May 29, 1953: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reach the summit of Mount Everest, and Coronation Day for a new Queen, Elizabeth II.
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POOR EVEREST was not always 'news'. In the old days an assault on the highest of peaks was an adventure for gentlemen, tarnished by no cheap nationalist ambition, unspoilt by the stridencies of publicity. An Everest expedition was a group of English sportsmen, attended by their native servants, trying to climb an impossibly difficult hill in a ludicrously distant place, and quietly risking their lives in doing so. The world did not watch their efforts with any feverish interest. No global factions arose in support of this or that climber, to denigrate the European or elevate the Asiatic, to seize upon chance remarks or passing squabbles as material for scandal. Ten British expeditions went to Everest before the Second World War, and except for a sad romantic aura that surrounded the disappearance of Irvine and Mallory, no element of passion pursued their attempts. The great public was, by the frenetic standards of today, not much interested.
There was, however, an audience of mountaineers, adventurers, and sympathizers who looked on with technical or scholarly concern and who contributed (often with a sudden and eccentric gusto) to such controversies as that arising from the use of artificial aids to climbing. A fragrance of English oddness is left to us from those early expeditions. The Abominable Snowman first made his appearance not as a figure of vulgar fun, or material for scientists, but rather as a strange squire of the snows, moving sedately if a little lumpishly through his remote estate. Many of the climbers were notable for pungency of wit,splendid independence, or colourful bigness. Everest had not been cheapened or distorted, and those who climbed upon it formed an exclusive society of adventurers.
One London newspaper, The Times, was particularly concerned with the venture from the beginning. In return for financial backing, it secured the copyright of dispatches from almost all the pre-war expeditions, and became the accepted channel of information from the mountain at a time when most other papers took little serious notice. The leader of each expedition undertook, as part of his duties, to 'write the dispatches for The Times'. There was no hectic newsroom flavour to this kind of journalism. From time to time the mountaineer would collect his writing materials about him, closing the flap of his tent to keep out the wind, and settle down to describe the progress of the attempt, much as he might write to complain about the pollution of a trout stream, or invite contributions to some charitable fund. Graceful and entertaining was the writing of most of these climbers, marred by no Fleet Street clichés, with no axes to grind and only the gentlest of trumpets to blow.
Alas, by 1953, when Sir John Hunt's triumphant expedition was completing its preparations in England, all had changed. The powers of Europe had been humbled by war, and in their silly efforts to prove themselves still important had revived the concept of sport as a medium of nationalist fervour. People no longer went to the Himalaya only for the fun of it. The French had climbed Annapurna with a flourish of national pride. The Swiss, more jingoistic than one would suppose from their circumstances, made two brave attempts on Everest, and nearly climbed it. In a first slight whiff of publicity people were beginning to call Everest 'the British mountain', just as they called Nanga Parbat 'the German mountains'. Moreover, Hunt was going to Everest in Coronation Yeara year fondly hailed by the press, on the flimsiest of evidence, as the beginning of a new Elizabethan eraand it was difficult for an Englishman, however enlightened, to stifle the thought that a British success on the mountain would be a most suitable Coronation offering. Long before the expedition set out there was therefore a rumble of interest and expectation.
The Times, on whose editorial staff I then proudly worked, again had the copyright to dispatches from the expedition; but it could clearly no longer afford to rely upon climbers' journalism, produced when opportunity offered in the knowledge that only one newspaper was really concerned. This time there would be strong competition for the story, fanned by nationalist sentiment and honest patriotic pride, even fostered by the two current cold warsbetween Capitalism and Communism, between East and West. It became obvious to everyone that this time the Everest party must (swallowing its natural revulsion) include in its number a professional journalist, concerned only with the problems of getting the news home to England. Nobody much liked the idea, if only because the expedition was big enough already; but Hunt, kindliest of commanders, digested the fact that I had never set foot on a mountain before and even summoned up a wan smile as, over lunch one day at the Garrick Club, he invited me to join his team as special correspondent of The Times.
The chief problem was not how to secure the news, but how to relay it back to London. Everest was one of the less accessible of the great mountains, partly because fairly harsh physical barriers blocked most routes to it, chiefly because of the political peculiarities of its situation. It lay exactly on the frontier between two countries of secretive tradition. To the north was Tibet, shrouded alike in Buddhist mysticism and Communist suspicion, and in 1953 more firmly closed to Westerners than ever; to the south Nepal, a medieval kingdom, slowly opening like a warmed bud to permit the entrance of foreign ideas and values. Bang on the line that divided these two theatrical states lay Everest, and the frontier (according to the map) crossed its very summit, more than 29,000 feet above the sea.
Since the war the way to Everest had necessarily lain through Nepal, whose rulers were generally obliging and whose myriads of poor labourers welcomed the work of porterage. You could conveniently fly into Katmandu from India (any good Piccadilly travel agent would book you a ticket there) and in that strange city you could engage your porters and buy many of the smaller necessities of mountain life. There was a British Embassy, and an Indian Embassy, and some Americans, and a cable office which sent its messages to India by radio for onward transmission to Europe. Once you left Katmandu, though, the temptations of civilization were nearly all behind you. No road led to Everest. Outside the valley of Katmandu there were no wheeled vehicles in Nepal, and only a meagre series of rough tracks crossed the hilly hinterland, connecting the golden capital with Tibet, Sikkim, and the north. To get anywhere inside Nepal you must walk, for even ponies were scarce, and many of the tracks were too narrow, precipitous, and forbidding for easy horsemanship. Patient porters carried your bags for you, and clasping your pins to your bosom you must trudge your way through the hills, dazzled by the alpine flowers, inspired by the distant white snow peaks, slightly befuddled by the local liquor, feeling like some antique Mandarin, excessively influential, journeying through the Chinese uplands for a parley with Marco Polo.
