Obituary: Lord Hunt

Stephen Venables,Sir Chris Bonington
Tuesday 10 November 1998 01:02

THE DEFINING moment of John Hunt's life was his leadership of the 1953 Everest expedition when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of the world's highest peak. Hunt will always be remembered for Everest, but his qualities of warmth, humour and kindness, tempered by shrewd judgement and prodigious organisational skills, left their mark far beyond the world of mountaineering, in a long, distinguished career as soldier, explorer and statesman.

He was born in India in 1910, into a family with a strong military tradition. In later life he was rather apologetic about following what seemed a predestined path from Marlborough College to Sandhurst, where he passed out first with the King's Gold Medal, before returning to India in 1931, as an officer with the King's Royal Rifles.

However, beneath the surface conformity there was already a simmering of liberal idealism. Seconded to the Bengal police to help suppress terrorism, he grew increasingly sympathetic towards the enemy within, sympathising with the aspirations of the Indian independence movement. He even presented his officers with a treatise entitled I Am a Revolutionary, explaining his belief that potential criminals should be caught young and diverted from violence by alternative challenges and responsibilities; many years later he was to pursue this theme in the House of Lords, as a campaigner for penal reform.

The young officer had little time for the social routine of the mess, later describing himself at this time as "a bit of a misfit and a loner". Whenever possible, he escaped on leave to the freedom of the Himalaya. There were bold skiing trips to Kashmir that bordered on the reckless, several expeditions to the mountains of Sikkim and, in 1935, a determined attempt on Saltoro Kangri, one of the great unclimbed summits of the Karakoram range, in what is now Pakistan.

On the strength of that experience, Hunt applied to join the 1936 Everest expedition, but was turned down because of a faint heart murmur - not the first time that a very fit, experienced mountaineer had failed the Everest medical. Perhaps by way of consolation, in 1937 Hunt joined a highly successful exploratory expedition in Sikkim, making a solo ascent of one of Kangchenjunga's satellite peaks, reaching over 7,000 metres in the blasting cold winds of November.

The Sikkim expedition included Joy Mowbray-Green, whom Hunt had married in 1936. A former Wimbledon champion, she was a natural athlete and became a competent climber, sharing many of Hunt's mountain expeditions.

The Second World War put an end to Himalayan climbing but Hunt tried to direct his mountain experience towards the allied effort. He organised "toughening courses" in North Wales. Talking about the experiment recently he recalled, "It was a revelation how you could throw all ranks together and the thing worked like a charm - first name terms, which was quite extraordinary in 1941."

Despite the success of the scheme, his plea for mountain-trained troops where they were really needed - in the tough terrain of the Italian Appenines - fell mainly on deaf ears, but while serving in Italy he managed at least to train his soldiers in the rudiments and began to score some success against the formidable German 5th Mountain Division. After months under heavy enemy fire, he was awarded the DSO before being posted to Greece, where he was appointed CBE in 1945 for his work in the civil war.

After the war Hunt served in Palestine, at Staff College and then at Allied Forces headquarters at Fontainebleau. A mediator and diplomat by inclination, he was at times embarrassed by Montgomery's handling of the recently humiliated French generals. By contrast, Hunt himself was a confirmed Francophile and made many lasting friendships at this time, particularly with some of the leading Parisian mountaineers, whom he would join for weekends on the famous sandstone outcrops in the Forest of Fontainebleau.

In all probability Hunt's distinguished military career would have continued uninterrupted if the Joint Everest Committee of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club had not decided, in the autumn of 1952, to sack Eric Shipton, the man who was to have led the 1953 summit attempt. There was a feeling that Shipton, doyen of Himalayan explorers, lacked the thrusting determination and attention to logistic detail to maximise the chance of success, whereas Hunt, despite being relatively unknown in the climbing world, had those qualities in abundance.

For the rest of his life, Hunt remained embarrassed at the way Shipton (whose achievements he praised at every opportunity) was ousted into comparative obscurity; but at the time the leadership was a fantastic opportunity that he embraced with energy and enthusiasm. Most remarkable was Hunt's ability to win over the loyalty of Shipton's embryonic team, most of whom were initially hostile to the new leader. He had the wisdom to accept their recommendation to include the two New Zealanders Edmund Hillary and George Lowe, whose strength and experience were to prove so crucial on the day, and on meeting them for the first time in Kathmandu, he immediately made them feel welcome in the new, expanded team.

