Yesterday was Memorial Day in these United States of America. Somewhere along the way, I heard a small blurp on a news report that May 29, 2023 was also the seventieth anniversary of Edmund Hillary’s and Sherpa Tenzing’s successful ascent of Mt. Everest. It is a time so long ago (barely sixteen months before I was born) that it took the news three days to arrive in London, just in time to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, on June 2 of that year. What a different–not necessarily worse–world it was.
As a matter of fact, though, it’s not even Hillary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent that captures my attention today. (Although I’ll always remember Hillary Clinton’s idiotic assertion that she (who was born in 1947) was named after the man who ascended Everest six years later. Talk about cultural appropriation–from the New Zealanders, no less.)
What captures my attention today is a very personal reflection, one that involves an abortive attempt to ascend the world’s highest peak, exactly ninety years ago when, on May 30, 1933, Percy Wyn-Harris–a member of the British climbing team and, at that time a Colonial Officer in Kenya–discovered an ax buried in the Everest ice. The ax was at first thought to have belonged to Thomas Mallory who had disappeared nine years earlier during another failed ascent. Subsequently, the ax was identified as actually belonging to Andrew Irvine, Mallory’s climbing buddy who disappeared on the same historic expedition as his fellow.
Thomas Mallory is the man generally credited with the response to a reporter’s question of, “Why do you want to climb Everest?” with “Because it is there.”
It’s perhaps the greatest quote ever, when it comes to the power of overcoming the unknown.
Wyn-Harris’s act of recovering the ax remains, as it always has, a signal moment in mountaineering history. And he is famous because of it.
Wyn-Harris’s subsequent career in the British Colonial service culminated in his administration of the Northern Cameroons during a UN-sponsored plebiscite that was held to determine its future. His immediate subordinate in that matter was my father.
Dad didn’t have much time for Percy Wyn Harris, thinking him to be too much of a politician, and as a result, perhaps a lesser man. I was a child, though, and I remember him fondly.
I think Dad and I would have agreed that the Percy Wyn Harris who attempted an ascent of Everest in 1933, and whose altitude record–without supplemental oxygen–stood until the summitting by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in 1978, was a mensch, at least in that matter.
I know that the late Mr. She would have thought the same. Because when I mentioned that I’d a personal acquaintance with the man, he knew exactly of whom I spoke. He knew the story, and had nothing but respect.
Full disclosure: I’ve slept in Percy Wyn-Harris’s bed. He wasn’t in it at the time, of course. But when I was a child, and my parents were on the cocktail party circuit, they’d simply lug me along. In the early hours, I’d play with the children of the Nigerian servants, and have a whale of a time. And when it came bedtime, they’d put me in the host’s bed so I could sleep until the party ended, at which point, they’d pick me up and take me home in the car. As I said: It was a different–
not necessarily worse perhaps better–world.
“Because it is there.”
Not a bad reason to strive for more, IMHO.
Dad (middle). Percy Wyn-Harris (right). I believe the gentleman on the left is Derek Mountain, and that the photo must have been taken on the occasion of the UN referendum and the subsequent Northern Cameroon’s vote to join Nigeria. Which, according to the British, was the outcome devoutly to be wished.