By these stately means it took ten days or more to travel from Katmandu to Everest. The track crossed the grain of the country, as the geographers say, as if it had deliberately chosen to intersect contours rather than follow them. Sometimes it descended into impenetrable gorges; sometimes it crossed high mountain ranges; and although it was a pleasant journey, enlivened by all kinds of unusual interests, it was not the kind of route you would wish to follow too often in a hurry.
This was to be the supply route of the expedition, and the way its members marched to the mountain. More to my point, all this rugged, primitive country, hard and wheel-less, lay between the mountain and the nearest cable office. The foreign correspondent is never happy if he is far from a telephone or a cable-head, and it was daunting to envisage this 200 miles of intervening country, without the saving grace of a single post office.
How the gap could be bridged was therefore my first preoccupation, for the news had to travel not only safely, but swiftly too. Radio was the obvious answer, but though the Nepalese authorities were both helpful and sympathetic, they were understandably chary of allowing powerful radio transmitters to be operated so near their northern frontiers. All kinds of other methods were proposed. Some people suggested carrier pigeons, others beacon fires. Some said that since the Buddhist priests of the Everest region had remarkable telepathic powers, they might be willing simply to think the news away. There was a scheme to float news dispatches in cellophane containers down a river that happens to flow from the Everest area into India; where some unfortunate helper, it was proposed, would stand poised upon the bank, like a destitute angler, waiting for a package to appear.
None of these proposals seemed altogether satisfactory, though the beacon fires certainly had a genuine Elizabethan allure; and in the end it seemed that despite all the miracles of modern science, my dispatches would have to be sent back to Katmandu by runner. This at least was a well-tried method. Earlier Everest expeditions had always employed such men, and Hunt would have a number of them to take his own messages and convey the mail. I would probably need to recruit another small corps of my own. If the runners were well paid and kindly treated, they would probably see to it (I thought) that dispatches were in the cable office on the tenth or eleventh day after leaving the mountain.
So the plan was arranged. I was to go to Everest with a rearguard party, led by Major J. O. M. Roberts, which would follow the expedition proper with supplies of oxygen. Another correspondent of The Times, Arthur Hutchinson, would be stationed in Katmandu to receive messages, interpret and supplement them where necessary, and shepherd them through the cable-head. There was, however, always the possibility that other newspapers would send men out to Nepal too, to intercept or steal our messages and grasp what news they could. Just how ruthless they would be, nobody knew. Would they lurk behind boulders with clubs, waiting to pounce upon our runners? Or would they merely bribe the cable office to divulge or delay our messages?
It seemed foolish to take risks. It was not so much that other papers should not have the news as well as The Times; more serious was the possibility that they would succeed in publishing it before The Times (and the many foreign newspapers associated with it)that we would be scooped on our own story. So some alternative routes were arranged. From Everest another rough track ran to the south across the Indian frontier, through the appalling jungle country of the Terai, to a small town called Jogbani, where there was a cable office. There an agent would be stationed, so that if the Katmandu route seemed insecure, runners could go southwards instead. There was even a third alternative. When the Swiss were on Everest in the preceding year, they sent their messages to Europe through the medium of a Jesuit priest living at Patna, a large Indian city in the province of Bihar, which runners could reach by taking a narrow-gauge railway from the frontier. We would again try to enlist the help, we decided, of this adaptable priest.
But supposing the runners were actually intercepted en route, or the cable office at Katmandu proved easily bribable? It would obviously be impracticable to encode the whole of long descriptive messages from the mountain, even if they recorded some particular stage in the course of the attempt. But there was no reason why we should not devise code words to disguise personal names, certain key events, places on the mountainside, and altitudes. So a code card was produced, printed on waterproofed cardboard in the touching faith that we would be constantly pulling it from the pockets of our windproofs in the teeth of monstrous gales and stinging blizzards. I am no cipherer, and I was chiefly concerned, in evolving this simple system, in giving a deadpan or enigmatic air to things; and indeed it is marvellous how poker-faced the language can be if you give thought to it. The alternative code words for John Hunt, for example, were 'Kettle' and 'String-bag'. Wilfrid Noyce, another climber, was 'Radiator' or 'Windowsill'. Three thousand feet came out as 'Waistcoat Crossword Amsterdam', and the mountain's sublime summit, home of myths and deities, was christened 'Golliwog'. There were snags to such a code. Once enciphered, a message was nonsense, thus making it apparent that something significant was being concealed; and it might be necessary to be especially nice to the cable authorities to induce them to transmit such a stream of gibberish.
I would send these messages back to Katmandu in padlocked canvas bags, or perhaps in the stitched fabric envelopes provided to contain the expedition's exposed films. Once there, Hutchinson would see that the news was sent on expeditely to London. It all sounded splendid old-fashioned journalism, in the true cleft-stick tradition; and packing a new ribbon for my typewriter, and collecting my corduroy trousers from the cleaners, I flew gaily off one morning to India.
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|Introduction to the 2000 Edition||vii|
|The News Reaches London||1|