Snow Warning on Everest

Friday, 20 July 2012

When Mike Westmacott died on 20 June, I pulled Jan (then James) Morris’ Coronation Everest off the shelf to research his obituary. It is a lovely book, I think, arguably a warm-up for her later, more substantial work, but it does illustrate what a great stylist she is. Its climax, apart from Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit, is Morris’ dash, in the safe-keeping of Westmacott, through the Icefall to deliver the news.

Before leaving Britain, Morris had worked out with her editor at The Times a code she could use over the shortwave radio to conceal what was happening on the mountain from those listening in, thus preserving that august organ’s scoop. When she put the sentence ‘Summit of Everest reached on May 29 by Hillary and Tenzing,’ into code, it read: ‘Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.’

It so happened that the Sunday Times, now a sister paper and owned by your friend and mine Rupert Murdoch but then a competitor, sent out a facsimile of its coronation edition to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. I’m not sure quite why they did this, since the coronation was 59 years ago, but hey, it’s cheerier than the edition bringing news of King George VI’s death.

On the front page was a story about the Everest expedition, under the headline Snow Warning on Everest, which was hazy on detail but confirmed that the second attempt on the summit had failed and the leader Colonel John Hunt was bringing the climbers down. There was more concrete detail on how the Reuters correspondent had despatched a runner the 20 miles back to Namche Bazaar to relay this information.

I’m pretty sure the Sunday Times had Morris’ despatch before they ran their story. Morris filed by radio after nightfall on Saturday 30 May, early afternoon in London and in plenty of time for the Sunday papers. And Morris says that when he arrived back at base camp, the competition weren’t lurking around looking for a scoop. So how did the Sunday Times know that the second attempt had been abandoned? My guess is they read Morris’ despatch. And were fooled.

So the only thing you can conclude from reading this story, which was published two days after Everest was climbed and re-emerged by chance to celebrate the Queen’s jubille, is that Jan Morris’ code worked. All honour to her.
Just for fun, I did figure out that had the oxygen equipment Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon were using worked, then the Morris despatch would have said: ‘Snow conditions bad stop ridge camp untenable yesterday stop Lhotse Face impossible.’

I wonder what the Sunday Times would have made of that?

Posted by Ed Douglas at 1.21 PM