Read the world: The Ascent of Everest

John Hunt’s 1953 novel is an account of the British expedition he had led up Mount Everest that same year

It was such a British conquest. So British in fact that when the third pair of assault climbers finally made it to the top of the world’s tallest mountain, the media blithely overlooked the fact that the two summiters – Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay – were a New Zealander and a Nepali-Indian. Not that it mattered: the expedition that resulted in the first successful, complete and verified ascent of the 8,848m peak had been dispatched under the joint banner of two London institutions, the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society.

They climbed Everest not because it was difficult – Hillary claimed that the feat hardly merited more than a line or two in the Alpine Journal – but ‘because it’s there’. The three most famous words in mountaineering date back to the 1920s, a glib reply by George Mallory on being asked about his motivation for the attempt that would lead to his disappearance. This left Everest as the unclaimed inheritance of the Golden Age of Alpinism and, having been pipped to the South Pole by the Norwegians, Britain had to own Everest: a desire made more pressing by post-War Empire’s entrance into its second Elizabethan Age, its new Queen being crowned at the same time as Britain’s success in the Himalayas.

Perhaps there has never been anyone more British than the expedition’s leader Brigadier Sir John Hunt CBE, DSO who was serving in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe when he received the news that he’d got the job. And it was left to Hunt to write the official account of the adventure – The Ascent of Everest – that was published with startling alacrity only six months after the bluff Kiwi, Hillary concluded that he’d “knocked the bastard off”. 

There was a lot more to it than that, of course, as Hunt’s narrative is at great pains to explain. It may well be the story of how two strong and resolute men ‘reached the top of Everest and came back unscathed to rejoin their comrades,’ he says, but it is also a testament to teamwork, for the ascent ‘more than most human ventures, demanded a very high degree of selfless co-operation.’ Such finely tuned modesty, in the glare of the biggest mountaineering media circus ever seen, shows Hunt at his best. He was an administrator, and he knew it: a leader of armies who got the paperwork done and left the glory to the thrusting young bucks, who in this case remained studiedly indifferent to the attention. 

Nick Smith with Edmund Hillary in 1999, London

Nick Smith is UK Bureau Chief of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York. Formerly editor of Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, he is also a contributing editor on Black + White Photography and Outdoor Photography magazines. His new book Travelling Light will be published in Autumn 2023

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