The Vulgarity of Success

Murray Sayle

  • Eric Shipton: Everest and Beyond by Peter Steele
    Constable, 290 pp, £18.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 09 478300 4

The one line that everybody knows about why people climb mountains was spoken on a wet night in New York, 17 March 1923. The tall, lean and theatrically handsome George Mallory, clergyman’s son, Winchester and Magdalen College, Oxford, artillery officer on the Western Front, faultless husband and devoted father of three, was on a lecture tour, trying to raise money for the forthcoming all-British attempt (his third) on Mount Everest. Mallory had given his lecture many times. At its end, regularly as snow falls on the Himalaya, someone would get up and ask: ‘But Mr Mallory, why are you trying to climb Mount Everest?’ Mallory had an answer as clean-cut as himself at the ready: ‘We hope to show that the spirit that built the British Empire is not yet dead, coupled with the name of the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society.’ This usually brought polite applause and sometimes a few extra dollars. Like the British, Americans have tended to think of Everest as in some way British, although its summit ridge is the border between Nepal and Tibet, and neither was ever part of the British Empire. Perhaps the name ‘Everest’, suggesting eternal slumber, seems both British and appropriate. Neither the mountain’s Tibetan name, Chomolungma (‘goddess mother of the snows’), nor the Nepali Sagarmatha, preferred by Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India 1830-43, has caught on. At least we have been spared the name of Sir George’s successor, Andrew Waugh, who calculated that Everest, at 29,028 feet and still putting on an inch or so a year, is by a good margin the world’s highest mountain.

On that rainy night in New York, however, something snapped. It was late, Mallory was tired. ‘I could see him getting ready to ask his question,’ he said later. ‘On the spur of the moment I replied: “Because it’s there.” ’ A bored New York Times reporter covering the lecture noted down his answer – or perhaps misheard it, such things have happened – and the news agencies flashed it around the world. Its illogicality has often been noticed – Everest would be even harder to climb if it wasn’t there – but, at some level deeper than logic, Mallory’s reply still resonates with meaning. So, too, does the manner of his death. Mallory raised his money, and the following spring his expedition marched in from the northern, or Tibetan, side of the mountain, Nepal then being shut, even to adventurous imperialists. The weather on Everest that year was unusually favourable. Climbing without supplementary oxygen (pioneered by First World War bomber pilots) Major Edward Norton of the British Army and a London surgeon, Howard Somervell, got to 28,126 feet, less than 900 feet below the summit, at which height the atmosphere holds only a third of the oxygen we breathe at sea level. Four days later Mallory, who was 38, around the peak age for physical endurance, and his friend Andrew Irvine, 22, an Oxford rowing blue, set off with the primitive, heavy oxygen apparatus of the time for a last attempt at the summit, swathed in cloud. Just after noon the clouds briefly cleared. The expedition’s geologist, Noel Odell, looking up from two thousand feet below, saw two tiny figures on the summit ridge, ‘going strong for the top’. ‘Then,’ he related in a famous despatch to the Times, ‘the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.’ Mallory and Irvine were never seen again.

The record books tell us that on 29 May 1953, three days before the coronation of our present beleaguered Queen Elizabeth II, Edmund (later Sir Edmund) Hillary and Namgyal Wangdi, a devoutly Buddhist Sherpa, or poorly-paid professional climber, known by his spiritual title, Tenzing Norgay (‘fortunate follower of religion’), stood on the summit that Mallory and Irvine may, or may not, have reached 29 years earlier. Although this was acclaimed as a British triumph and Tenzing held up an ice-axe flying the Union Jack for the summit photograph, Hillary is in fact a New Zealander, and Tenzing, who died in 1988 loaded with British honours, was a Nepalese. Most of the expedition’s other climbers were British, as was its finance, and its leader, Colonel John Hunt (now Baron Hunt of Lanfair Waterdine and a Knight of the Garter) was on secondment from the British Army. On descending, Ed Hillary, as he is universally known, shouted to his fellow New Zealander George Lowe, another climber of great renown: ‘George, we knocked the bastard off.’ Some sensitive critics have detected in the seeming contrast between Mallory’s gnostic ‘because it’s there’ and his mysterious fate, and Hillary’s Antipodean heartiness, some of the nobility of heroic failure and perhaps a hint of the inescapable vulgarity of success. There is, in fact, a human link between the two adventurers, and rather more to the story. Another old Himalaya hand, Peter Steele, now tells it well, and puts right a longstanding injustice.

Toiling up mountains for sport is, beyond any doubt, a British invention. People who live among mountains – the Sherpas of Nepal, for instance – can see no sense in it. Mountain passes, on the other hand, interest them deeply, for smuggling, trade, evading the law and other useful activities. It was by the passes around Everest that the Sherpa people, Tibetans in language and religion, reached Nepal. Even Europeans who think they understand the British have wondered why Edward Whymper took the trouble to make the first recorded ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. ‘For reasons which are obscure,’ Eric Hobsbawm CH has noted cattily, ‘such strenuous activities amid inspiring scenery appealed particularly to Anglo-Saxon professional men of liberal leanings (perhaps the close company of tough and handsome native guides had something to do with it).’ For whatever reason, the ever-expanding Victorian empire brought many mountains of respectable height within British purview, and also bred people, British in outlook and adventurous by disposition, who felt at home almost anywhere in its world-wide expanse – except in class-riven, social-mountaineering Britain itself. Kipling was one; another was Eric Shipton, born in 1907 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, son of a tea planter who died before Eric was three. His formidable mother took the boy around Ceylon and South India and then, at eight, brought him ‘home’ to be educated into a proper Englishman.

Shipton, his friend Steele reports, was dyslexic. Dyslexia is neither a disease nor a deformity, but a mismatch of the normal range of neural interconnections between our short and long-term memories and the more irrational systems of spelling, English being by far the worst. Dyslexics have to climb their own Everest, in childhood, by finding ways to decode written words that they are unable to sound out, a feat that their schoolfellows can accomplish with no more than normal difficulty. The result for dyslexics is often low self-esteem and poor achievement. There are, however, compensations. Dyslexia does not affect intelligence or verbal skill, and in finding their own ways of reading and writing they (or perhaps I should say, we) often develop novel viewpoints and new approaches to problemsolving. Those who have overcome their difficulty can be suspicious of authority; but they can also be capable leaders, inspiring confidence and self-reliance in willing followers. Eric Shipton had all these qualities.

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