on 8 May 2013
Reproduced from [...]
The summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, surely faces competition only from the North and South Poles for the title of single most famous geographical point on the planet. The mountain's name, taken from a British surveyor general of India of the early 19th century, has become a metaphor for grand aspiration and exceptional achievement. It even sounds like a superlative: biggest, wildest, toughest. Everest.
Sadly, the mountain has been in the news for the wrong reasons of late. At the end of last month, a violent fracas high on the Lhotse Face between a large group of Sherpa and a party of European climbers, including renowned alpinists Simone Moro of Italy and Switzerland's Ueli Steck, was widely reported in the mainstream media. While the specifics of (and culpability for) the incident remain under dispute, it is widely agreed that it was sparked when the Europeans, who were climbing towards the summit, strayed into an area where the Sherpa were working, fixing ropes for commercial guides and their clients. This was perceived by the Sherpa as a grave breach of etiquette. Strange, perhaps, that a mountain as vast as Everest should even require etiquette - isn't that for the golf course? But nowadays Everest is, after all, a very crowded place.
The timing of this incident is unfortunate in this, the 60th anniversary year of the mountain's first ascent by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, members of the British expedition led by Col. John Hunt. Tenzing and Hillary became household names, and the iconic summit photograph of the former taken by the latter is surely the most famous image in mountaineering, and one of the best known of all time in any sphere. Less celebrated is George Lowe, a key member of the 1953 team and, when he joined the expedition, a keen amateur photographer. Lowe's new book, The Conquest of Everest, brings together many of his photographs, together with his recollections of events before, during and after the ascent. Lowe's story is accompanied by contributions from mountaineering notables including Chris Bonington, Reinhold Messner, Kenton Cool, Doug Scott and Stephen Venables, as well as from two men whose lives were shaped by the events of May 1953: Peter Hillary and Norbu Tenzing Norgay, the sons of the summit climbers.
The book shares its title with the 1953 film celebrating the success of the expedition. The film was directed by Lowe, a state of affairs that with typical modesty he attributes to his own good luck. In hindsight, Lowe acknowledges that the mountain is "unconquerable in its way", a sentiment echoed by Kenton Cool in his contribution: "No one conquers Mount Everest - she allows us to climb her." But like the photographs within, the triumphant title is a product of its time. The 1953 expedition was, after all, meticulously organised and estimably led by a military man, Col. John Hunt. The language of early Himalayan climbing was lifted straight from the lexicon of warfare: a siege on the mountain, an assault on the summit. Even the word expedition, borrowed long ago by the world of adventure and exploration, originally referred to a body of armed men dispatched to get a job done. And 1953 was a year of optimism for Britain; it saw the end of rationing and the coronation of a young queen, with a resulting surge in patriotism. Still, Britain was no longer as dominant on the world stage as she once had been. The post-war emergence of the superpowers and the end of Empire had been humbling. But here we were, first to the top of Everest, doing what Britons did - conquering things. Britannia was past her prime, but there was fight in the old girl yet.
George Lowe was, by all accounts, a man of exceptional graciousness and uncommon modesty. Born in Hastings, New Zealand in 1924, at the age of nine he shattered his left arm in a household accident. The bone would not mend and a series of operations (or, more accurately, crude rebreakings and resettings on the dining room table) failed to repair the limb properly; it developed "virtually without muscle" and with a restricted range of movement. As Lowe recalls, "I found myself silently resolving that I would disprove the doctor's damnable prophecies about my being a 'cripple for life'. Despite this, I've always thought of myself as a very lucky lad."
This theme of good fortune is revisited time and again in Lowe's accompanying text; he repeatedly marvels at his own good fortune, his lucky breaks, the turns of the card that went his way. We learn about his youth in New Zealand, and his starting to climb as a way to confront his fear of heights and the limitations of that mangled left arm. Before long, he was one of the top alpinists in New Zealand (whose Southern Alps, we learn, were considered a more suitable training ground for the greater ranges than their European namesakes). In the space of just a few pages we find ourselves in the Himalaya, where Lowe and his lifelong friend Ed Hillary joined the New Zealand Gharwal Expedition, the first to travel to the that range. The success of this expedition earned the kiwis an invitation to join Eric Shipton's British reconnaissance of the south side of Everest, taking place away to the south in Nepal. While Hillary had the financial means to take up the offer, Lowe did not, but when Shipton returned to the Himalaya the following year (to attempt to climb Cho Oyu) Lowe was invited to join the expedition on Hillary's recommendation. Both men proved their worth on Cho Oyu, and when the team was picked for the British Everest expedition the following year, both men's names were on the list, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The fact that we are able to see this comprehensive photographic account of the 1953 Everest expedition from George Lowe is, in itself, quite remarkable. Lowe considered himself no more than a decent amateur snapper. He wasn't even the official photographer on the expedition; in charge of stills photography was Alfred Gregory ("a tremendous climber and a good photographer too"), who was no slouch at altitude himself, and whose exceptional work has been widely published and exhibited. While the bulk of the images in Conquest are from George Lowe's camera, there are many by Gregory too; these are now part of the Royal Geographical Society's collection. Lowe and "Greg" were great friends, and by agreement between the two men Lowe would often shadow Gregory's activity by way of back-up in case of camera failure or damaged film. Charged with filming the action on the mountain was Tom Stobart. Unfortunately a mild dose of pneumonia quickly put paid to his working at altitude, and George Lowe found himself stepping into the breach as stand-in high-level film cameraman.
