An urgent cable message to Peter Jackson, the Reuters correspondent in Karachi, on 1 April 1953 sent him on what might have been a fool’s errand. As Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were making their way to the summit, he searched for ways to get information about the expedition back to London to beat the Times.
Five British expeditions attempted to reach the summit of Everest in the 1920s and 30s from the northern (Tibetan) side. Some climbers reached high altitudes, but not the summit. After the war, Tibet was a closed area, but Nepal allowed a Swiss expedition in 1952, which got within a few hundred feet of the summit before turning back (to British relief), and now, in 1953, the sixth British expedition was to attempt an assault. It was supported by the Times, which had financed the pre-war expeditions and was determined to keep the story to itself. The climbers were told to keep their mouths shut, especially when journalists were around, and a Times correspondent, James Morris, was attached to the expedition.
I was Reuters’ correspondent in Pakistan, and had been based in Karachi since January 1952. I thought of visiting the Karakoram mountains, the western part of the Himalayan chain, during the hot summer. I had read, with mild interest, about the British Everest expedit-ion, but then, on 1 April, I received a cable from London:
“YOU ASSIGNED COVER BRITISH EVEREST EXPEDITION GET READY LEAVE SOONEST FARRELL MEANWHILE LETTING US KNOW ABOUT SUPPLIES AND VISA STOP WILL REPLACE YOU TEMPORARILY WITH DAVID CHIP MASON REUTER”
Adrienne Farrell, Reuters correspondent in India, had met the Swiss expedition in 1952 when they were setting off from Kathmandu, and seen some of the British climbers taking their wives when going for practice climbs in the Everest area. It led to her suggesting that Reuters send a reporter to cover the British expedition, even adding that she should go herself, perhaps, as she was small, being carried on the back of a porter, a method common in the Himalayas.
The idea of sending a reporter to the high Himalayas was something new, and with the Times having copyrighted the expedition, Reuters doubted whether it was worthwhile. But a Daily Mail reporter, Ralph Izzard, decided to make the trek when he heard that Adrienne was proposing to go. When his reports started to appear, Reuters realised that they had to send their own reporter, and I was the nearest. It meant that I was to head out as a ‘pirate’ to try to get news of the expedition.
I flew to Delhi, where Adrienne was waiting. My assignment meant a 270km trek to Everest over six ranges, and covering the story would take several weeks. We made lists of the food and equipment I would need. Mountaineering equipment was scarce in Delhi but we found useful items in army surplus stores. A tent came from Lucknow, and Reuters sent my mountain boots and some other oddments that I had used in the Norwegian mountains. Adrienne got me a massive sleeping bag filled with chicken feathers.
General Harold Williams, Chief Engineer of the Indian Army and a mountaineer, gave us valuable advice, including that I should take a bird guide—a fateful suggestion that was to change my life. Burmah Shell fitted lids on kerosene cans in which to pack my stores. ICI provided newly-developed plastic wrapping, which we made into bags that proved invaluable for packing rice, sugar and other basics. We also contemplated putting my despatches in these bags and throwing them into a river flowing to India with a request that anyone finding them send them to Adrienne in Delhi—the way 19th-century explorers had sent messages from Tibet.
I also needed a visa to enter Nepal, which was still a closed country where few foreigners had been admitted. After a tense delay, the King’s Council approved my visa just 12 hours before I had booked to fly to Kathmandu.
My equipment weighed about 180kg but the airline did not charge excess. At the airport I ran into Dick Williams, the BBC correspondent, who couldn’t help smirking at my trekking outfit and cans labelled Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa centre near Everest. Like others he thought my expedition a forlorn hope, given the Times’s precautions.
In Kathmandu, the Press Trust of India correspondent, Prakash Tandon, helped to organise my trek. A Sherpa guide, Da Tseri, provided by the Himalayan Club, was there to meet me. I now had even more equipment and I recruited 11 porters to carry loads. Because the hill people would not accept paper money I had to take a box of silver coins, which I gathered sitting on the floor with the money changer. The box was so heavy it needed a porter to carry it. My portable radio and spare batteries were a heavy load for another porter—there were no handy little radios in those days.
