Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Mount Everest

I first saw Mount Everest in 1965—from a Qantas Boeing 707. In those days planes had to refuel several times during the 20-22 hour journey from London to Hong Kong so there were stops in Athens, Teheran and Delhi. On the Delhi to Hong Kong leg the pilot diverted north so that we could see Everest poking through the clouds. Such diversions do not happen these days and even day flights have cabins dimmed and window blinds down so that passengers can view inane movies (starring celebrities I have never heard of) rather than the real world below.

Over 50 years later, in March this year, we saw Everest again—this time from a Royal Bhutan Airways Airbus A320 flying from Delhi to Paro, and much closer.

Everest - centre left. March 2016

It is difficult to describe the effect of the first ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953 on the imagination of ten-year old schoolboys in 1953 or on the general public for that matter, with the news breaking on the morning of the Coronation on 2 June. The euphoria that ensued from Everest and talk of the existence of yetis was increased by Neville Duke breaking the airspeed record in a Hawker Hunter and then by Mike Lithgow breaking that record in a Supermarine Swift, both September 1953. Thus were set the topics of chatter in the school playground as we started our last year at primary school. The girls may have talked about other things though to which we boys were not privy. The excitement continued as we filed two-by-two to the Victory cinema to see the film of the ascent which was released some months later.

I then recall reading the book by the leader of the expedition when it appeared as a book club edition in 1954. What struck me as odd then was that the essence of success was confined to a series of appendices and I must have pestered my father with a whole series of ‘why’ questions that seemed obvious to an eleven year old. I recall two of them*: Why was Hunt, the leader, made a sir? Why was only one climber (Hilary) made a sir? I clearly held a dim view of administrators even then.

Fast forward to 16 January 1970, and Jim Linzell and I were walking into a meeting of the Physiological Society at the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill when a man emerged from a room and without glancing at passers by took a turn off the corridor at speed. ‘That’, said Jim, ‘is the man who got them up Everest. He never got the praise he deserved’. It was Griffith Pugh—recognised by the scientific world as the man whose research had been vital but who was unknown to the general public.

Only three years ago was the record set straight. Pugh’s daughter, Harriet Tuckey, wrote her brilliant book, Everest The First Ascent. The Untold Story of Griffith Pugh, the Man Who Made it Possible . Sir John Hunt, later Lord Hunt, completely downplayed the work of Pugh leading up to the Everest expedition and the breadth of his contribution to success both in the book and in the film. Leadership and ‘the spirit of man’ were what counted. The last sentence of Hunt’s book leaves me with a feeling of nausea: There is no height, no depth, that the spirit of man, guided by a higher Spirit, cannot attain.

The old-school anti-science climbing fraternity and the gentlemen geographers emerge as the baddies in the whole story. The goodies were the scientists, some of whom were or had been climbers, like Sir Bryan Matthews, or who just saw the science and technology of survival at high altitudes was important, like Sir Peter Medawar, Pugh’s ultimate boss at Mill Hill in his years after Everest. The Medical Research Council, under the secretaryship of Sir Harold Himsworth, played a key role.

     We have been hearing a great deal this evening about the extraordinarily brilliant leadership provided by Sir John Hunt on the 1953 Everest expedition, but there have been eleven previous expeditions to Mount Everest many of which had excellent leaders and they failed.
     We have been hearing about the great skill of our climbers but there had been many skilled climbers on previous Everest expeditions yet they failed to get to the summit.
     We have been hearing about the brilliant logistics, but there had been other well organised, well planned expeditions which all failed.
     What I want to talk about tonight is the most important reason why the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest succeeded where all it predecessors failed, and that is the work of the unsung hero of Everest…Dr Griffith Pugh.

These are the words I was trying to remember as Everest appeared from behind the wing of the A320. They were spoken by the expedition doctor, Dr Michael Ward (1925-2005) at a gathering held by the Royal Geographical Society in May 1993 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the ‘conquest’ of Everest and they were ones that stimulated Harriet Tuckey to find out what her father’s contribution had been since his children were unaware of his true rôle.

Harriet Tuckey wrote a frank biography of her father with whom she and her siblings had a difficult relationship. He was clearly a difficult man—at home, in the lab but less so, I guess, up a mountain. Even for a physiologist of his time he was perhaps slightly beyond, but not that far beyond, ‘normal for a physiologist’. 

*My father worked for Everest Furniture in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. I had assumed that the name referred to the comfort of its products as in ‘perpetual relaxation’. However, I have just found that the company was formed by W.H. Hassall in 1924, the year of the earlier British expedition and the one in which Mallory and Irvine disappeared. Now I wonder whether Hassall chose the name on that surge of public attention to Everest.