on 2 June 2013
Among the flurry of new titles that accompanied last month's 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest, one modest little volume is sure to endear itself to aficionados of mountaineering history. Letters from Everest might be seen as a companion volume to The Conquest of Everest, published earlier in the month, in that both books record the contribution made to the success of the expedition by one man in particular, George Lowe, and are edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones. But where Conquest, with its dramatic photography and coffee table format, is very much an "event" book, Letters is altogether lower key, but in many ways better epitomises its author.
Sadly, George Lowe passed away earlier this year, only weeks before the landmark anniversary. With the publication of Conquest and recent interest in the events of the spring of 1953, George's role in putting his friend Edmund Hillary on the summit with Tenzing Norgay is more widely acknowledged. Letters from Everest collects his private letters from 1953, beginning with his arrival in Bombay at the end of February, and ending in Delhi three months later. Some of the text will be familiar to readers of Conquest, having been quoted in that book, but most is previously unpublished in any format. At a time when the immediacy of email and Twitter could not even be imagined, George's letters would take weeks to reach his sister Betty in New Zealand. Betty would then painstakingly reproduce her brother's words by hand, in case the original should go astray, then enlist a local lady to type additional copies for distribution to George's friends and family. This circle of admirers eventually grew to more than 20 people. Mindful that he is writing for a wider audience, George is careful to offer advice on how to prevent leakage of Everest news, and charmingly includes an apology to his mother for his repeating some earthy language verbatim.
The action on the mountain is prefaced by letters from India and Nepal. In Bombay George is kept busy dealing with customs officials and being entertained by captivated ex-pat hosts; it seems that in post-imperial India the "old boy" network is still alive and well. On arrival in Katmandu (sic), he meets the rest of the team for the first time and embarks on the long approach march to the foot of the mountain (George takes delight in describing the topography and flora and fauna of the region). Once installed at their initial base camp at Thyangboche monastery, the team engages in a meticulously documented series of acclimatisation runs to ready themselves for work at high altitude, as well as test their new-fangled oxygen equipment (which passes not without dramatic incident). At last, on 20th April, the job of placing supplies and infrastructure on Everest in preparation for the summit bid begins.
The careful choreography of the ascent, via the now well-trodden route of Khumbu ice-fall, Western Cwm, Lhotse Wall and South Col, is familiar to Everest historians. In Letters we have a first-hand, real-time account of these events, documented with unflagging attention to detail. A retrospective account of a successful expedition will inevitably be informed by the knowledge that the objective was eventually achieved, whereas George's narrative is tinged with an uncertainty that lends it a palpable tension. At times the chances of success look bleak. At best, progress was tortuously slow, and notwithstanding the use of supplemental oxygen the climbers worked in a constant fog of exhaustion. In his "tangled account" from Advance Base Camp on 22nd May - his last before his colleagues reached the summit a week later - he relates how the group had become despondent and demoralised after two days where nothing seemed to go right. Fortunately, literally as he wrote, "17 people like ants [were] crawling across the traverse to the South Col... What a triumph!" The big push to the summit was on; but at that point George did not know how important a part he was to play.
At times the events described in the letters descend into comic farce: the botched slaughter of a yak high on the glacier ("the Sherpas were up a hill - at a safe distance - clicking their tongues at the inexperience and cruel handling done by the sahibs"), some benign teasing of expedition physiologist and resident boffin Dr Griffith Pugh, and especially the pantomime of the expedition's return to Kathmandu, where the harmonious coexistence of the close-knit team while on the mountain contrasts sharply with attempts by others to make political capital of the event. We read tales of journalistic skulduggery (plus ça change...), as dastardly rival newspapermen try to wrestle the news of the successful ascent away from the Times correspondent James (now Jan) Morris (who prefaces the book) by any means. It's pure Carry On Up The Khumbu.
What shines from the pages of this book is George Lowe's sheer joy at being part of this mighty endeavour. The expedition seems to have been a very happy affair, with an almost total absence of conflict between "the boys", all "excellent types, easy to get along with and most useful anywhere on a mountain". George's respect for his leader - and future father-in-law - John Hunt is clear as he praises him again and again his organisational skills ("if organisation counts for anything Everest is already conquered"), charisma and selflessness. Hunt had taken on the position of expedition leader following the dismissal of the popular and experienced Eric Shipton, who had led the previous year's Everest reconnaissance trip and whose shoes were no doubt very difficult to fill. While he nonetheless commanded respect verging on veneration in his team, the stress of worrying about the possibility of failure must have weighed on him immensely, and he drove himself to the very limits of exhaustion in the execution of his duties. According to George's letter describing his descent from the mountain with the summit pair of Tenzing and Hillary, this embodiment of the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman cried tears of relief among some "rather un-English scenes of emotion".
Many of George Lowe's letters run to many pages: all contain an extraordinary degree of detail. One should consider that they were all written by hand (a facsimile of one of the letters shows George's sweeping, assured script), often in the least hospitable of conditions, with the shrieking wind snatching at the tent walls and the temperature far below freezing; warming his biro in his sleeping bag beforehand was a necessity. In this age of instantaneous communication the custom of letter writing has sadly all but died out, and it is easy for the modern reader to ask: why did he bother? In effect, the letters serve two purposes: one can imagine that George's family back in New Zealand would have been thrilled to receive the latest news from their boy, but the fact that he retained the originals after the event suggests they were also his diary of the expedition. And as Huw Lewis-Jones points out in his introduction, both George Lowe and Ed Hillary wrote home in case either never returned to tell the tale.
Happily the expedition was a great success. The objective was reached, and all returned safely. Of late, enough words (more than enough, probably) have been dedicated to comparing the pristine, virginal Everest of the nineteen-fifties with the blemished and overcrowded cash cow she has become, so let's not dwell on that. Letters to Everest is a ripping yarn from another era, told with palpable delight by a young New Zealander who simply can't believe his luck at being at the very heart of it.
A final word, if I may. You can buy Letters from Everest in electronic format. Take my advice: don't. Quite apart from the joy of the words within, it's a beautifully designed and bound little book, and the asking price of £12 is less than you would pay for most paperbacks these days. As a first outing, it augurs well for Polarworld's new Silverbear imprint, and looks as good on the bookshelf as it feels to the hand. On this point I'd like to think that George and I would agree.