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.

His schooldays were, predictably, unpromising. His mother sent him to an appalling prep school whose masters, making the usual misdiagnosis of laziness and stupidity, tried to teach him to read with a wide leather strap, beatings the stoic Shipton later recalled as ‘a bit excessive’ and futile. After he failed the Common Entrance exam for Harrow his despairing mother sent him to Pyt House, a boarding school for idle and delinquent boys which also accepted ‘black princes’ from Africa, Scandinavians with rudimentary English and other rejects from orthodox education. Shipton made useful contacts, taught himself to read and write and, after deciphering books like Edward Whymper’s Travels among the Great Andes of the Equator, dreamed of adventures in far-off places, where spelling counted for little and resoluteness for everything. Cramming for Cambridge, he learned a paraphrase of the Odes of Horace by heart (a trick dyslexics often use), but could make no sense out of the unseen translation. The next year he scraped through the exam and applied to read geology, but was brusquely told that he would never get a job without first-class honours, of which he had no hope. This abrupt end to his sketchy education made Shipton an odd man out among the sporting toffs, public school men and army officers who ran British mountaineering until a generation ago, but it gave him a rare ability to inspire just about anyone else. By 1928 he was planting coffee in Kenya, the drop-out’s refuge of the time. Hearing that Mount Kenya, 17,040 feet, had been climbed only once, by the geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, on the offchance he took boots, ropes and ice-axe to tropical Africa. Mount Kenya’s two jagged peaks rise from glaciers. Shipton and a friend climbed them. At 21, he had found his vocation.

An article about his African exploits in the Alpine Journal brought Shipton an invitation to join the successful 1931 Himalayan expedition to Mount Kamet, 25,447 feet, then the highest peak ever climbed. He turned out to be superbly equipped for high altitudes. ‘No one who climbs with Shipton,’ wrote Frank Smythe, leader of the expedition, ‘can remain pessimistic, for he imparts an imperturbability and confidence into a day’s work on a mountain that are in themselves a guarantee of success.’ Shipton was one of the rare people who, for no known medical reason, excel at the task of acclimatisation, in which the blood thickens to carry more oxygen with each heartbeat. There is no way of predicting it; some people as unathletic as myself suffer no ill effects after weeks of living high, say above 20,000 feet, while more Herculean types can be incapacitated in a matter of hours by high altitude pulmonary oedema, their lungs filling up with fluid expelled from the bloodstream, for which the only remedy is descent. Oxygen is only an aid; using it is not comparable, physiologically, to returning to sea-level; it has the effect of deducting only two thousand feet or so from the height at which it is used – and the bottles of compressed gas have to be carried. Better to be like Shipton – naturally energetic in the thin air of the high mountains, and so be able to climb fast and light.

Shipton led a reconnaissance to Everest from the Tibetan side in 1933 and was high on Everest again in 1935, 1936 and 1938. These expeditions, blotted out by bad weather and overshadowed by Mallory and Irvine’s enigmatic near-miss in 1924, all failed, but they were not fruitless. Climbing high is a medical as much as a technical problem; practicable weather can no more be predicted than proper acclimatisation, and the most valuable asset is a tested team, known to have the right stuff. For his 1935 reconnaissance, Shipton signed up Tenzing Norgay, then a 19-year-old porter, whose toothy grin, resilience and keenness for hard climbing marked him out for higher things. He also invited the first of his New Zealanders, Dan Bryant, who was skilled in the ice-climbing techniques developed on the huge glaciers of the South Island. Shipton and Bryant, both down-to-earth men of the Empire, got along famously, and the New Zealanders, rare on the gentrified routes of the Alps, turned out to have much the same tough, self-sufficient approach as Shipton’s to the high mountains.

War interrupted serious attempts on Everest for more than a decade. In 1940 Shipton was commissioned second lieutenant in the Indian Army, specialising in surveying. In August 1940, halfway through a triangulation course, he was offered the uncoveted post of British consul-general in Kashgar, in the remote Sinkiang Province of China, near Russian Tajikistan and Afghanistan, on condition that he walked in over the Karakoram passes. It will not surprise students of the period, when the Soviet Union was a quasi-ally of Germany, to learn that Shipton’s real job was not stamping passports, but spying – or, as he put it, being ‘part of that strange, semiclandestine web of activity, intelligence and counter-intelligence, intrigue and diplomatic manoeuvre known as “The Great Game” ’. All these years later, Steele has still failed to winkle any more details out of the Foreign Office – but then again, those other celebrity spies, Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene, were equally close-lipped about what they actually did in the war. Shipton’s job, whatever it was, ended in October 1942. He walked out again, and in December 1942 married Diana Channer, one of the more patient of his many girl-friends, in Lyme Regis. The marriage eventually foundered – not surprising, given his lifestyle – but the two sons it produced remember their father with affection. The Foreign Office sent Shipton to Persia, and then, between 1946 and 1951, back to Western China. While he was there the Communists won the Chinese civil war and asserted China’s claim to ‘liberate’ Tibet from what they saw as Buddhist superstition. This effectively closed the northern route to Everest for the next three decades, although it did not stop the Chinese staging, and claiming success for, their own expedition of 1960.

As Tibet closed, Nepal opened. Unexpectedly, in 1951 permission was given for a small expedition to ascend the Great Khumbu Glacier, flowing through the Sherpas’ homeland, to the southern foot of Everest. Shipton was just back from China and, as the only member of all four expeditions in the Thirties, was the universal choice for leader. The Times came up with £2000, most of the slim budget. Two days before they set off, the New Zealand Alpine Club offered the services of ‘excellent-type climbers’ from its own expedition, which was already in the Himalayas. Remembering the genial iceman Dan Bryant, Shipton cabled: ‘ANY TWO CAN JOIN US. GET THEIR OWN PERMISSION. BRING THEIR OWN FOOD AND CATCH US UP.’ The New Zealanders sent Ed Hillary, whose brother was left to run their family bee-keeping business, and Earle Riddiford, a lawyer in a tolerant partnership. Both were uneasy about joining what they feared might be a progress of pukka sahibs. They met in a Sherpa’s house. ‘Eric Shipton came forward to greet us,’ Hillary later recalled, ‘and I felt a sense of relief at his unshaven face and scruffy clothes. I have rarely seen a more disreputable bunch, and my visions of changing for dinner faded away for ever. This was an exciting moment for me. I had read all Shipton’s books and followed his tough pioneering expeditions with enormous interest. Now I was not only meeting him but going on an expedition with him.’ Five weeks later Shipton’s party were camped on the Khumbu Glacier at 18,000 feet, almost at the foot of Everest.

Of the thousand people who will have climbed Everest by the end of this year, and the two hundred or so who have died in the attempt, or while descending after succeeding, most have approached the mountain from the southern, Nepalese side. This route is normally the easiest (all things are relative!) to the summit. It was discovered by Shipton’s reconnaissance in 1951; used by the 1952 Swiss expedition, which failed, and by the 1953 expedition, which at last succeeded. The route passes through a high valley, or cwm (Welsh for ‘coomb’, a reminder of how many Everest climbers have cut their teeth on Snowdonia), that slopes gently along the south-west flank of the mountain, from 21,000 to 23,000 feet. From its high end, a moderate traverse across the side of Lhotse, Everest’s neighbour, takes the climber to the snowy South Col, and thence, if lungs and legs hold out, by a series of ridges to the summit. If it was lower down, the Western Cwm would be a bosky dell, with a stream meandering through it. Where it is, with the mountain above catching the damp monsoon blowing from the Bay of Bengal, tens of thousands of tons of snow are dumped into it every year, and have to get out somehow. The floor of the Cwm is in fact a slowly moving glacier, which grinds some two thousand feet over a rocky lip at its lower end to the Khumbu Valley below. This frozen waterfall moves by unpredictable fits and starts, a foot or two a day, opening and closing crevasses and dislodging blocks of ice of up to a thousand tons or more. The Icefall is what climbers call an ‘objective danger’, one that cannot be avoided; the rocky walls on either side are constantly swept by avalanches of snow, ice and stones as big as barrels. Looking down on it from the northern side of Everest in 1921, Mallory called the Icefall ‘one of the most awful and utterly forbidding scenes ever observed by man’. It does, indeed, make for a twitchy day’s climbing.

Studying the Icefall from across the valley, Shipton and Hillary thought they saw a way up. The next day, Shipton led a party almost to the top, turning back only when Riddiford had to be hauled up from a crevasse. Late in October 1950, with the monsoon over, they tried again. This time they gained the lip of the Cwm and saw its smooth floor sloping invitingly ahead, with a clear line of attack up to the Col, and thence to the summit flying its perpetual plume of spindrift overhead. But there is always a deep crevasse stretching from one wall of the Cwm to the other where the moving river of ice starts its downward plunge. When Steele and I crossed in 1971, it was thirty feet wide and spanned by ropes. In October 1950 it was a hundred feet wide and two hundred deep, and Shipton’s team had no bridging gear. But they had found what no one had seen before: the gateway to Everest.

A man more calculating or even more ambitious in a worldly way than Shipton would have hot-footed it back to London, keeping the promise of his great discovery quiet. Shipton told the world about it, via the Times: ‘This dragon [the Icefall] guarding the Western Cwm is now in restless mood; it is not unreasonable to expect that in spring he may be found sleeping.’ The New Zealanders had to get back to their bees and briefs, but Shipton led the rest of his party through the unexplored heights around Everest, finding along the way, and photographing, what he said might be the tracks of the yeti, the Abominable Snowman – which may have been traces of the Tibetan blue bear, and may equally have been the kittenish Shipton’s idea of a joke. Back in Kathmandu, they were stunned to learn that the Swiss had permission to attempt Everest in 1952 and would be using their promising new route through the Western Cwm. Raymond Lambert, a famous Alpine guide, made the final attack on the summit with Tenzing Norgay, now promoted to sirdar, or boss, of the Sherpas with the expedition. The pair took five hours to climb their last 600 feet, with the summit just out of reach; but, with night falling and a bitter wind, they could do no more. They – or their crude oxygen sets – were not quite up to it. The next year, 1953, it was the turn of the British.

Shipton, meanwhile, was leading an expedition to Cho Oyu, 26,870 feet, one of Everest’s then unclimbed neighbours. His stated aims were to choose a team that could acclimatise to great heights, to study physical deterioration at altitude and to experiment with new oxygen equipment, clothing and gear in extremes of cold and wind. All of this was, of course, in preparation for Everest; climbing Cho Oyu itself was not mentioned. At 22,500 feet Hillary and Lowe were stopped by a cliff shedding rocks on the only practicable route. ‘Afterwards,’ Hillary recalled, ‘I had a terrible sense of shame that we had given up so easily.’ The expedition then turned to the high-altitude experiments they had come for. Hillary and Lowe made an unauthorised excursion into Tibet, confident that they could outclimb any Chinese soldiers they might encounter. On the way they met a Tibetan who pointed up to the summit of Everest and shook his head. The Swiss had failed. Again, a more prudent man would have hurried back to London. Griffith Pugh, the expedition’s physiologist, did go back, to work up his findings. Not much interested in science, and assuming he had the core of the next Everest team with him, Shipton set out ‘in a holiday mood’ to explore the passes and peaks to the east of Everest in the situation he liked best – among a small group of friends, in country never before sullied by human feet. Late in 1952 the Swiss unexpectedly got permission for another try, which ended in disaster and the death of a Sherpa, the first known person to die on Everest’s southern side. Nothing now stood between the British and the only mountain conquest that was certain to make history. Shipton, everyone assumed, would be its leader.

What happened next is, as climbers say, the crux, the most difficult passage of his book, and Steele handles it with fairness and restraint. While Shipton and his team were off exploring, the Himalayan Committee back in London was hearing complaints from Pugh and others about Shipton’s style of leadership on Cho Oyu, his indecision, his indifference to science and the ‘frivolity’ of his explorations beyond Everest. Steele concedes that these criticisms were not without substance. Nevertheless, such was his fame and the excitement generated by his reports in the Times, that the Committee informed Shipton on 28 July 1952 that he would lead the 1953 expedition. He responded by naming his team, a list that included the New Zealanders Hillary and Lowe as well as experienced British climbers, and left soon afterwards for a climb in Norway. But the Committee’s secretary, Basil Goodfellow, already had another candidate in mind, at first as Shipton’s deputy. It was his friend, Colonel John Hunt of the 60th Rifles, then stationed in Germany. Unknown to the public, and little known among British climbers, Hunt had a sound but not outstanding climbing record: to 24,500 feet on Peak 36 in Karakoram in 1935, and to 23,350 feet on Nepal Peak, on the western border of Sikkim in 1937. Hunt had not been to Everest, having been rejected on ‘medical grounds’ for the 1936 expedition (he failed to blow a column of mercury high enough, a test of lung capacity devised for RAF aircrew) but was, Goodfellow reported, ‘a terrific thruster’. The Committee had already expressed a vague ‘preference for military officers ... on the grounds that they could most readily be released, and could be expected to have organising capacity’.

On 22 August 1952 Hunt came over to London from Germany to meet Shipton, for the first time, at the Royal Geographical Society. ‘No doubt I was over-keen and showed it,’ Hunt wrote later. ‘As I saw it, something more was at stake than simply climbing a mountain.’ He meant, of course, British prestige. Wearers of the Queen’s uniform are meant to take such things seriously. British colonels are used to commanding battalions of around eight hundred smart, fully-equipped troops; Shipton liked to lead teams of four to six adventurers, unshaven and unwashed, with minimal gear. Shipton disliked competitive climbing; war, whatever else it is, is highly competitive. At this stage Colonel Hunt, of Marlborough and Sandhurst, was being considered as deputy to former Second Lieutenant Shipton, of Pyt House and no university. Their meeting, Hunt later told his friend Goodfellow, had been a failure.

On 11 September 1952 the Committee met again. One by one they declared their preference for Hunt as leader, with Shipton possibly in ‘an advisory capacity’. One spoke of the Committee’s ‘responsibility to the Nation and Commonwealth’. Another recalled that Shipton himself, in a frank discussion of the possibilities, had mused that he had ‘more reason than most to take a realistic view of the big element of luck involved, and this was not conducive to bounding optimism. Was it not time, perhaps, to hand over to a younger man with a fresh outlook?’ (Hunt was three years younger than Shipton.) The Committee (none of whom had been near Everest) began to bandy military jargon: ‘a strong grip’ and ‘undivided responsibility’, against Shipton’s supposed ‘lack of interest and drive’. There was, however, the awkward fact that Shipton had already been appointed leader. Finally the Committee unanimously agreed that the expedition needed ‘a man of dynamic personality, drive and enthusiasm’. They proposed that ‘Shipton should be co-leader with Hunt up to the Base Camp, and Hunt sole leader thence forward.’ This was not only shabby, but silly; the march-in, like an officers’ mess progressing over the plains of India, was to use around eight hundred porters – a battalion’s worth – and had no need for Shipton; whereas from the Base Camp onwards, Hunt would be attempting a mountain he had never seen, leaving behind the man who knew Everest better than anyone else. Shipton offered his resignation, saying that a conflict of philosophy and temperament would not allow him to remain in a party with Hunt as leader. It was unanimously accepted. ‘I’ve been sacked,’ Shipton told his wife, Diana. He never saw Everest again.

As long as anyone cares to know, it will be set down that the first pedestrians on the highest point of our planet were Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in an expedition led by John Hunt. Everest had been ‘conquered by men of British blood and breed’, exulted the News Chronicle, although Tenzing’s Tibetan ancestry and Nepalese citizenship disqualified him for the knighthoods conferred on Ed Hillary (New Zealanders could then accept British titles) and John Hunt; but Tenzing seemed content with a George Medal. Shipton was excepted from this rash of honours (he later got a businessman’s CBE, with no title), but he had been right: on Everest the weather decides all and the 1953 expedition found the best conditions of the century. In addition to Shipton’s trail-blazing, the new route and the strong, experienced team (Hunt at first wanted to eliminate the New Zealanders, but was finally persuaded to take Hillary and Lowe), Steele stresses that the British at last had their science right. Using his findings from Cho Oyu, Griffith Pugh recommended an oxygen flow in fail-safe, open-circuit systems of four litres a minute, twice the rate used in all previous attempts, with a litre a minute at night for sleep. No one has ever faulted Lord Hunt’s leadership, and he made a meritorious support climb to over 27,000 feet; but in the end military methods were unnecessary. On a balmy spring day, 25 May 1953, Hillary and Tenzing left the Western Cwm in shirt-sleeves, a Union Jack neatly furled on Tenzing’s ice-axe, and climbed uneventfully (again, all things are relative) to the summit in what Hillary recalled as ‘for Everest, practically perfect weather’. In another well-rehearsed operation the news took only 24 hours to reach London, where the two climbers were hailed as the first of what, in those far-off, euphoric days, was expected to be a long line of ‘New Elizabethans’.

Shipton was at Heathrow to greet the returning heroes with a bunch of bananas, still scarce in those days, for Hillary. He had just taken a job, his first since China, as warden of the Outward Bound Mountain School in Eskdale, Cumberland, an off-shoot of the outdoorsy education theories propounded by Kurt Hahn, the German-born founder of Gordonstoun. One of Shipton’s admiring Eskdale pupils was his future biographer Peter Steele, himself headed for a career as mountaineer (he was the high-altitude doctor of our unsuccessful 1971 International Himalayan Expedition), eye surgeon, explorer and eventually all-purpose medical officer in the Yukon. But it soon became clear that Shipton was not cut out for schoolmastering, even in such muscular surroundings. Caught in an adulterous triangle, he was summarily sacked and spent the next few years in aimless drifting – a despondency caused, Steele believes, by his childhood reading difficulties, revived by the disappointment over Everest which he stoically concealed. ‘To you,’ Shipton wrote to a girlfriend, ‘I can confess to pangs of regret over “spilt milk”, although I doubt there is anyone alive who in the circumstances would not feel them.’ Eventually he went back to the mountains, leading students to the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram, the biggest in Asia, then undertaking a long series of first ascents and crossings of unexplored peaks and glaciers in Patagonia, whose southern latitude and constant storms make it, in many ways, even less hospitable than the high Himalaya. Shipton died, largely forgotten by all but climbers, in 1977.

He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest mountain explorers. If the Everest Committee had taken a sporting chance with the national prestige, Ed Hillary, for one, is certain that ‘with Eric’s leadership, bumbling though it might have been at times, we would still have done it. We were a very tight group and had a very great affection for, and loyalty to Eric and respect for his abilities.’ Shipton himself acknowledged that the massed, high-publicity attack on Everest in 1953 was not his style. Noting that ‘the influences which caused the Committee’s volte-face are still obscure,’ he modestly added that ‘assuming both the need and the desirability for a large, heavily organised expedition, their ultimate decision was right.’

Thirty years later, men and women are still climbing mountains, risking discomfort, danger and death – one 1996 storm on Everest killed ten climbers – even though the records are all set, and media attention has now shifted to the stars. Why do they still do it? It is on this question, which dogged George Mallory’s fund-raising lecture tours, that I believe Shipton’s pilgrimage speaks to us. In their 1936 play The Ascent of F6, Auden and Isherwood argued that people who climb mountains are really cowards seeking the approval of their mothers, and that true heroism is shown in the serious business of life – for instance, the writing of avant-garde plays (Auden’s geologist brother John was with Shipton in the Karakoram, which may have sparked the thesis). That people will follow the call of flag and fatherland is well known to politicians, military men and other solid folk – such devices, after all, brought the British to the foothills of Everest. This was wrapped in all the flannel about Empire and the Everest Committee in Mallory’s stock response to the question, ‘why?’ But the one time he blurted the truth – ‘because it’s there’ – he expressed something much older than national rivalries. It really has nothing much to do with other people. The adventurer who confronts our enemy, death, in wild places, alone or among a small party of like-minded friends, is not making an astute career move, but is driven by the same curiosity about what might lie over the next hill that lured our inquisitive ancestors out of the cosy jungles of Africa, long before there were nations, over deserts and mountains, and at last to the top of Everest.

There were signs that the strait-laced Mallory was heading down the same ‘frivolous’ path that cost Shipton his moment of fame. At 38, he had given up his job teaching at Charterhouse and planned, had he come back from Everest, to work with the underprivileged, then known as the lower orders, of Oxford. The challenge of poverty being there might eventually have taken him a long way, even as far as Patagonia. Mallory’s memorial is three (or is it four?) unforgettable words. In this fascinating book, Eric Shipton now has his.