Everest The First Ascent
by Harriet Tuckey
Rider/Random House £20
The annual Boardman Tasker prize is awarded to a book, themed on mountains, whose literary merit is clear for all three judges. It is no surprise, then, that this superbly-written, meticulously researched and referenced biography of the author’s father, Griffith Pugh, was the prize winner in 2013. For not only is it a massive personal quest – ‘a voyage of discovery of a daughter provoked to find out about the father she hardly knew...’, it is an exposé of the labyrinthine machinations, antediluvian attitudes and sometimes questionable behaviour of revered figures in the mountaineering establishment, with particular reference to the successful ascent of Everest in 1953. According to his daughter, Pugh was a difficult man to both know and like: selfish, egotistical, rude, inconsiderate, inconstant with women, prickly and easy to offend, an absent and indifferent father and a dangerous driver. Her book is on one level a magnificent personal effort to find something of worth in her father as she learns how Griffith’s early deprived life led him to this isolation. That his essentially unlikeable personality holds our attention throughout the book is due to Tuckey’s writing skill and her principled search for the man who was her father, but who never cared for her.
On another level, however, and one that is equally as compelling – the book is a shocking exposé of the colonial attitude to Everest that claimed and ‘kept it’ as an exclusive British project and of the predominant cult of ‘the amateur’ that bedevilled all English sporting efforts since the 20s. Chris Chataway, who as a star athlete, attracted Pugh’s scientific curiosity, sums up this altitude perfectly: ‘Truthfully, it was considered a bit ‘off’ to be making too much of an effort’. It was this complacency that Pugh abhorred.
Griffith Pugh, always championed by Dr Michael Ward and scientist Sir Peter Medawar, was eventually to become (not without loud and irrational objections) the chosen physiologist on the Everest team whose single-minded devotion to all aspects of high altitude mountaineering – from health and hygiene, to clothing, tentage, oxygen consumption and diet – challenged the received and accepted ‘wisdom’ of Himalayan veterans such as Tilman, Shipton and Younghusband, the ingrained intransigence of The Himalayan Committee and the scepticism of many of his fellow climbers. From first-hand adduced evidence, it is clear that Pugh’s insistence on the importance of oxygen and the need for the collection of scientific data annoyed Lord Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary, both on the mountain and on subsequent expeditions – so much so that his considerable contribution to the eventual success of the 1953 expedition was sidelined and marginalised for years afterwards; a shocking fact. In the end, it is clear his persistence, deceptively simple techniques for problem-solving and complete immersion in his work, transformed the British amateur approach to climbing at altitude, and as such, laid the basis for much if not most future work in the field and subsequent, astonishing advances in performance in a range of civilian and military fields.
But he was still a difficult man to like or admire.
This book, together with Tony Smythe’s about his father (reviewed in Climber March 2014) is the second recent quality revaluation of significant climbing figures by close relatives that points up clashes in the governing bodies of the mountaineering world. Let’s hope there are more to come.