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ExWeb series: Everest unsung heroes - Eric Shipton, part 2
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Mar 22, 2005 06: 46 EST
As a new generation of aspiring Everest summiteers migrates to the mountain, we take a look at perhaps the greatest Everest legend from our past: Eric Shipton. Pioneer of the Alpine style, he was a team-member on all four Everest expeditions during the 1930’s and found the route that Hillary and Tenzing would follow to the top of the world. What now embodies pure alpinism, in Shipton’s times was almost blasphemy. He was therefore rejected from fulfilling the dream of reaching the summit of Everest, or at least to try it with style. Today, part 2 (of 3):

Many routes to heaven

In the early 1930’s, Eric Shipton was a young consul in India armed with a reputation for adventure and a résumé chock full of impressive climbs. Clearly a charming, compelling figure, making friends was easy and women were drawn to him.

The author of a National Geographic article quoted the sentiments of admirer Beatrice Weir, just 17 when she met him at a garden party in India: “Suddenly,” she said, “there appeared this extraordinary brown-faced man, fairly small, with strong legs and a strong body, a shock of hair and slightly weak chin. He had blazing blue eyes everyone used to talk about; he just sat and looked. It was indefinable. I melted like an ice cube.”

Though Shipton did marry once, he found the act of settling down somewhat betraying to his adventurous spirit. His numerous diplomatic assignments presented him with the opportunity to explore different regions, both isolated and fascinating. His expeditions left in their wake a path of mountains and spires all bearing Shipton’s name, as well as a series of adventure books that would inspire adventure wannabees throughout the world.

Record on Nanda Devi

No love could compare to his love of discovery; no woman’s beauty could match the hidden valleys of the Himalayas and central Asia. Chief among his findings was the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi, discovered by Shipton and Tilman in 1934 at the close of a long expedition. Only their minimal logistics, their knowledge of the native languages, and their will to let nature provide food and shelter allowed them to find a pass in the mountain wall surrounding the highest peak in the unexplored Garhwal Himalayas.

It would be Tilman, not Shipton, who would summit Nanda Devi two years later. Shipton was on Everest at the time, an expedition for which Tilman was rejected as a team-member “due to his incapacity to bear altitude.” Well, Bill was more than capable of reaching the 7816m summit of Nanda Devi, thus setting a new record of the “highest point reached by humans.”

Setting new standards

In 1938, the “incapable” Tilman led an expedition to Everest. With him, he had Shipton as a team member and a fiery supporter of a revolutionary – if not mad – style of climbing, a light style!

The pair had time to explore the immense Karakorum Range, mapping Hispar and Biafo glaciers, traversing the north side of Mustagh Tower, and trekking back westwards through the Hunza Valley.

The rules of war

By the end of 1939, most of the world was engaged the Second World War. Exploration suddenly came to a halt. But through the years, the expeditions would eventually continue, like that to Muztag Ata where, just meters from the summit, Shipton had to turn back. And he could not remove the goal of an Everest conquest from his mind.

In 1950, Tibet was invaded by Chinese troops and the frontiers closed down. Consequently, Nepal opened its mountains to avid national teams to whom the triumph of conquering the Himalayan heights would be considered almost a political achievement. The British founded the Joint Everest Committee, an organization devoted solely to tackling that summit, no matter the cost.

The siege of Everest

The logical approach was to attempt the peak from Everest’s south side, facing Nepal. Though access to the upper slopes, however, proved a formidable challenge, as the mountain was guarded by the impressive Khumbu ice fall. Who could find a way through the massive, perpetually moving ice chunks? Well, leading an expedition organized in 1951, Shipton did. At the last moment, a young New Zealander joined the team. His name was Edmund Hillary.

Shipton managed to find a way up the Khumbu ice fall and discovered the route on the Lothse face to the South Coll. Then, he was inclined to heed the warnings of the expedition’s Sherpa sirdars who informed Eric of the worsening weather and snow. They advised it would be wiser to wait for the spring. Shipton agreed.

In the meantime, a Swiss team had acquired a permit to climb Everest that next spring. Shipton was unaware. The news delivered a significant blow to Britain’s mountaineering aspirations. And since the command was to stick the Union Jack on the summit, and do it soon, even if it took 1000 people stomping their way up that dammed mountain, there was no time for elegant climbs and pure styles.

Wednesday: Part 3.

Image of the Everest 1951 expedition, finding a route through the Khumbu Icefall’s seracs, courtesy of montanismo.org.mx (Boletin Informativo de la Asociacion de montanismo y exploracion de la Universidad Autonoma de Mexico).
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