When I was about to set off, Izzard returned to Kathmandu. He had reached the Everest base camp, but had been brushed off by the expedition. He had thought of returning towards the end of May when the summit assault was likely to take place. In fact, having found the long trek exhausting and suffered a brief illness, he remained in Kathmandu, so that I had no competitors.
On 1 may, four jeeps took me and my team to Banepa at the eastern end of the Kathmandu valley. During the rough jeep ride I had a violent attack of toothache, which I thought might force me to turn back, but I pressed on and, to my relief, the pain died away by evening.
Nepal had no roads and no telegraph outside the Kathmandu valley. All goods were carried by foot porters. My porters said it would take 17 days to reach Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa town close to Everest, despite my protests that I had to get there as quickly as possible. The first day was a long march and I wondered if they were right. At the end of it I collapsed with fever, which I presume to have been malaria, as it responded to the pills I was carrying. I was able to continue the next day, despite feeling quite weak, and from then on all went well.
Da Tseri jollied the porters along and we made several double marches, eventually reaching Namche in 12½ days instead of 17.
Dick Williams couldn’t help smirking at my trekking outfit and cans.
The Everest trek was through beautiful country. But it went across the grain over six ranges of mountains, each rising higher. In between there were deep descents into river valleys before trudging up the next range.
Rivers had to be crossed by rickety suspension bridges, which danced as we walked on the narrow footboards, or we had to pick our way carefully over slippery tree trunks laid across the turbulent streams.
Sometimes the trail was no more than a narrow plank affixed to steep mountainsides, precarious going, especially for the porters with their heavy loads.
Along the trails were rock platforms on which porters could slip off their loads. Women squatted nearby offering bowls of janr, a millet beer. It looked like porridge and I was doubtful at first, but it was very refreshing and I relished it as I trudged on.
While resting on a mountainside one day, a huge black bird sailed past. It was pictured on the cover of the bird book General Williams had recommended: a Himalayan black vulture. As I went on I was amazed at the colourful birds flitting among the trees and the birdsong. It opened a new world for me, a sub-urban boy, and eventually led me to a new career in wildlife conservation.
The flowers too were entrancing, and as we went higher our trail led through forests of rhododendrons, ranging from red, to pink, and yellow at very high altitudes.
Although I had a tent, I usually stayed in houses with my porters. People welcomed us and let us share the warmth of the open fire in their houses. I had tinned food as luxuries, but lived off the country where rice, eggs, chickens and potatoes could usually be obtained.
Higher up there were wild straw-berries, which were a welcome supplement to a monotonous diet.
I once slept by a statue of the Buddha in a small shrine. I awoke when women and children came in the morning to pray and make offerings, ignoring me.
Most of the hill people had never seen a European before and I was surrounded by friendly crowds that seldom disappeared, even at most intimate moments. Children would curiously touch my hairy arms because Nepalis have smooth skins.
Sometimes I met retired Gurkha soldiers, delighted to greet an Englishman with “Salaam, sahib.”
My typewriter, and especially my radio, were wonders. Crowds milled around as I typed, or when I turned on the radio. They were full of laughter at an American comic, whom they could not possibly have understood.
There were storms on the way and I was glad that I had agreed to buy an umbrella. It provided protection, not only from the rain, but from the sun, and served as a climbing aid. No wonder most of the Nepalis I met on the trail had umbrellas.
At last, we reached Namche Bazaar. It was clear that the Sherpas there had little interest in what was happening on Everest, although it was only 40km away and men from their town were part of the expedition. People were cheerful and friendly.
My porters from Kathmandu were not allowed to go further and, in any case, were not equipped to meet the cold of the heights. I recruited four Sherpas for the trek to the British base camp at the foot of Everest.
