known.

As to the shabby behaviour and misreporting of clamouring newshounds after the climb, this forms a sorry footnote to a wonderful exploit, rightly celebrated as a British triumph, albeit the two men who stood on the top of the world had citizenship by right of inclusion as men of the colonial governance. No matter. Their achievement does not wait on partisan claim. They did something none else had ever done; their bravery and fortitude are for all humanity. If their success inevitably overshadows the work of their companions, without that superlative support they might have failed.

Everest 1953 is published by Oneworld.

 More reviews by Graeme:

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

One Day by David Nicholls

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