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ExWeb series: Everest unsung heroes - Eric Shipton, part 1
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Apr 2, 2005 18: 20 EST
Previously published Mar 18, 2005 10: 33 EST

Most mountaineers are leaving for Everest in the next week, to plant their own step in a trail broken by ancestors a long time ago.
The summits will be important statistics, but the drama, the truth and the lessons will be found only in the climbs.

And so, as a new generation of Everest summiteers migrates to the tallest of them all, let's take a look at perhaps the greatest Everest legend from our past: Eric Shipton. Today, part 1 (of 3):

Pioneer of Alpine style

Adventurer of all the world’s wildest corners, discoverer of forbidden mountains and secret sanctuaries, admired by fellow explorers, and loved by women, Eric Shipton seems like a character pulled from the movies of the good old times.

His name, however, will live on in the history books as a genuine explorer, diplomat, and true pioneer of alpine style climbing.

Everest path finder

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.

The huge, British Empire-style expeditions didn’t appeal to him, though. Along with long time friend Tilman, Shipton would devote himself to small teams exploring with minimal logistics, climbing light and fast.

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.

Growing coffee in Africa

Eric Earl Shipton moved around the world, virtually, since he was a baby. He was born in 1907 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but as a proper English gentleman to be, he was shipped off to the motherland for his education.

But rainy, green England soon proved too small for the adventure-thirsty Shipton. Climbing holidays in the Alps were not enough. At 22, he packed his belongings and left for the most adventurous place he could think of: Africa. He wanted to grow coffee, but he would soon find out there was much more offered by the ‘mysterious continent.’

First discovery: Unclimbed mountains

In Africa, Shipton would make three separate discoveries that would change his life in the future. First, the unclimbed mountains: Young Eric fell in love with Mount Kenya at first sight.

Within months of his arrival, he accomplished the first climb of Nelion Point (including some very demanding vertical sections) and the second climb to the less formidable Batian Point.

Second discovery: Simplicity

Second, he discovered how easily one could stretch his budget by keeping things simple. By renouncing westerly commodities and utilizing a very small team bold enough to enter unknown terrains, they could accomplish whatever they dreamt of. He organized the Mt. Kenya expedition with only 40 pounds.

Third discovery: A friend

Third, he found a life-long friend and a twin soul in Harold William Tilman. On expedition strategy, Shipton and Tilman shared a similar belief.

In further years, they would astonish friends (and desperate competitors) by claiming that any expedition could be planned merely by taking notes on a cocktail napkin.

From Kenya to India

Since they met, they followed where adventure led them. They would eventually return to Mt. Kenya to complete the traverse of its two main points. In the three years that Shipton lived in Africa, he would summit the mountain four times, using a different route each time.

But Shipton’s restless spirit would soon carry him to far away lands. In India, he was named Consul, where he promptly found himself involved in another expedition. He would summit Mt. Kamet in 1931 as a member of a team led by Smythe. At that point, the 7.756 m summit was the highest location to have ever been reached by humans.

The spell of Everest

Shipton would later return to Africa where he joined up with Tilman to explore the Ruwenzori Range (nicknamed “The Mountains of the Moon” by explorer Burton) in Uganda, but the spell of the Himalayas had a profound impact on him.

In 1933 Smythe beckoned Shipton again to partner another expedition. This time, the goal was… Everest. The team climbed from Tibet (Nepal was closed to foreigners until 1950), and Shipton reached 8400 meters before turning around on the First Step.

No problem: Now he knew his target, and he was young, bold, and eager to renounce old westerly comforts and pursue his dreams of unseen summits and unidentified explorations.

Monday, part 2

Image of Eric Shipton, courtesy of Cathedral Grammar School.
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