From above Namche, I now had a clear view of Everest as I set off on another three days’ trekking higher and higher. We came to Lobujya, which consisted of two stone huts. I was surprised to meet one of the expedition, Mike Westmacott, who was recovering from altitude sickness. I spent a bitterly cold night in one of the huts. Westmacott didn’t leak any news but unwittingly gave me quite a lot of useful information about life on the mountain.
Now we were approaching the gateway to Everest. Above 5,000m I was breathless, my heart was thumping, and I had a mild headache. One of my Sherpas became snow blind from the intense glare from the ice and snow—I was protected by sun glasses.
We lost the way to the Base Camp in a mass of tall ice pinnacles and crevasses. But we got to the foot of the icefall, which leads to the Western Cwm, a deep valley in the heart of the massif.
The glacier was melting in the sun’s rays and warmer summer air, and the icefall rumbled as the great ice blocks slid down. Icy torrents under treacherously thin ice wound among the ice pinnacles. Fortunately, we came upon a trail of litter, obviously left by the climbers, and then saw flags marking a route through the pinnacles to the icefall and so we follow-ed it down to the Base Camp.
A surprised James Morris, the Times correspondent (who later became the author Jan Morris), whom I had known when we were working in Egypt, greeted me, but he would not talk about the expedition. He gave me a piece of currant cake, for which I was grateful.
I returned to the Thyangboche Monastery, perched on a ridge with breathtaking views, and decided to base myself there. The monks were very friendly and hospitable. One of the senior monks, Tsangyi Lama, let me sleep at first in his room, and then gave me a room of my own.
He did everything he could for me and when I went on a trip I could always be sure that on my return, usually soaked with perspiration from the climb to the monastery, he would be waiting to welcome me with a big pot of soup-like Tibetan tea, with potatoes boiled in their jackets to dip in salt and chillies.
For the next two weeks I usually sat outside, shielded from the sun by a tent provided by Tsangyi Lama, and enjoyed looking at an avenue of snow-clad mountains headed by the Everest massif.
I had a large pair of binoculars, which Adrienne had found in Delhi. They were over a foot long and I think must have dated from the Boer War, or even the Crimean. But it was unlikely that I could have seen the tiny specks of climbers.
I could not get any information about the expedition, and so I wrote articles about the Sherpas, Namche Bazaar, the prayer flags and inscribed boulders in this deeply religious land, the potential effect of weather on the assault and so on. All sent to Kathmandu by runner, who delivered them to a Second Secretary at the British Embassy. He passed the despatches to Prakash Tandon, the Press Trust of India correspondent, who telegraphed them to Adrienne in Delhi for forwarding to London.
The monastery was a fascinating place. A gompa (temple) was the centrepiece among the small houses of the monks. The gompa walls were covered with lavish paintings, including fearsome devils, and large sculptures of the Buddha enshrined in the walls.
It was cloudy at Thyangboche on 29 May, and Everest could not be seen. Late next day a runner carrying despatches from James Morris passed through Thyangboche. I learned from those who talked to him that he had been promised Rs200 to get to Kathmandu in six days. I suspected that the mountain might have been climbed.
I wrote articles about the Sherpas, Namche Bazaar, prayer flags and inscribed boulders.
On 1 June, I trekked down to Namche where an Indian police officer I had befriended was posted to monitor the trail to Tibet. He had a morse connection with the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. Peddling a bicycle contraption powered the generator; and he could only send brief messages. He showed me a message from Colonel John Hunt, the expedition leader, saying that snow conditions were bad and that the advance base had been abandoned on 29 May. I suspected that it was a red herring to confuse me and the reporters in Kathmandu. The police officer offered to send a message for me on his morse link with Kathmandu, but I decided not to do so—fortunately. It turned out to be the report of success, decoding as: “Snow conditions bad (Hillary) advance base abandoned (Tenzing) yesterday (29 May).”
On the trail back to the monastery I met James Morris who was heading for Kathmandu. He made out that the expedition had failed—I didn’t believe him.
Next day was 2 June and I heard All India Radio announce that Everest had been conquered. Hunt’s message had reached London and the Times was able to break the news for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day.
