Saturday, June 15, 2013

Everest: The First Ascent, by Harriet Pugh Tuckey

Harriet Pugh Tuckey writes a biography of her father, Griffith Pugh, while setting the record straight on his role during the 1953 expedition in Everest: The First Ascent: How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Tuckey faced a complex task, as her emotional distance from her father prevented her from getting to know him before his death, his archives were shipped off to California before she started writing, and nearly everything written about Everest fails to mention him. (I should know...I've read most of it!) She writes a sophisticated tale of a man who was terrible to his family, and yet treated others with deference and worked tirelessly to solve adventurers and athletes' problems with altitude, cold, and heat. He came to be a part of the Everest experience as a physiologist through a recommendation from a Himalayan Committee that was determined to get things right in 1953, even if it meant resorting to professionalism, militarism, and (Gasp!) science. Pugh set to work redesigning the climbers shoes, clothes, sleeping bags, stoves, mattresses, tents, diet, hydration, oxygen use, and acclimatization regime with the singular purpose of getting climbers to the top of Everest. He gained what insights he could from the Cho Oyu "training" climb, fighting to get his science taken seriously, and used his results, in addition to experience from the Second World War in preparing mountain troops, to revolutionize the way the world's highest mountains should be approached. Tuckey pieces together his efforts, both through official channels and behind the scenes, to get his scientific innovations to be used, including a drawn-out conflict over how much oxygen should be carried and used. She also defends his conduct on the mountain, as he was treated in early accounts either as a scientific nuisance or comic relief, whereas the primary sources state otherwise. Though he would later be almost entirely written out of the official history of Everest, he never bothered to defend or highlight his pivotal role in getting climbers to the summit.

Tuckey does a good job of placing the conflicts among Committee members, climbers, and scientists into the context of British society at the time. Public schools tended to treat science as an inferior topic, and the cult of amateurism still ruled over both athletics and adventure. It's amazing to me that at the dawn of the age of mountaineering, climbers could not imagine climbing to the top of a mountain without some sort of scientific purpose, and yet one hundred years later, it would take an especially cunning and driven scientist to get climbers to even pay attention. Based on the evidence Tuckey presents, I can understand why John Hunt was on board with Pugh's recommendations, but I am still astonished that he got the climbers (for the most part) to follow through with them as well.

I think that without this book, history would have eventually come around on Griffith Pugh. However, Tuckey shows that early inattention to his contributions were inexcusable, and rigidly turns the narrative on its head. Michael Ward, in Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration (2003), made initial arguments that Everest would not have been climbed without Pugh's help (with authority - he was there). Sale and Rodway, in Everest and Conquest in the Himalaya, (2011) reiterate Ward's point, but also explain his contributions to high-altitude science during the Silver Hut expedition. What Tuckey does is fold the academic argument into historical and biographical narrative appropriate for wider audiences that also reveals the very complex nature of a man so often represented as one-sided.


  1. Many thanks for getting the word out about this excellent book. Reading it has been a revelation -- and as far as I am concerned this is now THE essential book about the first ascent. I recall visits by Griff and his wife to our home when I was growing up and Harriet Tuckey has caught him perfectly. She does a brilliant job of interweaving her own journey coming to terms with her father with the story of his life and work, which was fascinating and ground-breaking before and after Everest.
    By the way you might be interested to know that my father's book (which you mention), Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration, previously only available in a limited edition that sold out years ago, is about to be re-published.
    Mark Ward

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experience of Griffith Pugh and for the information on your father's book. I'm looking forward to it!