Talking recently about Hunt's leadership, Lowe commented, "He was a very, very organised leader. He managed to get across the military ideal of teamwork and to get us to agree that the only way to climb the mountain was by a co-operative effort. This had not been the case on some of the pre-war expeditions." Of course, each man, the leader included, had his own personal hopes of getting to the top, but in the end Hunt decided to restrict himself to a support role, carrying a load to about 8,300 metres above sea level, on the eve of Hillary and Tenzing's summit climb.

When success was announced on Coronation Day, 29 May 1953, the sheer scale of jubilant acclaim took the team quite by surprise. For the leader, fame undoubtedly opened doors, although he did at first return to his military career, attaining the rank of brigadier, before he was asked by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1956 to set up and run the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards Scheme. Rather like his French friend Maurice Herzog, who said after the first ascent of Annapurna that "there are other Annapurna in the lives of men", Hunt believed passionately that the Everest story had a message for everyone, that the spirit of adventure could enhance all lives, particularly those of the young.

In 1966 Hunt was made a life peer and chose to join the cross-benches, later becoming a founder member of the SDP. In 1967 he was at an international climbing meet in the icy wilderness of the Yukon, when a message arrived from Roy Jenkins, asking him to chair the new Parole Board. After retiring from that post he remained a champion of penal reform in the Lords and devoted much to time other organisations, such as the Intermediate Treatment Fund, which tries to find alternatives to custody for young offenders. Other government appointments included taking part in a mission to Biafra and sitting on the Advisory Committee on Police in Northern Ireland.

The mountains remained an important backdrop to all this demanding committee work. Hunt led joint Soviet-British expeditions to the Caucasus and to the Pamirs. He was a president of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club and was instrumental, through the profits from his best-selling book The Ascent of Everest (1953) in setting up the Mount Everest Foundation, which still supports expeditions all around the world.

In the arcane world of mountain training, he strove to ensure that this specialist skill should remain under the control of mountaineers and not be subsumed under the control of educationists. At reunions and festivals all around the world, he continued to climb and trek whenever he got the chance, most recently in 1993, when he made a 40th anniversary trek back to Everest base camp.

For a man who started life as a rather serious, shy loner, he became remarkably gregarious and chose to call his autobiography Life is Meeting (1978). He seemed genuinely to enjoy other people's company, whatever age they were. In the hills, although he clearly felt something of that mystical feeling for wild places that to some extent must inspire all mountaineers, you got the feeling that it was the quality of the human company which, for him, really gave the experience meaning.

Called upon to sit through countless dinners and ceremonies and give endless speeches, he always took the trouble to be eloquent and witty and the jokes were invariably at his own expense. Despite all the honours he retained an endearing sense of humility. He was devoted to his family and cherished by that other family - the small band of climbers who made history on Everest 45 years ago.

Stephen Venables

John Hunt has been a role model, mentor and friend for these last 25 years, writes Sir Chris Bonington. He was chairman of my management committee on the 1975 Everest South West Face Expedition, but even before that he provided me with the blueprint of how to run an expedition. His leadership of the 1953 Everest Expedition was undoubtedly the key factor to its success. He adopted a combination of meticulous military logistic planning and a very open inspirational style of leadership that not only took them to the summit, but made for a very happy expedition. The entire team met regularly ever since to celebrate their friendship as much as the success of the climb.

I have also been involved in many of the causes that he has championed over the years. After leaving the Army in 1956 he became the first Director of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, helping to lay the foundations of this immensely successful scheme. He was also the first President of the Council for National Parks, a position that I now hold. He always took a supportive interest in our work and regularly wrote or phoned me with advice.

Just a few days ago I received a privately produced book of John Hunt's speeches in the House of Lords. The breadth of subject matter, encompassing youth, the environment, Northern Ireland, penal policy and the Nigerian civil war, demonstrate just how wide his interests were. Although Mount Everest provided him with a springboard, he went on to achieve and contribute so much to society in many different ways.

Henry Cecil John Hunt, mountaineer: born 22 June 1910; DSO 1944; CBE 1945; Leader, British Expedition to Mount Everest 1952-53; Kt 1953; President, National Association of Youth Clubs 1954-70; President, Alpine Club 1956- 58; Director, Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme 1956-66; created 1966 Baron Hunt; Chairman, Parole Board for England and Wales 1967-74; President, Council for Volunteers Overseas 1968-74; President, National Association of Parole Officers 1974-80; KG 1979; President, Council for National Parks 1980-86; President, National Association for Outdoor Education 1991-93; married 1936 Joy Mowbray-Green (four daughters); died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 7 November 1998.

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