With the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest coming up on 29 May, our new title The Conquest of Everest takes a retrospective look at that legendary expedition through the photographs of the late George Lowe, the veteran mountaineer and explorer. Here is a selection of shots from the making of the book, compiled and annotated by author and Everest historian Dr Huw Lewis-Jones.
‘The first ascent of Everest in the summer of 1953 was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest triumphs of exploration. George Lowe’s exploits on the mountain would become legendary. He 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 had ‘put up a performance’, so described 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, playing his part in doing something he loved. In this new book, a trove of unpublished original photographs and other rare materials from the George’s personal collection are brought together for the first time. Stunning landscapes, candid portraits and action shots describe the day-by-day moments of this historic expedition as never before.
At home in Cornwall, with book proofs spread out on the kitchen table, designer Liz House and I direct the final layouts.
The most famous Everest photo of them all – taken by Ed Hillary on the top of the world. It is 11.30am on 29 May 1953. Tenzing stands on the summit of Everest and waves his ice-axe on which are hung the flags of Britain, Nepal, the United Nations and India. On reaching this sacred spot, Tenzing placed a packet of biscuits and a handful of lollies into a hole in the snow as a gift to the Gods. There is no summit shot of Ed as he never took one. Tenzing didn’t know how to use a camera, and, as Ed always joked, it didn’t seem like the right sort of place for a lesson. ‘You know, I’m probably the only Everest climber in the world who doesn’t have a big summit photograph of himself above the mantelpiece’, he once said, ‘and it doesn’t bother me one bit.’
After success on Everest, the expedition’s photographs appeared in newspapers across the globe. Ed Hillary returned from the mountain one of the most famous men in the world; not so for George, who happily managed to escape the limelight.
Original glass slides from the 1953 Everest expedition are gathered on my lightbox. All the photographs taken higher than the South Col were on 35mm colour film. Since then many black-and-white enlargements and prints have been made from these colour transparencies.
George’s trusty Kodak Retina II – a companion on all his New Zealand climbs and later travels in the Himalaya and Antarctica. This camera took many of the images that appear in this new book. George was used to handling his Retina II in tough conditions and by Everest it was second nature. During the night, when forty degrees of frost and more were normal, he slept with it in his sleeping-bag to keep it warm. High on the mountain, with strong winds and extreme unpleasantness, he carried it round his neck, tucked inside his down jacket but ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. At high-altitude in snow he always kept it simple – shooting almost everything with a shutter speed of 1/100 s and an aperture of f/8 with a normal ultra-violet filter.
Renowned adventure photographer Martin Hartley gets to grips with George Lowe’s Kodak camera. Martin helped me by creating new images of special objects – prints, maps, goggles, even George’s trusty ice-axe – all of which appear in The Conquest of Everest for the first time.
Contact prints of original photographs, many from the New Zealand 1951 expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya. This was the first of George and Ed Hillary’s many adventures together. Ed would later write that it was George who ‘set off the spark that finally got us both to the Himalayas’.
Over the course of creating George’s Everest memoirs and gathering together materials from his rich lifetime of adventure, I came across a small bundle of letters at his house neatly tucked away at the bottom of an oak chest. Sometime later, another small cluster of dusty envelopes appeared, their distinctive red and blue edges calling out within a large stack of faded newspapers. Then, whilst slowly sorting through some old glass slides, a handful more were revealed. After a bit more rummaging, George’s wife Mary pulled a file down from a high shelf. Inside were yet more letters, including many that George had gathered when returning home to New Zealand after the Everest celebrations had quietened down. In time other members of his family also shared their memories and gradually a rare collection of correspondence came together.
My daughter Nell gives me a helping hand. As the granddaughter of polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert, it will not be long before little Nell joins me on an adventure. Not Everest though – more likely the Arctic, where her mum, author Kari Herbert grew up. For now, my next book for Thames & Hudson will celebrate another special chapter of George’s life: the crossing of Antarctica. It will be published in 2014.’
Find out more about Huw’s new book The Conquest of Everest over on our website.