No brief sojourn in Coronation week 1953 would be complete without a mention of the news that was broadcast around the streets of London in the midst of the celebrations... that Everest had been climbed by the British expedition and the summit reached by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
'It was 11.30 a.m....we shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arms around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless. I had carried my camera, loaded with colour film, inside my shirt to keep it warm, so now I produced it and got Tenzing to pose for me on the top, waving his ice axe on which was a string of flags - British, Nepalese, United Nations and Indian...'
I can only begin to imagine the excitement that announcment must have caused in an already hyper-excited crowd.
It all had me dashing off to the Climbing Shelf in the hope that we had the book I needed, in fact we had plenty but these two have made wonderful reading this week.
The Ascent of Everest and Our Everest Adventure, both books written by Brigadier John Hunt, the expedition leader, with extracts by Sir Edmund Hillary, and from what I can gather both genuine and honourable men. Hunt, with his military background, added planning and precision to the expedition. Hillary, a New Zealander from Auckland, a bee-keeper by profession, lanky and strong, abounding in a restless energy and possessed of 'a thrusting mind which swept aside all unproved obstacles.'
Jude...if you are reading this I know you have mentioned Edmund Hillary came to talk to your school, I'd love to know more.
Then there was Sherpa Tenzing. A legend in Everest circles since the 1930s.
Tenzing's experience on Chomolungma exceptional, a mountaineer of world-class standing and with the infectious grin that must have cheered many an early morning freezing start. And all credit to the other less-mentioned team members too... George Band, Tom Bourdillon, Charles Evans, Alfred Gregory, George Lowe, Wilfrid Noyce, Griffith Pugh, Tom Stobart, Michael Ward, Michael Westmacott and Charles Wylie, along with Sherpa Annullu, who all played a crucial part in the expedition. And not least, Times Correspondent James Morris who accompanied the team and ensured that the news reached London in time for Big Day.
Always careful to applaud those who had gone before, and crediting the contribution made by their experience and knowledge for the ultimate success of the 1953 summit attempt, both books make for inspiring reading.
Now who can know whether any of this account may have since been discredited... some terrible revelation or scandal and screaming headlines, What Really Happened on Everest in 1953. I hope not, and if so I don't think I want to know so I haven't looked, because I have emerged from both these books with a sense of real wonder. Of courage and camaraderie, of meticulous planning and brilliant and skillful risk asessment where heart was not allowed to overrule head, and of some selfless actions in order for the objective to be achieved. This was team work as its finest... if they had an orgy at Base Camp I am not interested, I'll stay in 1953 with this one and listen to the words of John Hunt...
'What were the reasons for our success? To these factors the triumph should be attributed, it matters not in what proportion : to all who had climbed on Everest before; to our planning and other preparations; to the excellence of our equipment; to our Sherpas and ourselves; to the favour of the elements. And I would add one more factor, less easy to assess: the thoughts and prayers of all those who watched and waited and hoped for our success.'
This one of my favourites pictures in Our Everest Adventure. It speaks of care and attention and friendship, Hillary checking that all is well with Tenzing's equipment, and look at the wonderful high mountain footwear, specially designed and made for the expedition and to be worn above 20,000 feet.
The Appendices to The Ascent of Everest make for fascinating reading, every last detail of the planning and equipment, nothing but nothing left to chance. I love detail... things like those boots which had to be carefully made for the Sherpas from moulds sent to the UK. Their size 6 boots needed to be wider than Hillary's size 12s, and Tenzing added some Swiss gaiters to cope with the holes that developed in the thinner outer covers, and the boot design that incorporated rings rather than holes for the laces, the better for frozen fingers to cope.
Don't get me started on the tents or we'll be here until Christmas, but they had piano-wire stiffeners on the entrances for ease of access and closure...clever eh.
In his Foreword to The Ascent of Everest the Duke of Edinburgh (and good wishes for H.R.H., undergoing surgery today, will follow in a separate post this morning) declared his profound admiration, defining this as an achievement that, in human terms of physical effort and endurance alone, would live on in history as a shining example to all mankind.
As they lay in their mess tent (with its piano wire closures) after supper on June 2nd, the climbers turned on the wireless to listen to the Coronation news...
..and were dumbfounded to hear that the news of their success had reached London in time for the day. It was with enormous pride that they subsequently received their telegrams of congratulations from the Palace.
And how far off this other moment in history must have seemed when John Hunt wrote of it in 1953...
'There are many opportunities for adventure, whether they be sought among the hills, in the air, upon the sea, in the bowels of the earth, or on the ocean bed; and there is always the moon to reach...'
John Hunt lived to see Apollo 11 in 1969 and I'll bet he loved every single minute of it, and if anyone tells me these moon-landing-didn't-happen conspiracy theories are true... well I shall probably cry.