But for an avalanche that killed seven men in 1922, Sir Edmund Hillary might have been no more than a Kiwi beekeeper, dreaming of adventure.
Twelve doctors, military men, and a teacher by the name of George Mallory, set off on the British Everest Expedition of 1922, the first adventure with the express intention of reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain. They were also the first to carry bottled oxygen. The group made three separate attempts to reach the summit, the final one being led by Mallory, the author of the oft-repeated quote, “Because it’s there.” But his path up soft snow near the mountain’s summit caused an avalanche that killed seven Tibetan and Nepalese porters, and the expedition was abandoned
At the closing ceremony of the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, the expedition's deputy leader Lieutenant Colonel Edward Strutt received gold medals for the entire group, for “Alpinisme” by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games. Lieutenant Colonel Strutt pledged there and then to return to the summit with the medals. Four months later, Mr Mallory was dead, somewhere near the summit of the mountain, his body only discovered in 1999. Whether he reached the summit remains unknown. The answer almost certainly lies is in his camera, which remains hidden on the mountain.
Nearly ninety years on, the pledge to return the gold medals to the summit is about to be fulfilled. British explorer Kenton Cool tracked down the family of Arthur Wakefield, one of the expedition’s medics, now living in Canada. “Arthur Wakefield’s Olympic Medal is waiting for you in Toronto wrapped in a flame red silk handkerchief”, Mr Wakefield’s grandson told him. In three days time Mr Cool will set off on his tenth journey to the roof of the world, accompanied by adventure cameraman Keith Partridge, from Touching the Void and the BBC's Human Planet.
The pair expect to summit in mid May. Arthur Wakefield’s family have been extraordinarily supportive of the mission, but their priceless heirloom will receive a quite extraordinary level of care.
“It will be kept, wrapped in its red handkerchief, sealed in a waterproof case. It floats. It has its own GPS tracker,” Mr Cool told the Independent. “I will have it blessed by the local lama, in Tibet. The sherpas traditionally carry what’s known as a prayer bag round their necks, in which they keep things that mean a lot to them. One of the sherpas I always travel with carries an eagles claw. I will be keeping Arthur Wakefield’s medal in one of these Buddhist prayer bags.
“I will be giving it back to the family on my return, It is so kind of them to lend it to us.”
The mission is sponsored by one of the London 2012’s top sponsors, Samsung, who are providing the necessary equipment to allow Mr Cool to broadcast live from the summit, the first time it has been done. He also hopes to telephone 2012 chief Lord Coe, while there, to tell him: “We’ve done it.”
Arthur Wakefield was not one of the more celebrated members of the 1922 exhibition. That honour goes especially to Mallory. His death was a great shock to the building excitement around the race to the top of Everest. His funeral at St Paul’s was attended by Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, the entire cabinet, and King George V.
But Mr Wakefield’s role was not to be underestimated. He held daily surgeries for all the expedition and their porters, trying to understand the effects of altitude sickness, which remain in large part a mystery.
Though British, Arthur Wakefield had set up a volunteer army regiment in Newfoundland, Canada, who were decimated when they went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Sommes. His descendants say he was profoundly affected by the horrors that he saw there.
Though several of the 1922 expedition made later attempts on Everest, this will be the first time any of the medals have been taken to the mountain.
When Pierre de Coubertin asked George Mallory, via telegram, if he would be available to attend the closing ceremony in Chamonix and receive the medal himself, he sent a three word response. “Absolutely impossible. Mallory.” He and Brigadier General Chrles G Bruce, the leader of the 1922 expedition were already booked on a boat from Southampton for the fabled 1924 atttempt. When the medals were awarded they were speeding down the coast of Africa.
Though he may not have wished it, Brigadier Bruce was spared the same fate as Mallory. He contracted malaria on a tiger shooting expedition before the summit attempt started. He never returned to Everest.
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