The monks at Thyangboche said it was impossible that the summit had been reached as it was the abode of the gods. I hurried down to Namche to get reaction from the people—they were largely indifferent. My policeman friend sent my short report to Kathmandu.
I was rather downhearted, but there had been little likelihood that I could have beaten the Times, and Reuters was aware of it. I sent a note to Colonel Hunt saying that I might be unwelcome, but I congratulated the climbers for their great achievement.
A runner brought a reply. Colonel Hunt said that, far from being unwelcome, he would be delighted to meet me. He said they had done their duty to the Times and he would tell me about the climb.
Two days later the climbers came off the mountain and camped at Thyangboche. I was received with great friendliness. Colonel Hunt said that he felt free to give me an account of the assault and gave permission to Hillary and Tenzing to tell me how they reached the summit.
Hillary said he “felt bloody good at the top”. In deference to the code of conduct of the time I changed it to “felt damn good at the top”. He told me later that his mother had scolded him for saying “damn”—if she had only known what he really said!
Tenzing said, “I was very happy, and not very tired.” Asked if he would like to climb Everest again, Tenzing, who had been a porter for pre-war British expeditions and had been within a few hundred feet of the summit with Swiss climber Raymond Lambert the year before, said, “No, not again, but I would like to try K2 (the world’s second highest mountain). I think it can be climbed,” and headed off to see his mother in a nearby village.
I photographed Hillary and Tenzing with Everest in the background. It was splashed exclusively on the front page of the Sunday Express on 21 June, and next day appeared all over the world.
Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon told me about their earlier attempt on the summit, and how bad weather and oxygen shortage had forced them to turn back when within striking distance.
The other climbers talked freely of their experiences as I scribbled notes.
It was now evening, and with no competition I was able to relax, share drinks with the climbers and spend a night in one of their tents. Next day I settled before my typewriter and wrote my despatches.
Hillary said he felt “bloody good at the top”.
I needed a Sherpa to race to Kathmandu with the interviews. It took hours of haggling until, finally, a man agreed to do the journey in six days for a tip of £3/10s above his pay. He would get £3 for seven days and nothing if he took longer. He reached Kathmandu in six days, which was fortunate, for Colonel Hunt arrived the next day. My stories could have been spoiled if they had not already reached London.
Although they did not believe the summit had been reached, the Thyangboche monks put on a traditional dance for the expedition.
I took only 10 days to trek back to Kathmandu, as I was now very fit. But because the Dudh Kosi river had risen it was impossible to cross to the route we had come along. We had to undertake the steepest and longest of all our climbs in pouring rain. At the pass, the only shelter was in a rock cave, where we spent the night.
Passing a shepherd’s camp I was attacked from behind by a guard dog, a big Tibetan mastiff, which bit my hamstring; luckily it was not crippling and soon healed.
Further down I came upon a merry party of monks with some Sherpas doing some acrobatics. I joined them, and impressed everyone by standing on my head. Da Tseri caught up and told me it was a funeral.
On 14 June, I heard my interviews quoted on All India Radio, and I breathed a sigh of relief; the runner had made it.
Down in the foothills, the humid heat was appalling. The June sun burned down and rocks radiated the heat; we dripped with sweat. My brain was obsessed with dreams of cold beer and a shower.
I began to meet groups of young Nepalis, eager to know who had stepped first on the summit. I told them I didn’t know, hadn’t asked, because Hillary and Tenzing were roped together as a team, dependent on each other. It was the first intimation of a controversy that was beginning to rage in Kathmandu.
In company with climbers Charles Wylie and Michael Ward, I reached Banepa on 18 June, where a rough road led to Kathmandu. We met my colleague Prakash Tandon, coming out in a jeep to meet me. He had booked a room for me at Nepal’s only hotel, a former palace, and there my dreams of cold beer and showers came true.
James Morris made out that the expedition had failed—I didn’t believe him.
