Mount Everest and the countless attempts to conquer the world’s highest mountain have been gripping the imagination for at least the past hundred years. And the first successful attempt by Sir Edmund Hilary (citation) in 1953 set the seal on Coronation Year. It was the year when the gloom of the Second World War was finally shrugged off in Britain. A new Queen was on the throne, and the conquest of Everest was seen as a defining moment for a new age.
But 1953 was just the midpoint in a century of excitement and adventure. Macfilos author Wayne Gerlach wrote about his recent trip to Mount Everest, outlining the mystery of the Mallory and Irvine expedition of 1924 and the tantalising possibility of finding the lost Kodak camera from that fateful journey. I was fascinated by the article, and I remember Wayne’s words:
It is now much easier to visit the north side of Everest than it was for the British expeditions of the 1920s. However, the route is still the same, so it is thought-provoking to stand at historical locations where those early expeditions saw Everest for the first time, nearly a hundred years ago. Very little of the landscape has changed, so one can accurately imagine the view as it was back then.
I was fortunate, many years ago, to hear at first hand the personal recollections of a member of the 1933 Everest Expedition about his return journey across the Tibetan Plateau in springtime.
In late 1977, I served with B Squadron, Oman Gendarmerie, stationed at Buraimi Oasis, situated on the border with the UAE. Just ten miles away, in the eastern shadow of Jebel Hafeet, lived Colonel Sir Hugh Boustead, KBE, CMG, DSO, MC and bar.
His grand address was: Royal Stables, Miziad, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Recollections of an extraordinary man
Sir Hugh was an extraordinary man and, as he said to me, he “wrote his life”. The book was called, “The Wind of Morning”.
It was Sheikh Zaid of the UAE who offered Sir Hugh, towards the end of his life, a home where he could look after the President’s horses and enjoy his retirement amongst the Arabs he loved so much.
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Shortly after I arrived at Buraimi, I was introduced to Sir Hugh, and subsequently, I visited his home on many occasions during that time in 1977. He often had a stream of visitors, but on one occasion, I sat down to dinner with him alone; waited upon by his steward.
He was 82, and I was 29. He loved recounting the exploits in his extraordinary life, and I particularly remember him telling me about the 1933 Everest Expedition. It was just two years after the successful 1975 British ascent from the south-west face. On his coffee table was the book, “Everest The Hard Way”, so Everest was a natural conversation topic.
What sticks in my mind, particularly after some 44 years, is his description of the return journey across Tibet on a pony, having suffered frostbite. He and the rest of the climbing party had been pinned down in atrocious conditions at camp 5, which had been pitched at 25,700 feet.
If I may, I will quote extracts from Sir Hugh’s autobiography. They are as he told me as we sat in his desert home over a most agreeable dinner.
“Outside the tent at camp 5 we gazed over a scene which looked like the top of the world. The great mass of Makalu and all the wilderness of Himalayan peaks were ranged around us, seen through mist and driving snow. A white sheet of snow flew like a pennant from the top of Everest, in effect a snow curtain blown by the wind. The summit looked so near across the great yellow slabs of the last gully, which led up to it.
“After 3 days the food in camp had given out and the porters were in poor condition. News had come that the monsoon was upon us and Hugh Ruttledge sent a message up telling us to come down. My own time had run out and I had to set off without delay for Darjeeling. The descent to the base camp was painful to a degree. I had not realised till then that I was suffering from frostbite, not severe but extremely painful and increasingly so as I went further down. Each time I put my foot on the ground it was like treading on red hot bricks.
“This was the end of the attempt for me…
“At base, a horse transport convoy was arranged with the local Tibetans because I could go no further on foot…
“The journey across Tibet was one of the most memorable and enchanting of its kind I can remember, despite the fact that I had to be lifted onto a Tibetan pony at 8 o’clock in the morning and lifted off at noon for lunch; lifted on again at 1 o’clock until we made camp at 5.
“Rivers that had been iced up when we crossed were running streams with teal and mallard diving in their waters. The great white plains of the plateau were now green with new grass and violet with flowers. Mountains 2 or 3 days’ journey away looked as if you could hit them with a stone. Wild asses, gazelle and Ovis Ammon roamed over the countryside and to the south the snow peaks of the Himalayas were spread in a jagged chain of ice particles.
“For the past two months the only sounds we had heard were the roaring of the winds, the gurgling of a glacier or the fall of ice and rock. We saw no sign of life other than the occasional chough up on the high rocks. We had breathed with increasing difficulty as the height increased, but here although the altitude was 15,000 feet, every breath of air seemed to fill me with so much life I felt I could never be tired again…
“We rode solidly for 8 hours a day, crossing these vast and beautiful plains. I felt I could have done another 4 or 5 hours daily without fatigue. My pony had been taught to tripple the easiest pace for long trekking.
“It was not until we came across the Natu La down into the forests of the Himalayas, already rain-swept by the first monsoon showers, that the pain of the frostbite began to disappear in the damp of the warmer atmosphere…
“When I eventually reached Calcutta my feet were totally recovered.
“I arrived back in the Camel Corps in July. It was not until the following year that I saw General Norton again. He was now in the War Office. We talked for a long time and he asked me what I thought was the most enjoyable part of the expedition.
“I told him of the return journey across Tibet alone, with all the immense contrasts it held compared to the weeks of striving among the snows. I found that my senses had been so keyed up by the weeks of high altitude I was able to appreciate all the beauties of the Tibetan spring in a way I could not describe. Norton entirely agreed, and said, ‘I found exactly the same’. The whole expedition was worth the return journey across the enchanting plains in spring.”
Later at dinner, I asked Sir Hugh about the 1924 expedition and whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had actually reached the summit. He said, “We found an ice axe probably belonging to Irvine”, but offered no other opinion except to say, “We shall never know”.
Sir Hugh died on 4 April 1980 in Al Ain, aged 84. A memorial service took place in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral later that year which I attended. Just as the service began a loud voice behind me was heard to say, “And then he ate his camel!”.
What a remarkable character he was.