Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Goddess Mother

Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Goddess Mother

Article excerpt

Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefry Oneworld, £20, pp. 322, ISBN 9781851689460

Cometh the hour, cometh the many men (and women). The 2012 centenary of Captain Scott's death inspired a series of heroic forays into print: glory-hungry (or just plain hungry) authors questing for something new to say about this much-described event.

Next year is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, and so we might expect more of the same, with an icy blasted peak instead of an icy blasted pole. For those who approach these commemorative sorties with a heavy heart, Mick Conefrey's Everest 1953 should come as a vertiginous relief. The book is neither a flimsy reprise, nor a mercenary hatchet job. Instead, Conefrey crafts an exciting, moving account, with a few controversies revisited in an interesting way. He also refuses to fall into the trap of intuiting the meaning of all things from a single expedition, as sometimes happens when the festive chronicler runs short of new material, or tires of the subject halfway through.

Conefrey begins in the mid-19th century, with the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India, which used observation points to measure the tallest mountain of the Himalayas at 29,002 feet, just 27 feet short of the actual height. The Tibetans called it Chomolungma ('goddess mother of the world'), but the Victorians named it, more prosaically, after George Everest, a former chief surveyor. In 1922, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached 27,300 feet; in 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared close to the top. Tibet banned any attempts on the mountain between 1925 and 1933; the second world war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced another hiatus. In 1951, the British sent an expedition, as did the Swiss in 1952. Conefrey briskly summarises these attempts, before focusing on the ascent of 1953.

It is a sad irony that so many reconstructions of epic journeys send the reader into a soporific trance, but Conefrey is careful to avoid this pitfall. He solemnly swears to unearth 'controversy . . . and crises.' His chapters end on cliff-hangers; his portraits of expedition members read like casting notes for a biopic: Eric Shipton, 'Mr Everest' of the 1930s, was 'a fair-haired, blue-eyed, quintessentially British hero', whose ejection from the 1953 team supplies one of the crises. …

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