The unsung hero of Everest

By Phil Taylor

If there are two things everyone knows about Sir Edmund Hillary, the second is his triumphant, earthy comment to break the news that he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had made it to the summit of Mt Everest.

Just as the historic ascent defined his life, those words became synonymous with Hillary and also with a down-to-earth Kiwi practicality.

Few know the context, that the reply from George Lowe, Hillary's climbing companion, best man and lifelong friend, was equally as laconic.

Lowe, waiting at the South Col with a thermos, called, "How did you get on?"

"Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!"

"Thought you probably must have," replied Lowe. "Here, have a cup of soup."

But for chance, it might have been Lowe who was selected for that summit assault. He was one of the strongest in the three-man party who laboured to cut ice steps to ease the way for Hillary and Tenzing. Lowe set up the pair's final camp, just 344m below the summit.

In acknowledgement of his tireless toil in thigh-deep snow in an area climbers now refer to as "the death zone" and which then was simply an unknown place, the London Daily Express called Lowe "the first hero" of the expedition.

When the earlier summit assault party of Englishmen Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans turned back with problems with their oxygen supply, the prospect opened for an attempt by the Kiwis.

Lowe's health has recently been poor. Some days are better than others. Tuesday, his 84th birthday, was good and he celebrated with lunch at Diamond Harbour, around the bays from Christchurch, where he has a home. He was unwell the next day so his wife, Mary, acted as his voice.

"Ed would have liked the summit pair to be the two Kiwis but John [Lord Hunt] didn't want that. John was ever the diplomat and he wanted a Westerner and an Easterner if possible and it was because Tenzing was capable."

For Lowe, there were no "if-onlys".

He's happy it was Hillary who stood on the summit, and enormously proud of the team effort that put his friend up there.

"In 1953, it was the team that climbed it. That was the thing. It's not like today where all the climbers have to go up to the top. The team had succeeded.

"[Today] it's an ego trip for the individual climber."

Lowe shares Hillary's distaste for the commercialisation of the mountain, which has resulted in many deaths because, he says, it puts the wrong people up there.

They have paid big money for the chance to be guided to the summit and usually have time pressures, never a good thing in the Himalayas where weather and snow conditions dictate opportunities.

Skill is also an issue. "There are folk coming to Everest who shouldn't go up Mt Cook."

Lowe watched as his friend's life was overwhelmed by the world's reaction to the feat and hasn't for a moment wanted to swap places. He admires how Hillary has handled it. The pieces seemed to fall in the right places.

"I'm absolutely delighted I didn't have the life that Ed's had. Ed was the right one. I would have been a bugger. I wouldn't have had the diplomacy that Ed's had."

Because Lowe, who is from Hastings, has mostly lived overseas since 1953, his role is not well known here. The high footage of Hillary and Tenzing was shot by Lowe, who was given the task when the designated cameraman was unable to cope with the altitude.

And Lowe was New Zealand's representative on the Commonwealth expedition across the Antarctic led by British explorer Vivian Fuchs using snowcats and dog teams.

Lowe shot the footage of that expedition too. Fuchs wanted him to do the filming but also, says Mary, knew Lowe was the way to get Hillary to lead the team using tractors to lay supply stations from the other side.

Hillary's team continued and completed the transantarctic crossing before Fuchs but Lowe says there was no rancour. That is a myth which arose from a sensationalist report in a tabloid which then got repeated.

"Ed and Bunny [Fuchs] were good friends. He understood Ed couldn't hang around on the ice; he either had to return or go forward."

The international fame that came Hillary's way was a curse as well as a blessing. "George," adds Mary, "would have been difficult and rude."

While Hillary set about turning the fame to the benefit of the Nepalese, Lowe returned to education, spending a decade at a large school in Chile, the last eight years as rector. He and Mary met later in England when both were "Her Majesty's [school] Inspectors", and married in 1980. It was the second marriage for both, Lowe's first wife being Lord Hunt's daughter, Sue.

The Lowes set up a Himalayan Trust in Britain, which Lowe chaired for 15 years, and which has contributed £500,000 to works in Nepal.

Their main home is in England but in recent years their second home has been Diamond Harbour, to where they have have annually escaped the coldest months of the northern winter.

With Lowe's health no longer up to the travel, the Diamond Harbour house is for sale.

With us last week was Lowe's friend, Ed Cotter, a Christchurch climber who was a colleague of Lowe's and Hillary's on the first New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas. Cotter, 81, shares a birthday with Lowe.

Talking with these pioneering climbers, what looms large is the fickle hand of chance. Hillary's route to the roof of the world began in earnest two years earlier, when he was among a four-man team made up of Alpine New Zealand and Canterbury Mountaineering Club members.

They were organiser Earle Riddiford, Cotter (father of Guy Cotter, a prominent Wanaka guiding business operator who has stood on the summit of Everest "four or five times"), Lowe, from Hastings and the Tuakau beekeeper Hillary.

