Obituary: George Lowe CNZM, OBE, mountaineer, photographer and teacher

George Lowe
George Lowe
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Born: 15 January, 1924, in Hastings, New Zealand. Died: 20 March, 2013, in Derbyshire, England, aged 89.

George Lowe, the mountaineer and photographer, played a crucial part in the first ascent of Everest in 1953. His skills on steep ice – as much as his positivity and sense of humour – were of huge benefit to the team and his efforts greatly helped his best friend Ed Hillary reach the summit.

The first ascent of Everest in the summer of 1953 was one of the 20th century’s great triumphs of exploration. George was one of the lead climbers, forging the route up Everest’s Lhotse Face without oxygen and later cutting steps for his partners up the summit ridge.

He “put up a performance”, said the expedition leader John Hunt, “which will go down in the annals of mountaineering as an epic achievement of tenacity and skill”. For his own part, George was just happy to be on the mountain sharing in the teamwork of something incredible; doing something he loved.

Chosen by his friend and climbing partner Ed Hillary to be his “best man” when married after Everest, Lowe was a modest fellow who never sought the limelight. Sixty years on, his achievements deserve wider recognition.

George has been called the “forgotten man” of Everest, an unsung hero. Perhaps this is because he played his part so well. He was a master of his craft on ice and snow, ensuring the success of the final pair – Ed and Tenzing – who would step up onto the summit on 29 May.

And it was George who first embraced them as they made their way down from the top. George had been observing their progress from high on the South Col and climbed up to meet them as they descended.

He brought with him a thermos of warm tomato soup. Ed unclipped his mask, grinned a tired greeting and then sat down on the ice for a rest. Finally looking up to his old friend, he said in his matter-of-fact way: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!”

As a historian, it’s not often you meet your heroes and, better still, to have the chance of working with them. Of the Everest climbers of 1953, George was the last man alive as we entered this happy anniversary year. I feel heartbroken now he is now longer with us. Over the course of creating George’s Everest memoirs, which will be published next month, we gathered together materials from his rich lifetime of adventure. Wallace George Lowe was born in 1924 in New Zealand and grew up in Hastings, a small town on the North Island, the seventh child of Archibald, a fruit farmer, and Teenie. When he was seven, George was felled in the school playground by one of the biggest earthquakes ever to hit New Zealand. He and the Lowe family survived, though 256 people died and many more were injured. His schooling continued for the next 18 months in a tent on a racecourse.

When he was nine he broke his left arm. Over the next year a doctor broke it a further seven times in crude operations that permanently bent it. The army rejected him because he couldn’t stand to attention, and medical experts branded him a cripple, advising the safety and security of an office job. But George had other ideas.

He first met Ed Hillary while working in New Zealand’s Southern Alps just after the war. Ed would later write that it was George who “set off the spark that finally got us both to the Himalayas”. In 1951 the pair joined the first New Zealand expedition there, exploring the Indian Garhwal and being part of the team that climbed the 23,760 ft Mukut Parbat.

The following year, thanks to Ed, George was invited by Eric Shipton to join the British expedition to climb Cho Oyu (26,865 ft), the formidable next-door neighbour to Everest and the sixth highest peak in the world.

They found a possible way up from the northwest side, but with a severely stretched supply chain Ed and George only reached 22,500 ft before they were turned back by dangerous ice-cliffs. Shipton suggested they might like to have a go at crossing for the first time a pass near Cho Oyu called the Nup La. The young pair agreed without hesitation. In June 1952 they crossed the Himalayan divide from Nepal down onto the immense glaciers of Tibet to secretly explore the north side of Everest. It took them six days to cover just four miles. The experience remains, in George’s estimation, the most exacting and satisfying mountaineering they had ever undertaken.

They managed to explore over half way round the great northern flank ridges of Everest and eventually clambered back into Nepal, though they had for some time to keep their journey a secret. Within days George and Ed set off on their next adventure with Shipton and Charles Evans, with just what they stood up in, plus only a sleeping bag, lilo, down jacket and a few exposures left in their cameras.

In fact, George recalls, he had less than he would have had for a weekend tramp in New Zealand. Their aim was to get onto the Barun Glacier, an unexplored ice stream between Everest and Makalu (27,838 ft), the fifth highest in the world. Makalu had never been approached before and reaching the head of the Barun and looking into Tibet from there would complete a circuit of Everest over its highest passes.

The following year, George was an integral part of the successful Everest expedition. Together with Alf Gregory and Sherpa Ang Nima, he supported Ed and Tenzing by placing a final advance camp just 300m below the summit. More expeditions followed: to Makalu in 1954, again with Ed Hillary, although the mountain was not climbed. Then Vivian Fuchs, he and Ed were invited to join the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which, between 1955 and 1958, not only traversed Antarctica but also became the first to reach the South Pole overland since Captain Scott in 1912.

George, ever versatile, was given the job of filming and photography, while also assisting with their important experiments. On Everest his high-altitude work without oxygen became a study for the expedition’s physiologist, and in Antarctica, where geological, physiological and geographical priorities underpinned the crossing, George assisted daily with experiments and soundings that greatly furthered man’s knowledge and understanding of that massively unexplored continent. And all this in among cooking, repairing, building and dodging crevasses in whiteouts.

He would also become a talented teacher, first in New Zealand and then in Derbyshire. For ten years he was head of the Grange School in Santiago – renowned as Chile’s Eton – with a further and final ten years of working life as a specialist in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate overseeing and pioneering outdoor school activities in the UK.

In between these appointments George found time to be fully active with John Hunt who was first director of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and he continued his mountaineering, climbing in Greenland and the Russian Pamirs where fellow Everest team-mate Wilf Noyce tragically fell to his death. He also revisited the Himalayas where he joined Ed Hillary in 1960 on the famously public trail of the Abominable Snowman.

In active retirement George found new challenges. With Mary, his second wife, he founded the UK branch of the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, and spearheaded the campaign of teacher training in the Sherpa schools founded by his friend.

With Ed Hillary, George Lowe’s legacy is established in the history of Himalayan and Antarctic exploration, in photography, filming and mountaineering worldwide, and in the provision of education for the children and young people of the UK, New Zealand, Chile and Nepal – a country that stayed close to his heart throughout his final years. He is survived by his second wife Mary, also a former teacher, and three sons from his first marriage.

When so many Everest climbs since 1953 have been attempted out of all sorts of personal ambition and commercial interests, there is still something reassuring in the thought that most of the men who first went to Everest became climbers simply for the joy that the mountains bring. As Ed Hillary often said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

• George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones, The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent (Thames & Hudson, 2013)