Peak practice

Michael Ward's `footprints' are all over the Royal Geographical Society's map of Mount Everest. He helped fill in the blanks
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"EVERY mountain has at least one way up it. We reckoned there must be a route up Everest from Nepal," declares Michael Ward, medical officer on the first successful ascent.

Without his efforts, Hillary and Tenzing might not have made it to the world's highest summit on 29 May 1953 (news of this achievement reached Britain in time to enliven the Queen's Coronation). Ward had helped with research that led to the climbers doubling their flow of oxygen, a technique which was particularly effective on those final 1,000 feet. He had also gone on a reconnaissance in 1951 which revealed that, despite the doubts of an Anglo-American trekking party during the previous year, there was a way to the top of the 29,000ft mountain.

Michael Ward, who is 70 today, is agile, with tanned features and a quiff of grey hair (think Samuel Beckett but alive and healthy). The retired consultant surgeon can be found in the Encylopaedia Britannica, which lists him as part of the winning team on its away match in the Himalayas. But he has also left his mark - albeit unacknowledged - elsewhere: his footprints, as it were, are all over the Royal Geographical Society's map of the Mount Everest Region. This is known in the trade as the "Holland" map, not of course, because it covers the Netherlands but because it was compiled by the late RGS draughtsman George Holland.

References to Everest go back to around AD750, when it was known as Chomolungma and credited with being one of the peaks which stopped the sky from falling down. Despite this, it did not feature on any map until 1707; since either Nepal or Tibet or both were liable to be no-go areas, this patch of the Nepal-Tibet border could have been a Yeti Theme Park for all anyone knew.

There was even some dispute about where Everest actually was. An 1855 painting was entitled Gaurisankar or Everest, as if the two were the same; they weren't - and the peak in the picture was neither, being in fact Makalu. In 1951, when Ward was doing his national service in the Guards, he decided to make the most of the opening of the Nepalese border by personally filling in some of the cartographical blanks in the region. "I had a lot of time on my hands as a regimental medical officer," he recalls.

With three other keen fellow-climbers he decided to make a reconnaissance. First he hunted through the RGS archives and found thousands of photographs taken on expeditions in the Twenties and Thirties from Tibet and on flights (some clandestine) over the Himalayas.

"I bumped into someone who said that Henry Milne, the chief cartographer, was working on a map of Everest at home. I had a copy made of this and took it on the 1951 expedition. I still have that copy. On our reconnaissance, when we had confirmed that there was a route to the summit, we did a lot of exploration and mapping."

Cartography held no terrors for Ward: "Surgeons, of all medical people, are interested in maps." He shows me a diagram in which arteries are twined about the body like flyovers at Spaghetti Junction. "That's a map," he declares.

His reconnaissance party concentrated on the area to the west of the summit, on which Milne's map had more blanks: "I did some compass-traversing; you take bearings on distant mountains and estimate distances." Another method of pinning down the landscape is to take 360-degree photographs from a peak whose position is already charted.

After surveying Gaurisankar (the Everest impostor) they were able to put a whole mountain on the map. To the west of Everest, it was unknown, un-named. They christened it Menlungtse; "Menlung" is the stream which springs to life on its slopes, and "tse" is Tibetan for "peak".

Although that particular mountain is just off the Holland map, much of the rest of their research was incorporated when it was published in 1961. Their findings had a more immediate use - in pointing the 1953 expedition in the right direction.

When Hillary descended from his successful assault on the summit, Ward was waiting at Camp Four on the 22,000ft-high West Cwm, where he conducted a full clinical examination of the mountaineer. Afterwards he continued research into mountaineering medicine while carrying on with his day job as a surgeon in the East End of London.

Should you in the intervening years have seen anyone pedalling away on an exercise bike 25,000-ft up a mountain, that would have been Ward, assessing oxygen uptake via his ergometer. His last expedition was in 1987 but he still continues to publish his research, most recently as co-author of High Altitude Medicine and Physiology (Chapman & Hall, £69).

Today the RGS is well provided with Everest maps, both historical and up-to-date. The Holland map shown here is the 1975 edition, a slightly more colourful version than its 1961 predecessor. It is still on sale. Michael Ward finds a copy at the Royal Geographical Society and I buy it for a fiver, which is a bargain, considering that it contains "Sagarmatha, Mother of the Universe".

Jonathan Sale