In preparation the men climbed Mt Elie de Beaumont, at the head of the Tasman glacier, by a route so difficult it wasn't emulated for 30 years.

With Nepal's borders closed, the party climbed in the Indian Garhwal region of the ranges, their ultimate goal the unclimbed Mukut Parbat (7242m). Though Hillary and Lowe had shown out in the Southern Alps, it was Riddiford and Cotter and Sherpa Pasang who made the summit.

The morning of the final ascent was bitterly cold. Lowe had to thaw out his nailed boots by candle flame before he could put them on.

With Lowe in particular suffering from frozen feet, he and Hillary soon decided the final ridge could wait for another day. The other three, led by Riddiford, pushed on, influenced, says Cotter, by Pasang's remark - "Long way come - summit two hours." Riddiford "shone" that day, says Cotter.

Hillary and Lowe made another attempt days later but were turned back by cold and new snow. Hillary was frustrated, even angry, at not personally having reached the objective but news of the Kiwis' success had spread.

Awaiting them on their return to the foothills town of Ranikhet was an invitation for two of the Kiwis to join a British Everest reconnaissance expedition, led by Eric Shipton, exploring the just-opened Nepali south side. This expedition was the precursor to the successful summit attempt two years later and the invitation was an acknowledgement of the Kiwis' ice craft and experience at high altitude they had gained.

Yet they were inexperienced in other matters. Cotter laughs as he looks at photographs of the four taken during their voyage from New Zealand. They are shown with some women passengers on their OE. Cotter notes that both he and Hillary are reading newspapers in a photograph, apparently uninterested in their female company. It was shyness rather than lack of interest, Cotter says.

"We were virgins. Ed had never been that near to a woman."

The British invitation created an obvious problem: four into two won't go. The Brits wanted only two Kiwis and didn't specify who.

"It became quite an evening of egos," recalls Cotter of the debate among the four. "Everyone claimed that they should go."

Lowe suggested they draw straws, Cotter suggested that they all just turn up, reasoning that the worst that could happen would be that one or two would be sent back but it would still be an adventure to go into this country that had never been open.

Ultimately they conceded that Hillary should go and he was joined by Riddiford. Cotter would have liked to have gone for the adventure. "To me the mountains are not a competition. The mountains are just where you want to be."

Of the four, says Cotter, Hillary was the most likely candidate. His restless energy and "open" personality impressed him when they first climbed together in the Southern Alps.

"You couldn't miss his energy and enthusiasm," says Cotter. "He was obviously a man of the hills."

He excelled in the Himalayas, too. "He would busy himself organising the next stage of the expedition; he virtually took over as quartermaster. He was the enthusiast."

Hillary impressed on Shipton's expedition, which led to his invitation to join Hunt's attempt on the summit.

His combination of strength, skill, determination and ambition, combined with a team spirit, made him a natural leader, says Mary Lowe, while her husband made a "marvellous number two: George didn't want to be the leader. He was much happier working with a leader".

Towards the end of the Herald's visit Lowe, who is noted for his humour, felt well enough to sit at the dining table and, with Cotter, look at photographs of their Himalayan expedition.

Lowe gestured with a finger to those historic images and, in a barely audible voice, said "been there, done that".

PAYING WITH THEIR LIVES

Climbing guide Anton Wopereis' fatal fall on New Year's Day was the 219th death in Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park.

Eight were commercial guides, professional mountaineers possessing the highest level of skills. But even guides can't control all the dangers of the mountain environment.

Deaths of New Zealand mountain guides include:

* 1914 - The first deaths on Aoraki-Mt Cook. Darby Thomson and Jock Richmond, and their client Sydney King, were swept away by a massive ice avalanche that fell on to the Linda Glacier from the Main Divide as they were descending from a successful climb.

* 1930 - Amateur guide Teddy Blomfield and four women clients died in a summer blizzard on Tasman Glacier.

* 1989 - Dave McNulty, buried by an avalanche while heli-ski guiding in the Ben Ohau Range.

* 1993 - Gary Ball, collapsed with pulmonary oedema at 7350m on Dhaulagiri in Nepal and died while being lowered.

* 1996 - Rob Hall and Andy Harris, on Mt Everest. Harris and three others perished while descending during a severe storm. Hall died after surviving stranded on the South Summit for 36 hours.

* 2003 - Donald McQueen, fell into a crevasse when a winter snow-bridge collapsed under him on the Cleve Glacier, a tributary of Fox Glacier

* 2003 - Dave Hiddleston, Paul Scaife, Dave Gardner and client Andrew Platt, swept off the North Shoulder of Mt Tasman by an avalanche.

* 2005 - Erica Beuzenberg and clients Kazuhiro Kotani and John William Lowndes, fell on ice near Aoraki-Mt Cook.

* 2008 - Anton Wopereis. Fell and died while leading a client on the Summit Rocks of Aoraki-Mt Cook. It appears the ice into which he had driven his ice-axes peeled away from the mountain.

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