Book review: Everest: The First Ascent by Harriet Tuckey

Dr Griffith Pugh fits a skin temperature thermometer to a member of the Royal Canadian Navy in March 1949.  Picture: AP
Dr Griffith Pugh fits a skin temperature thermometer to a member of the Royal Canadian Navy in March 1949. Picture: AP
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IN EARLY June 1953, two exhausted, scruffy-looking men – the filmmaker Tom Stobart and the physiologist Griffith Pugh – were making their way slowly back to Kathmandu together after taking part in the monumental team effort that had led to the successful first ascent of Everest.

Everest: The First Ascent: The untold story of Griffith Pugh, the man who made it possible

BY Harriet Tuckey

Rider Books, 400pp, £20

Stobart, who had been charged with recording the expedition for posterity, was fretting that the footage he had captured wouldn’t do justice to the significance of the event, and that it might fail to capture the public’s imagination when it eventually made it into cinemas. Pugh, however, was unconcerned. “Don’t worry,” he told Stobart, “You’ll see, the myth will grow.”

Pugh, of course, was right: the story of what had happened on Everest became a huge international news event, crackling from wireless sets, hissing from black-and-white TVs and dominating the front pages of newspapers all around the globe. Stobart’s film, The Conquest of Everest, became a runaway box office success when it was released on 21 October, and the official history of the climb, written by expedition leader John Hunt and published in November, went on to become an international bestseller, translated into 30 languages. Soon, it seemed, everyone on Earth knew the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic achievement; trouble is, as a new book explains, the version of events the public had been presented with was fundamentally flawed.

In Everest: The First Ascent, Harriet Tuckey offers a startlingly fresh take on a story which has been retold so many times over the last 60 years that it has become not just part of mountaineering lore but also part of popular culture; and in the most clinical and convincing way imaginable she blows massive holes in both Stobart’s film and Hunt’s book, taking time to carefully line up her targets before subjecting them to an withering barrage of criticism from which it’s unlikely either will ever fully recover.

Tuckey’s beef with both book and film is that neither gave anything like enough credit to the significant role that scientific research played in the success of the ’53 expedition - and, in particular, the research carried out by her father, the late Griffith Pugh. If that makes Tuckey sound hopelessly biased, it’s important to point out that she loathed her father during his lifetime, finding him “remote and irascible… difficult and bad tempered.” It was only during a lecture delivered ten years ago by the Everest expedition’s doctor, Michael Ward, in which he described Pugh as “the unsung hero of Everest” that she first got an inkling that her father - by then confined to a wheelchair - might have been a little hard done by. As it turns out, her subsequent researches show that he was comprehensively ripped off - either ignored entirely by the official Everest histories or presented as an eccentric figure of fun, whereas, in fact, he had been pivotal to the success of the whole operation.

Born in Shrewsbury in 1909 and educated at Harrow, Pugh initially read law at Oxford but later returned to study medicine. He qualified from St Thomas’ Hospital in London just in time for service as a Medical Officer in the Army during the Second World War and after spells in various theatres he was recruited as an instructor for the School of Mountain Warfare in the Lebanon, thanks largely to his extensive pre-war experience as a climber and Olympic skier. From here, writes Tuckey, “his career in physiology took off” and he threw himself into research on everything from the effects of cold stress on physical performance to the design and manufacture of flexible boots for ski mountaineering.

On returning to London after the war he was recruited to the Medical Research Council’s Division of Human Physiology and it was here, while submerged in an ice cold bath while conducting an experiment on himself as part of an investigation into the effects of hypothermia, that he was first contacted by Ward, a doctor and mountaineer who wanted his advice on how to go about putting a British team on top of Everest before climbers from another nation got there first.

Up to this point, there had been numerous British attempts to conquer Everest but all of them had failed, partly, at least, because the bodies responsible for organising them, the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society, were still dominated by men who believed that climbing was a pure, noble art, to be pursued with as little in the way of artificial aids as possible. Many in the climbing establishment thought that using supplemental oxygen at high altitude simply wasn’t a sportsmanlike thing to do. Ward, by contrast, was convinced that a more scientific approach was needed and he managed to get Pugh involved first in the preparatory British expedition to Cho Oyo, a 26,865ft peak near Everest, in 1952, and then on the Everest expedition proper in 1953. Most of the climbers involved in these two parties seemed to view Pugh’s presence as an inconvenience, only taking part in his experiments grudgingly if at all. On the Cho Oyo trip, he had been promised ten climbers to experiment on for a period of two weeks, but when the time came, many – including Hillary – decided they’d rather go off climbing on their own instead of acting as guinea pigs, leaving Pugh with less than a week and only a few subjects from which to generate results. Nevertheless, he did his best with what was available to him and made valuable discoveries about the optimal amount of oxygen needed by climbers at altitude (four litres per minute, as it turned out) – discoveries that directly informed the amounts of oxygen used by Hillary, Tenzing et al the following year.

Pugh didn’t just do research on the effects of oxygen – his work manifested itself in almost every aspect of the successful climb. When Hillary and Tenzing bedded down at their final camp on 28 May 1953, the night before they became the first men ever to set foot on the summit of Everest, Tuckey points out that they had Pugh to thank for pretty much everything around them.

