Unsung Hero: A Review of Everest, The First Ascent

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No one gave Griffith Pugh much thought. That was true among the climbers too, it seemed. And at first glance he was absent minded, eccentric, and stubborn.

Yet, his daughter, Harriet Pugh Tuckey, introduces her late father in a new light and while he might not have been beautiful, he can be appreciated to a greater degree. She has also made me rethink, to some extent, the reasons that the 1953 Everest expedition was successful. She does this through her award winning book, Everest, The First Ascent: How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Tuckey won the grand prize at the Banff Mountain Book Competition and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, both in 2013.

The Boardman tasker committee gave it this description: “Immensely readable biography of the 1953 expedition doctor and physiologist, the author’s ‘difficult, bad-tempered father’ who she lived with in an ‘uncommunicative co-existence’.” Yep. That’s the brunt of the story, however from a pure climbing history lens, it adds something new or at least brings some formerly obscure factors into focus.

The Golden Age of Himalayan climbing began in 1950 when the first of the 14 mountains over eight kilometers above sea level were climbed. After various failed attempts on the Himalayan giants, including eleven on Mount Everest, Annapurna in Nepal was climbed thanks to improvements in equipment and mostly bullheadness. Most climbs to the Himalayas at that time followed the tradition of ascents from the graceful Alps mixed with a military-style seige; grit and determination and advancing camps along the route to the top.

Before the Golden Age, it was a mystery why the oxygen tanks, brought to make climbing in the thin high altitude air easier, only earned complaints from the climbers about how useless they were. It was also a mystery whether man could adapt to the altitude, and if not what that meant.

Still, in the early 1950s, these mysteries were being settled by expedition leaders and their gut feelings on the matter. That approach seemed the only practical way; there was no one else with the skills or know-how to test the theories.

At the same time, sharing new ideas that ran against convention, like those from Pugh, had to go up against a virtual behemoth. The Everest Expedition was not a simple band of friends. It was institutional and political. The role of Everest Committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society was more akin to Washington, DC calling the shots in a ground war in Vietnam; the climbers with a real stake in the strategy rarely got to weigh in under the hierarchical structure. However, the Expedition Doctor (an official position on the Expedition), Michael Ward, understood this and believed that there were things the whole Expedition didn’t know that it didn’t know. He suspected an expert in physiology in cold might help break new ground.

Dr. Griffith Pugh was a lifelong tinkerer and a man of science in the exploratory sense. He knew more about humans operating in cold climates than almost anyone else because of his work for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Lebanon during World War II. He was also once an Olympic skier and did a bit of climbing himself. If someone can solve the mystery of how to put a man atop Everest (which had become as great a challenge as landing a man on the moon), perhaps Pugh could.

Tuckey summarizes one of the crux problems the expedition faced that Pugh solved:

“Pugh suggested that this common complaint [about the oxygen apparatus required so much energy to carry as to negate the supposed benefits] might be well founded. The oxygen sets used on Everest between the wars had been adapted from equipment developed for high-altitude flying. The supplementary oxygen was given to climbers at the same rate as to airmen — 2 to 2.5 liters a minute. However, unlike pilots sitting in their cockpits, climbers had to carry the oxygen sets on their backs while also expending energy climbing. If pilots needed 2 liters a minute, everything suggested that climbers would need much more.”

Overall, Tuckey doesn’t fundamentally change my concept of what Hillary and Norgay accomplished, but she does give detailed insight into the critical strides Pugh advanced among the Expedition. Sometimes his influence was subtle and sometimes not so subtle, like the climbers’ clothing and oxygen apparatus. As you’ll see in the book, he was often misunderstood, only now we know he shouldn’t be unnoticed.

I appreciate you stopping by for a read once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

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