Michael Ward

1953 Everest expedition doctor who declared it a victory for science
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The Independent Online

Ferreting in the photographic archives of the Royal Geographical Society in early 1951, a national serviceman in the Royal Army Medical Corps came across two unmarked brown envelopes. Inside were photographs taken on clandestine flights over Everest in 1945 and 1947, revealing key features of the Nepal side of the mountain, including the South Col and the awkward cliff just below the summit that would later become known as the "Hillary Step".

Michael Ward, the young medic, had discovered a vital link in a chain of evidence that convinced him this was the way to the as yet unvisited top of the world. The 1945 photographs, taken from a Mosquito XIX aircraft of 684 Squadron, showed there was "no unsurmountable difficulty" along the whole of the route from the Western Cwm to the summit - almost 3,000 metres in height difference but entirely on snow.

The big Everest expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s had all been from the Tibet side of the mountain while, until 1949, Nepal had kept its doors firmly closed to foreigners. Ward examined some 3,000 photographs, taken by the early expeditions from vantage points along the border and by the 1933 Houston-Westland "Flight over Everest". Crucially, he also unearthed a map compiled from the 1933 photographs and a 1935 photogrammetric survey that had lain unconsidered in the RGS archive. Known of by only a couple of people, the Milne-Hinks map depicted with accuracy both the Nepalese and Tibetan side of the mountain for the first time.

Ward had found the key to the ascent of Everest, for it was by exactly this route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would climb to the 8,850m summit on the 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt. Ward was the expedition doctor and also a full member of the climbing team, reaching about 7,600m on the Lhotse Face.

Finding the key in the RGS map room was, however, a long way from unlocking the door to the mountain. Not least there was the problem of the Khumbu icefall, the contorted rampart of tottering ice cliffs that bars the entrance to the Western Cwm. But Ward had seen enough in the RGS map room to be convinced he must put his theory to the test.

Michael Ward first came under the spell of Everest at the age of about 12 when he read a library book, Frank Smythe's account of the 1933 expedition, Camp Six (1937). He read it more than once. Three years later, while on holiday in Grindelwald, he climbed the Wetterhorn, with guides and a Dutch family.

Much of Michael's childhood was spent apart from his parents, living with guardians in the village of Underriver, near Sevenoaks. His father, Wilfrid Ward, was in the Malayan Civil Service and was interned for six years by the Japanese after the surrender of Singapore. His mother escaped on one of the last boats to leave the port and rented a cottage in the Cotswolds where Michael would visit her during the holidays. Prep school was followed by Marlborough College, where the climbing bug was nurtured by a housemaster, Edwin Kempson, who had been on Everest in 1935 and 1936. Ward's reserved nature might have stemmed from this emotionally detached upbringing.

After two years at Peterhouse, Cambridge, he took his Natural Sciences Tripos and started clinical medicine at the London Hospital. The East End was to remain his place of work until retirement in 1993 after almost 30 years as a consultant surgeon at St Andrew's, Bow, and also, latterly, at Newham Hospital. For almost 20 years he was also a lecturer in Clinical Surgery at the London Hospital Medical College. Ward believed strongly in the National Health Service and eschewed the lure of Harley Street, where his tanned, matinée looks would have been entirely in keeping.

Through the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club, Ward discovered the joys of rock climbing in North Wales and the rigours of Ben Nevis and the Highlands in winter. In 1946, he had a successful season in the Swiss Alps, but the following year fell some 200m while descending the Col de Coste-Rouge in the Ecrin mountains of south-east France. Stone fall was the cause of the accident. Ward and the Scottish climber Bill Murray both suffered fractured skulls - Ward lost all memory until he awoke in hospital - but their companion John Barford was killed.

It was to Murray that Ward turned following his discoveries in the archive of the Royal Geographical Society. The idea was for a reconnaissance expedition up Nepal's Khumbu valley to prospect a route into the Western Cwm. At first the mountaineering establishment, in the form of the Himalayan Committee, was sceptical, swayed by the verdict of Bill Tilman who had reached the Khumbu glacier in 1950. "Impossible. No route," he had told Murray.

Eventually the committee (a joint body of the RGS and Alpine Club) acquiesced and The Times stepped in with sponsorship. Murray was to be leader but stood aside when the more experienced Eric Shipton returned from a consular post in China. Ward had invited a strong young rock climber, Tom Bourdillon, on to the team and out in Nepal they were joined by two New Zealanders, Edmund Hillary and Earle Riddiford.

