Everest: on top of the world

Not only was the 1953 first ascent of Mount Everest a pinnacle of human achievement, it was also immortalised by the brilliant photography of expedition member George Lowe. Captions by Huw Lewis-Jones...

This article was first published the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

The demands of supply

George Lowe took this shot of the advance party, loaded with supplies, as it cautiously weaved along the Khumbu Glacier on 12 April 1953 en route to base camp. When the expedition’s official cameraman, Tom Stobart, developed a mild dose of pneumonia, the task of documenting the ascent fell into the amateur hands of the mountaineers. Lowe was the only one to show an interest. Sixty years later, his images remain extraordinary.

 

Extreme caution

An advance party attempts to negotiate a passage through the Khumbu Icefall, described by Lowe as “a shattered chaos of shifting ice – a very dangerous place to be”. The majority of his shots, though, were taken prior to climbs, for understandable reasons. “Whenever the true pressure was on,” he later explained, “everything, including photography and photographers, was sacrificed to the prime task of climbing the mountain.”

 

Bridging the void 

The ever-present grave peril of the expedition is captured by this shot of a Sherpa crossing the ladder bridge at the justly named ‘Nasty Crevasse’. Right up until his death in March at the age of 89 (he was the last surviving member of the expedition), Lowe was unfailingly modest about his artistry. “There was no need for any fanciful photographic effort on my part. The climbing of Everest is its own spectacle, and I took simple shots.” 

 

The big chill 

From Camp IV at 21,000ft (6,400m), the dark pyramid of Everest’s summit looks impenetrable. The higher the expedition climbed, the thinner the oxygen and the colder the temperatures. And the colder the temperatures, the slower the movie camera filmed proceedings (Lowe took both still and moving pictures of the ascent). To combat this, Lowe took the unorthodox decision to sleep with the camera equipment inside his vest in order to keep it warm.

 

Heroes of Everest 

Climbing pals George Lowe (left) and Edmund Hillary comprised the New Zealand contingent of the multinational expedition. The footage Lowe shot of the expedition led to a subsequent documentary film, The Conquest of Everest, which received an Academy Award nomination later that year. 

 

Summit meeting 

At 11.30am on 29 May 1953, Edmund Hillary showed himself to be a more than capable photographer when he captured this iconic image of his summit-conquering partner Tenzing Norgay. Hanging from Tenzing’s ice-axe are the flags of Britain, Nepal, the United Nations and India. No member of the team had remembered to bring a Union Jack to Nepal, so the flag flown by Tenzing was liberated from the ambassador’s car at the British embassy in Kathmandu. 

The pair only spent 15 minutes at the summit and no shot exists of Hillary on the peak; Tenzing hadn’t used a camera before. But the absence of such a unique souvenir didn’t seem to concern the New Zealander. “I’m probably the only Everest climber in the world who doesn’t have a big summit photograph of himself above the mantelpiece – and it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

 

The cup of good cheer

Back at Camp IV the day after their triumphant success, Tenzing drinks a celebratory cup of tea, while Hillary opts for warm lemonade. When they arrived back in Kathmandu a week or so later, the Kiwi learned he was to be knighted by the just-crowned Queen Elizabeth II. His Nepalese partner would receive the George Medal.

 

Team players 

This shot of the clearly jubilant expedition was also taken at Camp IV during the descent. For many, including Lowe, the team spirit was the source of the mission’s success. “That’s the real point,” he later explained, “the real reason why 1953 was so special for us. We were a group of people that had gathered together from all corners of the world, yet we nonetheless quickly became a team of friends… To me, the mountains are not a place for competition. The mountains are just where you want to be.”  

These photographs are taken from The Conquest of Everest by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones (Thames & Hudson, 2013)

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