Mick Conefrey| |
When in May 1953 Ed Hillary and Tenzing made the first ascent of Everest, they had no idea there would so many arguments afterwards. Everything from the awards they received to the flags that carried at the summit became the subject of controversy.
Lots. A friend in the US, the climber Ed Webster, sent me this image. It’s from an Italian Sunday newspaper from mid June 1953, shortly after the first ascent of Everest.
The image shows Tenzing on the summit holding his ice-axe proudly aloft. Clearly visible are three flags: the Union Jack on top, then the newly minted United Nations' flag and finally the pennant-style Nepalese flag. The British team was clearly magnanimous, recognizing that its expedition was for the whole of mankind. Except there’s something wrong with this hand drawn image - there’s one flag missing.
If you compare this image to the actual photograph of Tenzing on the summit, published a few weeks later, then you realize that there were four flags on his ice-axe. So why was the fourth flag, that of India, missed out in this image?
This illustration was based news reports in The Times, the 1953 expedition’s official and exclusive news outlet. When the first detailed article on Hillary and Tenzing's ascent was published a week earlier, it had referred to Tenzing’s ice-axe being draped in three flags and had not mentioned the fourth.
Almost 60 years on it is impossible to say why this happened. It might have been a deliberate snub by The Times, but personally I doubt it. Everest dispatches were sent back in code, and were rushed into print. Knowing the media, I think it is much more likely that it was simply an error. After all, the flags that were carried onto the summit were only an incidental part of the heroic story. Or were they? In India, unsurprisingly the omission of their flag was taken much more seriously. After all wasn't this part of a pattern? Wasn't this typical of the old imperialists who always down played everyone else's role?
To add to the growing sense of injustice over Everest, it had recently been reported that Ed Hillary and John Hunt had been awarded knighthoods but Tenzing had been given no such honour. This was regarded as a much greater snub than the missing flag, and added to the feeling that the contribution of the Sherpas, was being down played. This I would argue contributed significantly the very public controversy over who had actually reached the summit first.
Within a few weeks of the first ascent (but many days before any member of the team was interviewed) several Indian and Nepalese newspapers carried reports that Tenzing had reached the summit ahead of Hillary. Some, crediting ‘sources close to the expedition’, even claimed that he had hauled his partner up to the summit. When the real photograph ofTenzing on the summit appeared in late June, it seemed to confirm his pre-eminence. There were no photographs of Ed Hillary on the summit at all and the low angle from which Ed Hillary took the iconic photograph of Tenzing, made him look distinctly heroic. When Tenzing returned to Kathmandu he was badgered by journalists, all demanding that he should confirm that he had indeed been first to the summit.
The question of who had reached the summit first was taken very seriously in India and Nepal. With Tenzing having been refused a knighthood and with the Indian flag on his ice-axe having been ignored, was it not fair to reveal him as the true conqueror of Everest? There were two problems though. In the first instance both Tenzing and Hillary, and everyone else in the British team,regarded the issue as irrelevant. The second, was that Ed Hillary been ahead of Tenzing at that particular point in the ascent and had set foot on the summit first.
Eventually the controversy petered out but it inevitably it did, for a time at least, create distrust between Tenzing and the British team that took months, if not years, to heal. John Hunt confirmed that there was an Indian flag on Tenzing’s ice-axe and apologized for the oversight in the first reports, even though it had nothing to do with him. Hillary and Tenzing adopted a policy of refusing to say who had actually set foot on the top of Everest first and Nehru, the great Indian prime-minister, scolded local politicians and pressmen for the petty nationalism they were displaying.
The paradox of the twentieth century is that in an era when it became possible to record events more accurately and more thoroughly than ever before, the old dictum that ‘seeing is believing’ was more doubted more than ever. When the official Everest 1953 documentary came out, a book appeared in India claiming that Everest had not been climbed at all and that the film had been shot in a studio. Even in Britain George Lowe’s superb high altitude cinematography was questioned, precisely because it looked too good to be true. Everest 1953 was by far the most well covered expedition so far in history but paradoxically it was the also the most argued over. In an era when conspiracy theories are the norm, the truth is often hard to find.
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