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ExWeb series: Everest unsung heroes - Eric Shipton, part 3
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Mar 24, 2005 08: 50 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 3 (of 4):

Part 3: Everest’s broken dreams

Eric Shipton was unable to attempt Everest in 1951 since a Swiss team had already acquired the permit to try it first. So he set his sights on exploring and attempting Cho Oyu instead. His main goal, however, was to prepare team-members for Everest for the next year.

The race for Everest was rustling up the British nerves. 1953’s expedition had to be ‘definitive.’ Failure would not be accepted. That same year Queen Elizabeth was being crowned. The highest mountain on earth would be a perfect coronation present.

For the Queen and the country

Eric Shipton was by far the greatest expert on Everest. He had already discovered and explored the route that would lead them to the top. He was also one of the most accomplished explorers and climbers the British Empire could offer. He was perfect to lead the 1953 expedition. At least there was no doubt throughout the climbing community. Politicians, though, were another breed.

Shipton had grown more and more convinced that the path up Everest required a small team. He despised the normally huge expeditions and “the small, noisy towns of tents” that sprouted in BC and in every evening on the approach.

His ‘revolutionary’ climbing preference clashed frontally with the Everest Committee members. They wanted to send over doctors, ample amounts of new equipment, plenty of nutritious food, and a great number of strong climbers, believing that more was better. They thought that if the climbers could eat good food, sleep in quality tents, and have first-rate oxygen systems, then they would be strong enough to reach the top.

You are fired, sir

Without warning, the Committee sacked Shipton – or, let’s say they suggested he resign his position – and hired the Brigade General John Hunt as expedition leader, even though he had never been to Everest before. The climbers were shocked, Shipton most of all. Though a gentleman first and foremost, he withheld comment and retreated graciously in silence.

John Hunt did a fine job in his own way, organizing a major expedition, calling for 14 climbers and hiring 350 porters. The team carried the best in high-altitude boots, windproof clothing, sturdy yet lightweight tents, special radios and walkie-talkies, Primus stoves, aluminum-alloy ladders for crevasses, ropes, and the latest oxygen tanks.

The Triumph

The results are well known. The New Zealander and the Sherpa, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, “knocked the bastard off” and their triumph was dispatched in coded messages through Sherpa mail runners to the first telegraph post in Kathmandu so efficiently that the news reached London in time to hit the front page of The Times on the very same day Queen Elizabeth was crowned.

Still in BC, after the dinner, John Hunt made a toast to the Duke of Edinburgh, patron of the expedition, and to Eric Shipton, “who had contributed a great deal to the achievement.”

Lookout beyond Everest

Shipton´s admirers – there were many – had spared no bitter commentary when Eric was rejected. However, Shipton himself ceased to respond to the rude manner in which the fulfillment of his dream had been prevented. And sure enough, he dreamt of climbing Everest. As soon as the mountain was summited he forced himself to consider that there were still many peaks around the world. He would later reckon, in fact, that Everest had blocked his vision from any other project. “Once you tried it, it was very difficult to stop.”

However, he remained positive and shifted his focus another way. Exactly, to the Karakorum, which he explored again in 1957… and beyond.

Friday part 4, final.

Image of The Times color supplement cover (June 1953), courtesy of Cathedral Grammar School.
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