It was now that Lowe came into his own as a photographer. Laden with a cine camera, spools of film and his trusty Kodak stills camera, he fastidiously documented the activities of the climbers high in what later came to be known as the "death zone", where the air is too thin to sustain human life. Let's not forget, he was a climber first, and a photographer second. He spent days high on the Lhotse face cutting steps in the ice to allow the passage of men and materiel up the mountain, and established Camp IX on the ridge just below the South Summit, the springboard for Tenzing and Hillary's successful assault on the summit. According to John Hunt, Lowe "put up a performance which will go down in the annals of mountaineering as an epic achievement of tenacity and skill." It's a wonder the man had the energy to pull out a camera at all. But let's be glad that he did, for the results are truly magnificent.
Bookended by tourist snaps from the approach march and the broad smiles of the conquering heroes immediately after the ascent and on their return to civilisation (both fascinating in their respective ways), the portfolio of images from the empty, pristine mountain presents a comprehensive and visually sumptuous record of the expedition. It's hard to believe that most of them came from a 35mm camera, at the time not considered an ideal format for the serious photographer of grand vistas. There are many, many colour photographs, but the acid tones (as well as the ubiquitous logos) of the modern mountaineer's apparel are absent, the palette being limited to taupes, russets and blues. Lots and lots of blues. The images are thoughtfully composed throughout, whether studies of high altitude action or base camp portraits. One particular standout pictures cine photographer Tom Stobart at work; it looks for all the world like a cover of Life magazine.
The depictions and recollections of events after the expedition are as fascinating as those during it. The royal receptions; the speaking tours; the fame and adulation. Well, the latter not for Lowe perhaps. It was natural that the soon-to-be-knighted Ed Hillary and his summit partner Tenzing Norgay would receive the lion's share of the attention and the glory, but this was clearly a situation that the ever-modest Lowe was quite happy with. He was the third man, the "other kiwi", but did not once begrudge his friend the limelight. A man seemingly completely devoid of ego, his was the satisfaction of a job well done, of playing his part in a grand scheme; all the evidence of this one needs is there in his beaming smile as he leads his exhausted colleagues into Camp IV in the grainy film footage of the event.
George Lowe went on to live a life by turns extraordinary and unremarkable. Further Himalayan adventures followed, and in 1957 he and Hillary joined Vivian Fuchs' Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He was appointed official photographer to that expedition; his tongue was clearly planted firmly in his cheek when he wrote that his work on Everest had "created a minor myth about [his] prowess". He settled in England, and married Susan, the daughter of John, by now Lord, Hunt. The couple had three sons before their marriage foundered. He returned to his career as a teacher, and later served as a schools inspector before he retired in 1984. In later life he and his second wife Mary, with whom he found lasting happiness, did much to improve the lives of the mountain people of Nepal through their work with the Himalayan Trust in Britain. The ice axe that he took to Everest in 1953, the very implement with which he had forged a path for his colleagues up the Lhotse face, sat by his front door and, when occasion demanded it, was used to clear ice from his garden path.
Throughout his memoirs, this exceptionally self-effacing man radiates a sense of wonder at the remarkable life he has had the privilege to live. Events on the mountain are recalled with great clarity; indeed some of them are gathered from his private letters of the time. His co-author and editor, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, a noted historian of exploration and a man with no small amount of reverence for the men of '53 and their achievement, marshals Lowe's words deftly and sensitively. In his acknowledgments, the older man hopes he and Dr Lewis-Jones will have time to "make some more books together". A volume of collected letters will be published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the ascent at the end of May, but it was with great sadness that the mountaineering community received the news that George Lowe had passed away at the end of March at the age of 89, just weeks before the anniversary. He is survived by his wife Mary, his three sons from his first marriage and his six grandchildren.
And what of Mount Everest now? It's difficult to imagine what George would make of it. As Reinhold Messner points out in his contribution, mountains only become dangerous when people are on them; ergo (by only a small leap of logic) the massively overcrowded Everest must be a very dangerous place indeed. Nowadays, the summit of Everest, the Roof of the World, has become a kind of high-grade bucket list destination. Anyone with pockets deep enough can have a bash if they can find a guide prepared to nurse them up. But the two-hundred-plus unrecovered bodies on the peak remain proof, if any were needed, that this is as hostile a place as any on Earth. It's not the place of this review to dwell on the rights or wrongs motivations of those who attempt the climb (by whatever means), or on the implications of a mighty clash of conflicting priorities, though these have become apparent enough in recent weeks. A mountain belongs to everyone, and yet she belongs to no one. But one imagines that the notion of climbing for glory, for the right to tell your friends that you "conquered" Everest, would be quite alien to George Lowe, a man of abundant character, humility and honesty. In her afterword, Jan Morris, who covered the expedition for the Times and broke the news of the successful ascent just in time for the Coronation, writes: "In an age when the very word is going out of fashion, he is a gentleman". Like the title of this marvellous book, a product of his time. But the Conquest of Everest? George sums it up with a words from Wilfrid Noyce, a member of the 1953 expedition who perished in a Himalayan climbing accident less than a decade later: "Men we descend, Conquerors never."