OBITUARY: Sir Charles Evans

Tony Heath
Tuesday 12 December 1995 01:02

When Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing reached the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953, shortly before noon, Charles Evans was recovering from an attempt to reach the top a few days earlier. On 26 May, in company with Tom Bourdillon, another redoubtable mountaineer, Evans had reached a point barely 300ft from the 29,029ft peak in what came to be known as the first assault the expedition made on the mountain.

The pair were on the South Summit and the ultimate peak was clearly visible. But they calculated that the oxygen in their cylinders was about to run out and that there was too little daylight to reach the top and descend safely. Wisely, they turned back; the information they supplied to Hillary and Tenzing proved invaluable.

As the expedition's deputy leader and quartermaster Evans made an enormous contribution. He was a courageous man; during the approach march to the mountain he narrowly escaped death when the undertow of a river dragged him down and threw him against submerged rocks. But he fought his way to safety.

Evans was trained as a surgeon and later became Principal of the University College of North Wales, Bangor. However he will be particularly remembered for his contribution to the exploration of the high places.

One of a small group of promising climbers immediately after the Second World War, he made three visits to Nepal in the years preceding the conquest of Everest. In 1950 he took part in an attempt on Annapurna, reaching a height of 24,000ft. He was a key member of a party which attempted Deo Tibba in 1951 and in 1952 he climbed with Eric Shipton on Cho Oyu. The Everest expedition, an achievement which set the seal on Coronation Year, stands out as one of Evans's greatest achievements. However to many he eclipsed that in 1955 when he led a successful assault on Kangchenjunga, the third highest Himalayan peak, which was climbed for the first time. The summit, said by the people of Sikkim on whose border it stands to be inhabited by gods, was never actually attained. Evans had given an undertaking to Pandit Nehru, the Indian prime minister, that the sacred spot would not be desecrated. He promised not to climb beyond a point five feet short of the summit - a position from which the top could have been reached with ease.

Evans was born in the village of Derwen in North Wales a few days before the end of the First World War. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and University College, Oxford, where he read Medicine. After qualifying in 1943 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to the Far East. During his service he was mentioned in dispatches and acquired an abiding interest in the Himalayas.

On demobilisation in 1947 he became surgical registrar at Liverpool Regional Hospitals. After the Kangchenjunga triumph of 1955 he undertook a number of other Himalayan climbs but his physical abilities began to diminish and when multiple sclerosis was diagnosed his career as one of the world's leading mountaineers drew to a close.

The high places were denied to him, but he regularly attended the reunions of the Everest expedition held every five years at the Pen-y-Gwryd Inn which nestles on the slopes of Snowdon and was the headquarters for the expedition's initial preparations. The inn with its showcase of Everest memorabilia and a panelled "Everest room" is a Mecca for climbers and those who continue to marvel at one of the 20th century's most inspiring feats.

In 1957 Evans, a native Welsh-speaker, became Principal of UCNW, Bangor. He fought his disability with courage but eventually was forced to take to a wheelchair. Bangor was not the most placid of colleges. There were tensions between Welsh-speaking students and their monoglot classmates. In February 1978 the Welsh speakers invaded Evans's office, superglued lecture-room locks and occupied part of the campus, which overlooks the Menai Straits. The occupiers said they were concerned at plans to expand student numbers which they claimed would hasten the "Anglicisation" of the college by attracting more non-Welsh speaking undergraduates. A few days later the files of 3,000 students disappeared and some were later found by police in a public lavatory at Dinas Dinlle, a village on the coast 15 miles away.

Evans's leadership was questioned by some of his staff. In 1979 Dafydd Wigley, the Plaid Cymru MP for Caernarfon, called on the then Education Secretary Shirley Williams to institute a public inquiry into the running of the college, but eventually fences were mended. Evans retired in 1984.

He achieved a string of honours stretching back more than 40 years. He was appointed Hunterian Professor by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1953 and for three years served as president of the Alpine Club. He was awarded the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society in 1954, the Livingstone Medal of the Scottish Geographical Society in 1955 and the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1956. The author of three books - Eye on Everest (1955), On Climbing (1956) and Kangchenjunga - the untrodden peak (1956), he was knighted in 1969. His wife, Nea, also achieved success as a mountaineer.

Tony Heath

Robert Charles Evans, surgeon, mountaineer and university administrator: born Derwen, North Wales 19 October 1918; Surgical Registrar, United Liverpool Hospitals and Liverpool Regional Hospitals 1947-57; Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons, England 1953; Deputy Leader, Mt Everest Expedition 1953; Leader, Kangchenjunga Expedition 1955; Principal, University College of North Wales, Bangor 1958-84; Vice- Chancellor, University of Wales 1965-67, 1971-73; President, Alpine Club 1967-70; Kt 1969; married 1957 Nea Morin (three sons); died Deganwy, North Wales 5 December 1995.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments