A Window on a Lost World

  • Share
  • Read Later
Let us now praise famous men. Fifty years ago this week, a New Zealander and a Nepalese became the first people to stand on the top of the world: the summit of Mount Everest. In modern times, we're not always lucky in our heroes, perhaps because, having elevated skepticism to a virtue, we don't allow ourselves to be. But by all accounts, Edmund Hillary, who is still alive, and Tenzing Norgay, who died in 1986, were the real deal. Hillary was a beekeeper; Tenzing, in effect, a professional climber from the Sherpa community in the Himalayan foothills. The two men, wrote Jan Morris in TIME three years ago — and as a young journalist in the Everest party, Morris had known them both — were "cheerful and courageous fellows doing what they liked doing, and did, best." In their lives after Everest, their reputations as decent, honest individuals remain secure.

But there are reasons to celebrate this anniversary other than the character of Hillary and Tenzing. The records of the 1953 British Commonwealth expedition — especially The Ascent of Everest, a magnificent book written by the team's leader, John Hunt — are a window on a lost world. The assault on the mountain was made by young men who had been forced to grow up fast. Many of them had fought in World War II; one of them, Charles Wylie, had been a prisoner of the Japanese at the notorious Changi camp in Singapore. The experience of wartime meant that the expedition was planned as a military exercise. At Sandhurst, the British West Point, Hunt had been first in his class and later served on the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. He was a man who paid appropriate attention to morale, logistics, supplies and technology. If, like me, you listened to General Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blather on about their "plan" during the Iraq war and wondered what such a thing might look like, then you should read Appendix III of Hunt's book, which in nine crisp pages ("Memorandum: Basis for Planning") shows why good soldiers are not — cannot be — fools.

But I suspect that war cast a more subtle shadow on the Everest expedition. Those who were on the team knew what was really important. They had seen life held cheaply; they had witnessed bravery, nobility, horror, shame and sacrifice. I don't mean to imply that they were depressingly earnest. On the contrary, all accounts of the expedition revel in the fun the group had, with parties galore in Sherpa villages. But I doubt if anyone on the team thought he was doing anything more significant than climbing a mountain. Those men kept things in perspective. One of my single favorite sentences in all literature is Hunt's description of the return to camp of Hillary and Tenzing after reaching the summit. "The next moment I was with them: handshakes — even, I blush to say, hugs — for the triumphant pair." Between that "I blush to say, hugs" and our own age of overemoting, lip-chewing Presidents and Prime Ministers, of nations weeping at the death of a princess or a Kennedy, of private joy and grief turned into public spectacle, there is a yawning gap not just of time but of sensibility.

We like letting it all hang out. Our culture long ago lost touch with — in fact, came to despise — the virtues that an earlier generation would have called "Roman," like honor, restraint and stoicism. That's one reason for celebrating those individuals for whom such qualities were second nature.

My copy of The Ascent of Everest is autographed by George Band, who was the youngest member of the expedition — just 24 in 1953. His parents went to the same church as mine, and my father got his signature when Band gave the congregation a slide show on his exploits in the high mountains. (In 1954 Band and another legendary British climber, Joe Brown, were the first men to summit Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak, and technically a much tougher climb than Everest.) Now retired, Band still leads treks in the Himalayas. When I spoke to him last week, I asked him to describe his colleagues in the Everest party. His choice of adjectives was illuminating and a little archaic. Hunt, he said, was courageous, diligent, intelligent, hard-working, a good linguist, "good at chairing a meeting," a "very great leader." Hillary? Tough, determined, thin and lithe, "bags and bags of energy." And what did Band think now of the — to modern ears — hilariously measured tones with which Hunt described the moment of triumph? Oh, said Band, all climbers are stoics. They have to be, for climbing can be "somewhat callous and barbaric. It's a dangerous sport." Besides, he added quietly, "it was a different world."

Not a worse one, though.