Everest Expedition - Into thin air

To mark the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt Everest, a new book published this week collects photographs from the other New Zealander in the 1953 British Everest Expedition, the late George Lowe, who died last month. Here are some of his original photographs from the famous climb and the book’s epilogue, a tribute to Lowe by former Times reporter Jan Morris

The icy peaks of Mt Everest. Photo / Supplied
The icy peaks of Mt Everest. Photo / Supplied

Among his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, the general reputation of Wallace George Lowe - George Lowe to you and me - is probably that of a brave, friendly, honest, tough, mountain-climbing New Zealander. It is a just reputation, and true.

However, from my visual memory, after 60-odd years of contact with the man, I like to pluck three images in particular that illustrate extra facets of a subtle personality.

The first picture comes to me from the early weeks of the 1953 British Everest Expedition, the first to reach the summit, to which I was attached as correspondent of The Times. Nothing particularly newsworthy was happening on the day I have in mind, but I was wandering around our Camp III, at 20,000ft [7000m] or so, wondering what to write about, when I noticed two tiny figures, far, far away, 3000ft higher on the face of the mountain Lhotse. This was on the expeditions's planned route to the summit and through my binoculars I could see that two men were hard at work on the snowface, stamping and cutting and digging some kind of track. They were muffled against the cold and the wind, and they were working slowly and painfully in the thin air of 23,000ft.

They seemed to me like two allegorical friends up there, working in a mystery play. Only later did I learn that they were George Lowe and the Sherpa Ang Nyima. They were spending a full week on that desolate mountain face, assiduously preparing away towards the summit, an Asiatic and an Antipodean working together, all alone in that high, white solitude; and for me the vision, now forever preserved in my sub-conscious, exemplifies not just the fortitude of George Lowe, but his gift for comradeship too.

My second memory-glimpse is also of Everest, but now of the circumstances are very different.

This time it is May 29, 1953, in the very last days of our expedition, and I am at Camp IV, at about 21,000ft, with John Hunt, our leader and a few of the British climbers and Sherpa. The day is brilliant, all seems blue, white and crystal-clear, and we are awaiting the turn of Tenzing Norgay, the most celebrated of all the Sherpa, and Ed Hillary, another New Zealander, from their attempt to reach the summit - the climax of our adventure.

George Lowe has climbed up there, far above his old work-place on the Lhotse face, to meet them and see them safely down, and I am here in the mountain sunshine of the Western Cwm to learn whether they have made it to the top. If they have, I have it in my power to make the pair of them two of the most famous men on Earth.

And here they come! We rush up the snow slope to meet them, grizzled Hunt in the lead, a cluster of us slipping and sliding around him, with me in the middle already planning my night's dispatch. Here they come! Ed and Tenzing, still roped together, look exhausted, almost dazed, but leading them down to meet us is George Lowe, and he looks radiant. He has always walked proud, with an almost military bearing, and now, with his ice-axe in his left hand, like a cocky colour-sergeant, he is giving us an exuberant thumbs-up with his right. They've done it!

Everest is climbed, mankind has reached the summit of its planet, and George Lowe is its stylish, pleased and proper herald.

And here's my third retrospection. This time we are on the other side of the world, in Maryland, or Virginia, or perhaps California - I forget exactly where. I am with George Lowe, Ed Hillary and Charles Evans, our deputy leader on Everest, on a lecture tour in the United States to commemorate that first climbing of the mountain.

We (or rather they, because I am only there as a kind of spokesperson) have been treated like heroes, with banquets and honorary citizenships and presidential receptions and in my memory now I see the four of us lined up to shake hands with a wonderfully generous public, somewhere or other in the Great Republic. There is Ed, the hero of heroes, shortly to be immortalised on postage-stamps and dressed in antique fineries as a Knight of the Garter. There is Charles Evans, the brain surgeon, soon to be knighted too as Principal of Bangor University. There is me, looking sheepish but undeniably pleased with myself.

And there is George, leaning forwards slightly to offer his hand to a glowing matron. He is laughing, perhaps at a joke of hers, perhaps at a sally of his own, and she is laughing too. What does this image suggest to me? Why, it reminds me that George Lowe the mountaineer is a man of sweet charm and courtesy. In an age when the very word is going out of fashion, he is a gentleman.

So what? What have my memories contributed? Nothing perhaps. We are back where we started, with the well-known fact that Wallace George Lowe is a brave, friendly, tough and honest mountain-climber, from New Zealand."

• This is an extract from 'The Conquest Of Everest: Original photographs from the legendary first ascent', by George Lowe and Huw Lewis Jones (Thames & Hudson $65), out now.

- NZ Herald

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