Thursday, March 31, 2011

Coronation Everest, by James Morris

For an up-close outsider's view of the 1953 first ascent of Mount Everest, try reading James Morris' Coronation Everest. Morris was the Times correspondent attached to the expedition, who gained exclusive coverage in exchange for his employer's sponsorship. On the march to the mountain, Morris follows about a week behind the expedition, and throughout the narrative he stays well behind the front. He stays up-to-date both through radio reception and contact with the climbers as they descend the mountain. Morris climbs up the lower reaches of Everest on occasion, and actually makes it as far as Advanced Base Camp in time to hear the news of Tenzing and Hillary's ascent. He sends news dispatches using a crew of Sherpa runners who make the trip to Kathmandu in as little as six days. He also utilizes an Indian Army wireless station at Namche Bazaar to send his famous coded message that sounded like defeat but actually meant that Mount Everest had been ascended by Tenzing and Hillary on May 29th.

Morris is continually worried about maintaining his exclusive scoop on the climb. He is preceded up the mountain by Ralph Izzard (author of An Innocent on Everest), causing him great worry, and other journalists make it as far as Base Camp in their efforts. Outside newsmen harass his runners, and Morris has to be doubly sure both in the integrity of his runners and in the sealing of his packages. In addition, several news crews set themselves up in Kathmandu to scrounge any bits of information they can manage. You may remember Goswami, in Everest, Is It Conquered?, trying to sort out all the printed misinformation into a semi-logical storyline.

The author's style is currently a bit dated, though entertaining. A lot of his descriptions of people, especially ethnic, are not the sort of things one gets away with in polite company today. Though he's never scathing or malicious, there's plenty that might cause minor offense. At times, however, these characterizations bear enough truth to provide some insight, if not begrudging entertainment. Morris' sense of humor makes this book worth the read for me. He is able to make light of nearly any situation, but he remains respectful of both the climbers and his Sherpa employees.

Because Morris stays lower on the mountain, his personal narrative highlights plenty of details that don't get full coverage in other accounts. He talks glowingly of Mike Westmacott's daily maintaining of the Khumbu Icefall route during the second half of the climb. He relates stories about Griffith Pugh, George Band, and Michael Ward that I found interesting. He also reminds the reader that Michael Ward played a large part in any full-scale expeditions trying the South Col route by his insistence of a second, more detailed reconnaissance of the Khumbu Icefall and Western Cwm in 1951. Ward's being chosen as a reserve support climber for the assaults on the summit is seen as a poor choice by the author. Now I'm curious what Ward has to say about it in his autobiography, In This Short Span. I will have to investigate!

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