The received picture of the 1953 British Everest expedition is of a seamless triumph, to make up for the earlier failures of the 1920s and 1930s. Mick Conefrey's groundbreaking new book reveals how far from seamless it actually was.
John Hunt's first summit team of two British climbers failed, partly due to his poor positioning of their final camp. Hillary and Tenzing were the foreign back-up, and were only given their chance because the New Zealander and Sherpa had proved such a formidable load-carrying team on the approach. Tenzing had come close to summiting the mountain in 1952 with the Swiss, and would have been equally happy to have done so with them. Now he was simply finishing the job.
What really made the ascent possible was phenomenal luck with the weather and the reconnaissance work done by Eric Shipton. With his unruly hair and brilliantly written books, Shipton was the most charismatic mountaineer of his generation. When the Himalayan committee dumped him as leader in the most brutal possible way to make way instead for John Hunt, they were signalling a change of attitude.
Shipton had taken part in most British expeditions to Everest over the previous two decades. It was he who had suggested the successful south-western approach to the mountain; he who recruited both Tenzing and Hillary; and he who led a team in 1951 to establish a tenable route. But he also exemplified a romantic, slightly cavalier approach to the planning of expeditions.
Hunt brought a more military approach. and proved a capable leader who inspired great affection. Everest 1953 is excellent on the emotions that swirled around the expedition. The hero of the story is the modest and down-to-earth Ed Hillary: he pretended they had got there together; in fact, he had been the first man on top of the world.
Conefrey has written a magnificent book that deserves to become the definitive version. We cannot hope for a more human, funny or meticulous account of what was a very British expedition.
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