Below a dark sky, a man is making his way down the side of a steep mountain, clinging to an ice-axe, with a coil of rope in his hands and a pack on his back. It is 1953 and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is returning from the summit of Mount Everest.
This landmark image was captured by photographer and mountaineer George Lowe. Waiting less than 1,000 feet from Everest’s summit, Mr Lowe was the first person to hear of the success of the first expedition to reach the world’s highest peak. It was to him that Sir Edmund Hillary said the famous words: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, explorer, historian, curator and prolific author, presented a series of photographs from his book The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent on May 22 on the Bloomberg Stage at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay. The images capture the drama of the adventure and the personalities of the people involved.
Dr Lewis-Jones explained the significance of the photograph of Tenzing Norgay descending Everest. For the team of explorers who took part in the 1953 expedition it was not about just about being the first to conquer the mountain, he said. “It wasn’t about showing off at the top. It was about getting down the mountain. Going up the mountain is optional, but coming down the mountain is mandatory. They lived to tell the tale.”
The Conquest of Everest was published just after Mr Lowe’s death in March 2013, and includes a collection of photographs taken from that first successful attempt on Everest, many sourced from Mr Lowe’s personal archives and previously unpublished. Mr Lowe was the expedition’s last remaining survivor.
He was best friends with Sir Edmund and was indispensable on the expedition, cutting steps and preparing the way for the Sherpa and New Zealand climber to try to reach the summit. But despite the important role he played, his efforts have generally been unacknowledged. Dr Lewis-Jones said that at high altitude, George wasn’t someone that they wanted to waste oxygen on.
When the two men returned from the summit, they were photographed back at camp, sitting down enjoying a warm drink. At the right edge of the shot is a hand – all that remains of Mr Lowe.
“This photograph in fact made me want to do this book for George,” Dr Lewis-Jones said. “George is the first man on Everest cut out of the picture.”
The book includes many images that give a personal insight into one of the most recognised and recorded mountaineering expeditions in history.
“For me the challenge was to create a story behind the story that everyone knew so well,” he said. His favourite shots are those taken behind the scenes. “I get teased quite a lot. Every single picture book that I make has a photo of a man having a shave,” he said. “I like the … photos that were never made for publication.”
More than being about the making of history and achieving fame, the real motivation behind the expedition was less serious, he added. “It was about a bunch of friends having a great time up a mountain.”
While working on this book, Dr Lewis-Jones spent time with both Mr Lowe and Sir Edmund before their deaths. One of the most famous pictures from the expedition is the photograph of Tenzing Norgay standing on the summit of Everest holding up his ice axe adorned with flags. And although there are many photographs of Sir Edmund during the famous expedition, there is no image of him at the summit.
Dr Lewis-Jones said when he asked Sir Edmund about it he responded by saying that the Sherpa had never taken a photograph before, and “the summit of Everest wasn’t the best place to teach Tenzing how to use a camera.”
The final photograph presented was taken on a glacier during one of Sir Edmund’s and Mr Lowe’s earlier expeditions in 1950. Dr Lewis-Jones said it was his favorite photograph from the collection.
“Long before Hillary became famous, long before they conquered the Himalayas, this photograph, that George had a bunch of copies of, he would send to Ed Hillary every now and them to remind him where they had come from, where it had all started. Two guys with a bunch of their friends climbing up a glacier, not picking the tallest or the most difficult, just choosing a mountain and having a go,” he said.
What makes this photograph even more special is the inscription that Mr Lowe wrote on the back: “Shall we? Can we? Will we? Should we? Could we? What do you reckon?”
“That is what Everest should be about,” Dr Lewis-Jones said. “A willingness to have a go, to take a chance, and that is what adventuring is.”