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TG History — Climbing Mount Everest, Part 2

| Jun 7, 2010
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Michelle Moore brings you TG History“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” James Arthur Baldwin

Coronation Everest

Its very name is part of our language. Being called “The Mount Everest” of something symbolizes the most daunting challenge imaginable. Remote, hostile, and cruelly rugged, Everest is the highest point on Earth and climbing it had come to symbolize the ultimate unobtainable goal to mankind. But on May 29, 1953 unconquerable Mount Everest finally fell — and James Morris was there.

Not that he was supposed to be there: The London Times assigned the inexperienced, 26 year old Morris to cover the assault up Everest simply because, well, “I think I was selected because everyone else was about 80 years old,” Morris remembered. Colonel John Hunt organized the expedition with military precision and was unimpressed with the outsider Morris, who’d never climbed before in his life. “Utterly inexperienced and physically substandard.” Hunt told The Times, “I thought they should find someone else.”

jan-jamesSir Edmund Hillary’s autobiography described James as “a slim and sensitive intellectual.” But Morris was also wiry, determined, and confident. The astonished Hunt marveled at his “mental, moral, and physical stamina . . . as he matched the veteran climbers” progress while delighting his readers with the clarity, beautiful descriptiveness, and adventuresome spirit of his dispatches. Morris related it all: frostbite, avalanche, over-sized insects, and meals consisting of “snowman pie” chopped yak meat and mashed potatoes. “Excellent if indigestible” James reported. Despite all this Morris followed the expedition over three-quarters of the way up the highest mountain in the world.

By now all but two of the climbers who had come this far were forced to turn back from sheer exhaustion at the high altitude. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a native climber, were the only members of the party able to make the final assault on Everest. Morris waited with the support party at Camp IV at an altitude of 22,100 feet. At 11:30 on the morning of May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit, 29,035 feet above sea level, the highest spot on earth. Equally treacherous was the climb back down the peak but they survived. When they returned from the summit Morris was there to report Hillary’s memorable first words to his friend George Lowe: “Well, George, we’ve knocked the bastard off!”

JanMorris1In “an exercise in splendidly old-fashioned journalism” Morris had the story of the century: the Conquering of Mount Everest. Now all he had to do was somehow get off the highest mountain on Earth and deliver it — without rival journalists finding out. The young reporter set off down the mountain accompanied by mountaineer Michael Westmacott.

“We stumbled and slithered our way through the ice blocks,” he wrote. “The dark was coming on and I was fairly exhausted, often losing my footing on the crumbly ice, getting entangled with the rope, or tottering on the brinks of crevasses.”

They finally did make it off that hellish mountain in one piece — but what now? The nearest phone was 180 miles away. Carrier pigeons, signal fires, even floating a message in a waterproof canister down the river to India had all been rejected. “One enthusiast even wondered if use might not be made of those strange powers of telepathy for which Tibetan sages are allegedly noted,” Morris whimsically wrote. Fortunately, James had discovered earlier that the Indian Government had set up a small police post in nearby Namche to keep an eye on communist Tibet. Its radio link to Kathmandu could transmit the story — but there was another problem. Rival journalists had equipped themselves with wireless receivers to intercept any outgoing message. To get around this Morris used a coded message system similar to one used by British Intelligence during the war. The message “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned May twenty nine stop awaiting improvement stop all well” actually meant “Everest Climbed Hillary Tenzing May 29.” Morris and The Times had their scoop.

The timing couldn’t have been better: by sheer coincidence the conquest of Everest was announced to the British public on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The triumph of a British-led expedition combined with the Queen’s inauguration produced a huge swell of English national pride after long years of economic hardship and postwar shortages. Edmund Hillary returned to Britain to be knighted by the Queen while Tenzing Norgay became a national hero in three countries. Hillary would later become godfather to one of Morris’s sons and the two remained lifelong friends until Sir Edmond’s death in 2008.

For James Morris this was the journalistic triumph of a lifetime and launched his career as one of Britain’s most distinguished foreign correspondents. James went on to cover Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial and execution in Israel and Francis Gary Powers’ trial in Moscow. Morris interviewed revolutionary Che Guevera in Cuba and Russian spy Kim Philby in Lebanon. Morris was at the scene of every key world event. He saw it all — from dismembered bodies of politicians in Iraq to charred napalm victims in the Sinai. He met dissidents in the Communist Bloc and civil rights protesters in the American South and reported on wars, riots, and revolutions in scores of countries. To casual observers Morris’ adventurous lifestyle had a glamorous aura of successful masculinity. But they were wrong on the last part. By 1964 Morris had completely stopped living as a man.

Next Month: Casablanca

Bibliography

Historical note: When Hillary ascended Mt. Everest 1953 accounts reported its height at 29,000 ft. and were later adjusted to 29,028 ft. On May 5, 1999 Everest’s summit was revised to 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) using GPS satellite technology. Mt. Everest’s actual height varies depending on seasonal ice and snow build up.

“Top that! How The Times Scooped Everest Triumph” London Times, January 12, 2008

The Conquerors: Hillary & Norgay, Jan Morris, Time Magazine 100

Sir Edmund Hillary, Conqueror of Mt. Everest, American Academy of Achievement

Jan Morris by Paul Clements, 1998

The Long Voyage Home, Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, October 6, 2001

Coronation Everest, Jan Morris, 1957

Conundrum, Jan Morris, 1974

Pleasures of a Tangled Life, Jan Morris, 1987

Manhattan-45, Jan Morris, 1989

“Agonized, New York Bends, But It Doesn’t Break” September 16, 2001, New York Times

“Anthrax Hoaxer in Court” BBC News, October 25, 2001

Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, Pat Califia

James & Jan, David Holden, March 17, 1974

Crossing the Line, Richard M. Levine, May/June 1994

Some quotes slightly edited for space.


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