On 20 June, the British Ambassador greeted the climbers as they approached Kathmandu, amid crowds of excited reporters from many countries. They had waited for weeks, and been up to all kinds of tricks to get news of the expedition. But nothing had leaked and many misleading stories had been sent. One happened to be a corrupted version of a report I had sent about a rumour that two attempts on the summit had failed, and stressing that it could not be confirmed. I learned that someone had overheard the report being telephoned to Delhi and claimed that I had confirmed failure.
When the climbers arrived in the city, they were besieged. They were driven through teeming crowds, passing banners showing images of Tenzing standing proudly on the summit, some with Hillary sprawled below at the end of a rope. Tenzing, usually cheerful, began to look very depressed and worried. Hillary grimaced.
At the Royal Palace, sweaty and dirty, Hillary, Tenzing and Hunt were honoured by King Mahendra.
Next day, Hunt was asked at a press conference if Tenzing was a great climber. He replied that he was, but could not be compared with alpine rock climbers—meaning that Everest was not technically as difficult to climb as the Swiss Alps. Reporters rushed to tell Tenzing that Hunt had said he was not a good climber. Tenzing replied: “Has anyone else been seven times on Everest?”
Indian and Nepali reporters were fighting over Tenzing’s nationality—both wanting to claim the hero. Eventually, with the help of the Indian ambassador, Tenzing explained that his Sherpa people came from Tibet; he was born in near Namche (Nepal), and grew up in Darjeeling (India). He was given both Indian and Nepali passports.
I headed for Delhi, but could not get a flight out of Kathmandu, so I trekked along the traditional trail over the mountains to the plains. After a sweaty night in Patna I flew to Delhi. Adrienne, who had been backstopping the Everest story and forwarding my despatches, showed me press cuttings of my stories from all over the world. Our joint success on the Everest story led to our marriage the next year in England and we returned to Delhi to work together as Reuters correspondents for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka for the following 16 years.
The American Expedition
Ten years later, in 1963, American climbers were tackling Everest. Reuters wanted to know how we would cover it. Reuters reported that a radio ham in Australia had picked up a message from the American team, asking any recipient to call the nearest American embassy to send a message to Kathmandu for a helicopter to pick up an injured Sherpa woman they had found on their way to Everest—she was picked up and survived.
It occurred to me that if expedition messages could be received by a ham in Australia, we ought to be able to do so in Delhi. London got me the frequency from the Australian ham, who added that it was ‘SSB’. I didn’t know what that was.
I tried without success to pick up expedition messages on my standard radio and so I went to see the head of the Indian communication system. When I told him about the problem, I mentioned that the Australian had said SSB. “That’s Single Side Band,” he said, and lent me a special receiver, which one of his technicians set up.
Meanwhile, Liz Hawley, our American Kathmandu stringer, had got the frequency used by the expedition to talk to the embassy and the call was scheduled for 5pm daily. We duly tuned in, and our jaws dropped as we heard the climbers’ voices. Now, despite noisy static interference, we got many stories, and the opposition, as well as the US Embassy in Delhi, could not make out how we got them.
On 2 May we couldn’t pick up the radio link and so we missed the news that the expedition had succeeded, but Liz Hawley got Reuters a scoop on that.
No names had been given of the climbers who reached the summit. For days we heard the Embassy in Kathmandu pressing for names, and the climbers insisting that it was a team success, and nobody should be singled out. On 9 May, despite awful reception, we heard the editor of Life magazine, which had supported the expedition, demanding the names—the climbers gave in, and a faint voice, barely audible amid the noise, said, as far as we could make out: “....Jim Whittaker, Jim Whittaker (fade-out) ...mbu, Gombu, Gombu was the Sherpa”and then all went silent.
We ran a recording over and over again to check the names. Finally, we felt confident, we sent a flash to London, far ahead of the opposition. And that was how President John Kennedy got the news on the Reuters printer in the White House.
Peter Jackson and his wife Adrienne Farrell were Reuters correspondents in India throughout the 1950s. Peter left Reuters to join the WWF and later became Chairman of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.
This article was first published in Geo, October 2008.