Ward, in his memoir In This Short Span (1972), describes being "overwhelmed" by the scale of the Everest group and did not enjoy his first foray into the glacier with Bourdillon. "To carry loads up this way was to have a glimpse into purgatory," he wrote. Others were luckier and it became clear that the icefall could be breached, though Shipton balked at the prospect of sending porters repeatedly through such an unstable labyrinth.

On 28 October, the whole team ascended the icefall and stood on the lip of the Western Cwm. The door was almost open, but still barring the way was a crevasse some 20m wide stretching from one side of the cwm to the other. Next year a Swiss expedition would come, equipped with ladders, and almost steal a prize that the British somehow assumed was theirs by right.

After leaving the icefall, the recce party set out for some agreeable exploration of the Mengluntse area (their name), to the west of the Khumbu, in the course of which Shipton, Ward and Sen Tensing found and photographed a set of footprints that has aroused intense interest ever since. Tensing declared them immediately to be those of a yeti. Ward seems, from his accounts, to have kept his scientist's open mind on the existence of such a being, but was seriously offended by "unworthy speculation" that the story of tracks was a practical joke and the prints enhanced by Shipton.

When Ward heard the Swiss had got in first with permission for Everest in 1952 he was "incandescent with rage" at the incompetence of the Himalayan Committee. However in retrospect it proved a blessing. The Swiss didn't make it, yet in reaching within 250 metres of the summit Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay broke down huge psychological barriers. At the same time the British were able to work out the physiological problems of high-altitude climbing on an expedition to Cho Oyu.

Ward firmly believed that the main reason for success on Everest in 1953 was that the British had at last got the science right, and for this he gave particular credit to Dr Griffith Pugh, a field physiologist from the Medical Research Council attached to both the Cho Oyu and 1953 expeditions. Pugh tackled problems of oxygen uptake, acclimatisation, dehydration, diet, the right clothing and efficient stoves. Ward declared him to be "the one indispensable member of the team" but this intense championing of science rather irritated other Everesters who believed success was at least as much due to Hunt's meticulous planning and skilful leadership - or the drive and ambition of Hillary and Tenzing.

On the mountain itself, Ward was critical of Hunt's decision to lead the team that was to establish the top camp, believing he was too old and exhausted to go so high. But this reasonable opinion for a medical officer - and Hunt did look pretty awful at this stage - was probably coloured with disappointment that he, as doctor, would not be at the sharp end of the climb. In the event, Hunt performed very well, carrying vital supplies to 8,335m. Ward had reached a high point of about 7,600m on the Lhotse Face, before his legs buckled "in the peculiarly jelly-like fashion of a drunkard's walk", and, though he returned to almost the same height in much better shape, during the final push he was on duty in the cwm as doctor.

After Everest, Ward focused on qualifying as a surgeon rather than joining his companions on the lecture circuit. Not for him the "the adulatory cheers of audiences". In 1957 he married Jane Ewbank, who worked in the fashion world. She had no connections with medicine nor any desire to take up climbing, a disposition that Ward regarded as an ideal counterbalance to his own obsessions.

He developed a special interest in high-altitude physiology and while wintering at 5,800m on the "Silver Hut" scientific expedition in 1960-61 made an unofficial first ascent of Ama Dablam (6,828m), the so-called "Matterhorn of the Khumbu" and a big number on any climber's CV. A request to go to Bhutan to give the king some medical advice led to exploratory journeys into the remote north of the country. He traversed Tibet and in 1981 was official leader of the successful British Mount Kongur Expedition, the 7,719m summit being reached by Peter Boardman, Chris Bonington, Al Rouse and Joe Tasker.

Elected to the Alpine Club in 1952, Ward was made an honorary member in 1993 and was a regular contributor to the Alpine Journal, with scholarly articles on such things as the native explorers - Pundits - of the Survey of India. He was also the author of many scientific and medical papers on the effects of great altitude and exposure to cold.

He was joint author of an important textbook, High Altitude Medicine and Physiology (1989, third edition 2000), and two years ago had the satisfaction of seeing publication of Everest: a thousand years of exploration, beautifully produced, a mine of information, and Michael Ward's last defiant word on how the scientists were the real heroes of Everest.

Stephen Goodwin