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EVEREST 1953 - The Man Who Made It Possible

Rupak Bhattacharya | May 29 , 2017

Sixty four years ago, today, two men reached the top of Everest. The "third pole" was at last "conquered".

The news was relayed in greatest secrecy from the slopes of Everest, via Namche and Kathmandu, to London, to be released with perfect timing on 2nd June in a blaze of "nationalistic" publicity on the morning of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. "It seemed as if the Everest prize was being laid at the feet of the new Queen, to remind her of the underlying greatness of her loyal subjects", who were then suffering from post war economic austerity and the ignominy at the loss of her empires.

The well deserved adulations, celebrations, receptions, commemorative stamps, medals and media headlines did not take too long to fade into history. What still survives is the official film, Conquest of Everest, shot live by Tom Stobart for Countryman Films, and the official book, Ascent of Everest, written by the leader of the expedition John Hunt.

The thrilling film, which was an instant hit worldwide, glorified the triumph of the human (read British Imperial) spirit, but though not critical was nevertheless unflattering and unfair about the contributions made by the oldest member of the expedition.

The book similarly, glorified the human drama and endevour of heroic dimensions, but "did not reveal the true extent of, this members, contribution towards the final success". In fact, "the details of his practical and scientific work had been shunted to the back of the book in the appendices - indeed behind six earlier appendices".

The conquest of Everest in 1953 brought fame and fortune to many, except the "man who made it possible".

So, who was this unsung hero?

May 1993, Lecture hall of the Royal Geographic Society in London. The fortieth anniversary of the ascent of Everest was being celebrated in presence of Her Majesty the Queen. "The members of the 1953 expedition had been allocated seats in the second row directly behind the Queen and other members of the Royal family". But an unexpected problem crops up. Our "hero", disabled after a number of accidents, arrives in a wheel-chair, helped by his wife Josephine and daughter Harriet Tuckey. He should have been, by rights, up front with the  team, but a wheel-chair in the aisles is unacceptable for the organisers. So "after much dithering and chopping and changing", they decide to "shunt him to the very back of the hall where he would be out of the way ".

Everest 1953

40th Anniversary of the first ascent. The team members with the Queen


Members of the expedition, presenting magnificent slides, speak about the "brilliant ledership of John Hunt", "peerless logistical support given by George Band", the "organisational abilities of Charles Wylie" and "skill and determination of Hillary and Tenzing".

Then the expedition Doctor, Michael Ward, takes the stage. His opening words takes the audience by surprise.

"We have been hearing a great deal this evening about the extraordinarily brilliant leadership provided by Sir John Hunt on the 1953 Everest expedition, but there had been eleven previous expeditions to Mount Everest many of which had excellent leaders and they failed. We have been hearing about the great skill of our climbers but there had been many highly skilled climbers on previous Everest expeditions yet they failed to get to the summit. We have been hearing about the brilliant logistics, but there had been other well organised, well planned expeditions which all failed. What I want to talk about tonight is the most important reason why the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest succeded where all its predecessors failed, and that is the work of the unsung hero of Everest, DR. GRIFFITH PUGH".

Griffith Pugh

Griffith Pugh | Courtesy: Harriet Tuckey


Dr. Ward goes on to describe the many scientific innovations that had played a pivotal role in the success of the expedition. Ward clarifies "how Pugh had designed the all-important oxygen and fluid-intake regimens, the acclimatisation proramme, the diet, the high-altitude boots, the tents, the down clothing, the mountain stoves, the airbeds. He claimed that Pugh's work had been crucial to the expeditions success".

At last "the man who had made it possible" was ressurected, from what was till then an obscure foot note in mountaineering history, to his rightful place as the single most important person, but for whom 1953 would have remained "the last chance to be first".

Now that "commerce" has made Everest the "highest piece of real estate", let us spare a thought, and raise a toast, for this Doctor, who combined brilliant pioneering scientific achievments, that solved the problem of the last thousand feet, with the then prevalent romance of mountaineering.

He pioneered field experiments in what is today known as Exercise Physiology, and still remains a revered name in the field of Sports Physiology, for having provided the template for further research.

Till this 1953 successful expedition only one other 8,000 er had been climbed. In the next five years, by 1958, ten more had been summitted. These teams all used supplementary oxygen as per the blue-print perfected by Pugh.

Further proof of his scientifically proven and successful high altitude rehydration strategy is borne out by two unbeatable records held by Hillary. First, he will always remain the first man to summit Everest, and second, he will always be the first man to urinate on the summit of Everest.

Acknowledgement: Everest, The First Ascent by Harriet Tuckey

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