I was hoping this was going to be a post featuring an interview with a writer. After reading a proof copy of George Lowe’s Letters from Everest, I had the idea of talking to him about the book. How could it not be fascinating, went the thinking, to meet the 89 year-old sole survivor of the 1953 expedition that finally conquered the world’s highest mountain? His letters home, which are being published to mark the occasion’s 60th anniversary, are wonderful. They run from February of that year, when Edmund Hillary’s team arrived in Bombay, through to June, when they were being feted for their achievement wherever they went. ‘Already unknown women are writing – this is quite fun.’
There’s a very humble quality to Lowe all the way through the story. He talks in a very matter of fact way about the task in hand, seeing it as just that – a task. His job was to cut steps in the ice up the summit ridge, placing a camp for Hillary and Tenzing at 27,900 feet, just a short distance from the summit itself. There are details no novelist would have had the courage to include: the party of 13 includes two Toms, two Michaels, two Georges and two Charles. The team order a yak for food, only to discover that it’s delivered alive and they have to kill it. They’re forced to conduct their walkie-talkie chats in code because a Telegraph journalist is listening in, trying to steal the scoop that the Times have paid for. A physiologist has to abandon his studies on the effects of oxygen deprivation when he accidentally brings a box containing jars of chutney rather than the identical one containing his equipment. Having said all that, Lowe himself displays a turn of phrase that might have suited fiction: the flags left behind by a previous Swiss attempt on the mountain look like ‘a surrealist’s dream of a golf course’.
He documents the emotional journey as well as the physical one. It was Lowe who was the recipient of Hillary’s famous line on descending from the summit – ‘Well, we knocked the bastard off!’ – though there’s soon the sense of anti-climax that often seems to ambush world-beaters: ‘the talk is very desultory and dull … like pricked balloons all our reserves have gone’. He also records the tension caused when Tenzing is hero-worshipped by his fellow Nepalese, apparently at the expense of everyone else in the group.
My thoughts of interviewing Lowe, however, were ended by the sad news a few weeks ago that he’d headed for the highest peak of them all. Cruel timing, as Huw Lewis-Jones of the publishers Polarworld agrees. ‘George was a very special man,’ he tells me. ‘His wife Mary is taking real comfort from the fact that we’ve been able to complete the book for him.’
Did Lowe ever return to Everest to ascend those final few feet to the summit himself?
‘No,’ says Huw. ‘He didn’t want to. For him it wasn’t about the highest, the toughest, the records. Mountains were just where he wanted to be, and he was happy to play his part. Also he was busy thinking about things other than Everest, like the first crossing of Antarctic, which he achieved in 1958 with Vivian Fuchs.’
Letters from Everest is being published on 28th May, the day before the 60th anniversary. You could do worse to honour the memory of a very modest hero than pre-ordering it. You might even want to raise a glass to Lowe, though you can probably treat yourself to more than the ‘egg-cup’ sized serving of rum with which he and his colleagues toasted the Queen’s Coronation a couple of days after their own triumph. Such was their ‘depleted state’ that they all got ‘quite drunk … we passed the evening in singing and merriment.’
Letters from Everest by George Lowe is published on 28th May by Silverbear, an imprint of Polarworld. (£12)