“That evening,” she writes, “sheltered by a tent made of the fabric chosen by Pugh, they started up their cooker (made to Pugh’s specifications) and, finding it ‘worked like a charm’, brewed ‘large amounts of lemon juice and sugar.’ … [then] they retired for the night using sleeping oxygen (courtesy of Pugh), resting on mattresses also developed by Pugh.”

It was Pugh’s work on dehydration, acclimatisation and above all oxygen supply, however, that really won the day. On the approach to Everest, he made sure the climbers spent more than twice as long as usual getting used to the effects of altitude before embarking on the final stages of the ascent; he made sure they drank enough at every stage of the climb (three to four litres of water a day); and – vitally – he ensured that enough oxygen was shipped to India for the expedition – substantially more than a Swiss party had used on an unsuccessful Everest attempt the previous year. Pugh almost lost the argument about oxygen – some dissenting voices called for less to be taken – but as it turned out his estimates proved a little conservative, with Hillary and Tenzing ultimately having to ration their supplies (using three litres per minute rather than four) in order to make it to the summit.

In any sane society, Pugh would have been feted as a national hero alongside Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing when the triumphant Everest party returned to London, but his contribution was shamefully swept under the carpet. In Shipton’s film, Tuckey observes, “all the scientific preparations for the expedition were presented as if John Hunt alone had been responsible for them.” Understandably upset, Pugh seemed to think Hunt’s book would set the record straight, but if anything it made matters worse. Many of Pugh’s innovations, from cleverly-insulated high-altitude boots to double-layered air mattresses – were described in detail, but there was no mention of the role Pugh played in their design. “As in the film,” writes Tuckey, [readers] were given the impression that everything had been done under the direction of Hunt alone. There was no hint that Pugh had influenced the way the expedition was planned or that he had brought to the table any creative thinking on its use of oxygen, its policies on acclimatisation or the consumption of fluids.”

Tuckey suggests that Hunt was reluctant to admit Pugh’s physiological breakthroughs had made the ascent of Everest possible because it would make the achievement of the climbers seem “less glorious and significant”. Shortly after the expedition, Hunt insisted to another climber, Charles Wylie, “No one will want to hear about the science. The spotlight must be firmly on the human aspects of the achievement.” What a pity he couldn’t bring himself to give credit where it was so obviously due.

Predictably, Pugh only gets a single mention in Thames and Hudson’s glossy new coffee table book, The Conquest of Everest, and that’s in a picture caption beside a photograph of the principal members of the expedition in which he’s identified simply as “Pugh”. Still, it seems a little churlish to criticise the book’s author, George Lowe, for failing to recognise Pugh’s contribution as he has himself been described as a “forgotten hero” of Everest, and with good reason.

Lowe was a close friend of Hillary – the two spent years climbing together in New Zealand – and on Everest he played a key role in preparing a route up the treacherous Lhotse Face without using oxygen, which was being carefully conserved for the final assault on the summit. In his own accounts, Lowe plays down the significance of what he did, but Tucky observes “Lowe spent such a long time without oxygen at altitudes above 23,000ft (7,010m) that Pugh began to fear he might suffer brain damage and remonstrated with Hunt.”

Lowe’s ability to operate effectively at altitude also saw him become the expedition’s de facto cameraman after Stobart developed a mild dose of pneumonia and was unable to climb above 20,000 feet. His footage of the business end of the expedition was so good that it won Stobart a Certificate of Merit for photography from the British Academy following the release of The Conquest of Everest in 1953. Presumably Stobart bought him a beer or two by way of a thank you. Lowe also took some stunning still photos, and the images reproduced in the Thames & Hudson book are totally at odds with his modesty in the text, in which he makes himself out to be an enthusiastic amateur who got lucky. Frustratingly, however, Lowe’s images are jumbled up with pictures taken by various other people on the expedition, so it’s difficult to appreciate them as a coherent body of work. The way the text is presented also has a bit of a scrapbook feel to it, with essays by Hillary, Chris Bonnington and Huw Lewis-Jones at the beginning and “reflections” from Reinhold Messner, Kenton Cool and other notable climbers at the end taking up so much space that Lowe’s own three chapters in the middle seem rather insubstantial.

A far more satisfying reading experience is provided by Letters From Everest – a beautifully-presented collection of the letters Lowe wrote to his sister Betty while on the climb, to be copied and forwarded on to his various friends and relations back home. These missives have a breathless immediacy to them that really pulls the reader into the here-and-now of the expedition, and there’s also a very elegantly written introduction by the historian Huw Lewis-Jones. Having read Harriet Tuckey’s book, however, Lewis-Jones sounds a little behind the times when he says “enterprise, daring and downright hard work… these were the qualities that would lead to that sublime moment when man set foot at last upon the highest point on Earth.” In future, any such list must surely include “accurate research and careful preparation” – even if these things don’t have quite such a romantic ring to them.

• Hugh Lewis-Jones will be talking about the conquest of Everest at the Borders Book Festival on Saturday 15 June at 7.45pm