Alfred Gregory: Official photographer on the 1953 Everest expedition

Alfred Gregory was official photographer to the British expedition which made the first ascent of Everest in 1953. He joined the team on the strength of his climbing, as well as his camera skills, and on the eve of Hillary's and Tenzing's historic climb he carried a load to Camp Nine, which was perched precariously 8,424 metres above sea level, higher than any person had camped before.

Greg, as he was universally known, liked occasionally to point out the differences between the predominantly upper middle class, public school milieu of the 1953 team and what he described as his working class background. In fact, his father owned a successful grocery business in Blackpool. Nevertheless, Greg's childhood was quite tough, as his father was killed in the First World War, when Greg was only three, leaving his mother to bring up the children alone while struggling to keep the grocery business afloat through the Depression.

On leaving school Greg was apprenticed into the printing trade but he managed, with the help of the new Youth Hostel Association, to escape regularly to the hills, first bicycling, then taking up hill-walking and climbing. By the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 26, he had managed to travel abroad for three alpine seasons.

During the War he served with the Black Watch in North Africa and Italy. Despite rising to the rank of major, he was delighted to see his war end early with the successful conclusion of the Italian campaign. Free to roam in 1945, he spent a happy summer climbing among the deserted summits of the Alps. In 1946, after demobilisation, he set up his own travel business, specialising in guided alpine climbing. He got to know many local alpine guides, such as the famous Chamonix star, Louis Lachenal, but it was only in 1952 that he was invited by R.L.G. Irving, the Winchester schoolmaster who had introduced George Mallory to mountaineering, to join the Alpine Club.

This venerable London institution, founded by pioneering amateurs in 1857, was still, according to Greg, wary of professionals in 1952: "it was almost impossible to join the AC if you had the stigma of 'guide', so I had to keep very quiet about that." Guide or not, his experience was valued by the establishment and that summer he was asked to join Eric Shipton's expedition to Cho Oyu.

Cho Oyu was really a training exercise for Everest. The previous year Shipton's reconnaissance had discovered a possible new southern route up the world's highest peak from Nepal, but the Swiss meanwhile had booked the mountain for 1952. By way of consolation, the British were given the sixth highest peak Cho Oyu. They made little impression on this objective, as the only feasible route lay in Chinese-occupied Tibet; instead they enjoyed a feast of exploration, roaming wide over the then untrodden wilds of the Nepalese frontier, crossing passes and climbing numerous smaller peaks. They also carried out invaluable physiological research. And they welded themselves into an effective high altitude team, just hoping that the Swiss would fail on Everest that year, leaving the prize open for 1953.

The Swiss did fail, narrowly, and in the autumn of 1952 planning started for a British and Commonwealth attempt in 1953, with Brigadier John Hunt appointed as leader in a surprise – and initially resented – replacement for Eric Shipton. Greg was a natural choice for the team and when it came to his special responsibilities, as he recalled, "John Hunt looked around and said, 'Now who knows a bit about photography? Ah – Greg seems to take good pictures.'"

Greg was already a keen amateur photographer with his own Contax 35mm camera. Promoted to official expedition photographer, he went to see Karl Maydens, one of the leading photojournalists of the day, at Life magazine. Maydens gave him another Contax and asked Greg what lenses he would like. 'I said I'd have a 50mm and a 125mm lens. No wide angle! I just didn't appreciate how big these mountains really were. Still, I think I managed OK." In addition to that modest equipment, he took a medium format Rolleiflex and two lightweight fixed lens Kodak Retina 2 cameras for use above 8,000 metres.

And that was it. None of these cameras had a built-in exposure meter, so at first all his exposures were calculated with a separate Weston Master meter. However, he quickly learned to judge the dazzling high-altitude light and soon found that he could predict exposure perfectly without the meter. He also didn't bother with bracketing – hedging bets with multiple incrementally varied exposures – so shot a fraction of the film which would be used on a modern expedition.

The results of this crash course in professional photography include some of the 20th century's most evocative images: goggled Sherpas balancing heavily laden across ladders spanning immense crevasses; baggy-trousered Charterhouse schoolmaster Wilfrid Noyce leading another heavily-laden team up the silent white valley of the Western Cwm; Hillary and Tenzing smiling triumphantly with enamel mugs of lemonade, safely down after their triumphant climb; and, three days earlier, the classic shot of the two men, on their way up, heading for that ledge where they would sleep higher than any man had slept before.

Hillary carried over 60lb of oxygen and equipment on the final leg to that top camp at 8,424 metres and Tenzing was almost as heavily burdened; the summit pair could never have established the camp without additional help from Ang Nyima, George Lowe and Alfred Gregory. In later years Hillary would grumble testily that Greg was a shirker, reluctant to pull his weight. However, on the day when it really mattered, 28 May 1953, Greg carried his vital load and took his photos. For the only member of the team other than Hunt to have passed his 40th birthday, it was a fine effort.

Everest consolidated Greg's photographic talent: as he put it later, "I went to Everest an amateur and came back a pro." Kodak took him on as a freelance lecturer and he packed halls for 20 years. He broadened his horizons, taking on new projects such as photographing the life of his old home town, Blackpool, with one of the first Nikon single lens reflex cameras. He also consolidated his travel business, now called Alfred Gregory Holidays, leading clients year after year on treks through Nepal and other mountainous areas.

He also led two serious mountaineering expeditions. The first, the 1955 Merseyside Himalayan Expedition, continued where Eric Shipton had left off in 1952, mapping the Rolwaling region to the west of Everest, and climbing 19 summits, including Parchamo, nowadays a popular objective for commercial treks. The other expedition, in 1958, was an attempt on Distaghil Sar, one of the highest mountains in the Karakoram range of northern Pakistan, which was unsuccessful due to excessive avalanche risk.

Greg never retired. Travel, adventure and photography remained lifelong passions, shared with his wife Sue, who he insisted was the better photographer. For many years their base was the Derbyshire village of Elton, where guests were always welcomed with an "Eltonian" – a generously strong gin cocktail of Greg's devising. Then in 1993 they emigrated to Australia to explore a whole new continent, developing a particular passion for the aboriginal rock art of Western Australia. Although Greg never rested on his laurels, and was always seeking new inspiration, he did remain proud of the part he played on Everest, and in 2003, at the age of 90, he was pleased to see his Everest photos exhibited to great acclaim at London's National Theatre.

Stephen Venables

Alfred Gregory, mountaineer and photographer: born Blackpool 1913; married Suzanne; died near Melbourne 9 February 2010.

scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fund, London

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fu...

Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Multicast, Low Latency

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Mul...

Network Infrastructure Engineer

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Infrastructure Engineer (...

Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Multicast)

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Mult...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition