Nowadays, climbing Mt Everest has become almost a rite of passage for those who want packaged adventure and can afford it. Who can forget the images of the hundreds of climbers queuing for the summit that inundated the media last May?
But put yourself in the place of Hillary and Tenzing and the other members of the original 1953 Everest expedition, as Mick Conefrey’s book has you do, and it’s a different story. Their expedition had no clear idea of where it was going, ran up against such unexplored perils as the crevasses and seracs of the Khumbu Icefall and above the South Col faced serious problems with the weather and malfunctioning oxygen sets.
The climb was some years in the planning. The British desperately wanted to succeed on the mountain after many failures and many deaths, going back as far as Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance in 1924. The Himalayan Committee appointed Eric Shipton as leader of ‘trial’ climb of Cho Oyu in 1952, to prepare and test equipment for the following year. Hillary was on this expedition. Unfortunately Shipton proved to have little organisational know-how and he was, rather controversially, sacked and replaced by Sir John Hunt. In the same year the Swiss got dangerously close to the summit of Everest, and vowed to return in 1954 if the British didn’t succeed. The pressure was on.
The first British attempt on 26 May was made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. Despite meticulous preparation, it was fraught with difficulty and in the end the pair was forced to retreat only a few hundred meters from the top. Hillary and Tenzing were up next. Hillary’s diaries show they were determined to succeed no matter what. After a sleepless night on the South Col the pair surmounted enormous difficulties to make the summit, Hillary a few minutes before Tenzing, although he has always claimed they made the top together. This is the ultimate adventure story and Conefrey tells it brilliantly.
To be honest, when first confronted with this book, my thoughts were, “This has been written about before.” But then I discovered that, actually, it hasn’t. This is the first book devoted solely to this expedition since 1956. It’s the first time all the diaries, letters, archive materials, released papers and interviews have been gathered together, tossed around and compared.
The end result? A book that deserves to become the definitive version of the first ascent of Mt Everest. Conefrey pulls the reader into the story with his free and flowing style, getting them involved to the point that even though I knew the plot so well, there was no way I was going to put the book down before reaching the end. This is a human, funny and meticulously researched account of what was a very British expedition. It’s also a tale of great courage, and of a world that has passed.