The names of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing are world-famous for the first recorded ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953, but can you name anyone else involved in the expedition? Chances are, unless you have some personal interest, you cannot and it is a sad fact that so often it is only the summit party that makes the news.
The 1953 expedition, which has often been regarded as the last great expedition on earth, was led by Colonel (later to be Brigadier) John Hunt, the son of an Indian Army Captain who was killed in the First World War. Born in India in 1910 the young John Hunt spent much of his childhood, after the death of his father, in the Swiss Alps, where his love of the mountains was born. In 1930 John Hunt was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) and returned to India.
John, a proven sportsman especially for rugby and polo, and with a great taste for adventure, soon found himself on the ‘front line’ as he was seconded to the Indian Police, often dressed as a civilian working undercover at a time when the Indian independence movement gained momentum. During his time back in India he regularly climbed in the Himalayas and applied to join the 1936 Everest Expedition, but was rejected on medical grounds.
After the outbreak of World War Two John Hunt was back in the United Kingdom as the Chief Instructor for the Commando Mountain & Snow Warfare School at Braemar in Scotland, before returning to his Regiment to command 11th Battalion of the KRRC.
After taking command he immediately deployed to Italy leading them in the Italian Campaign; in 1944 John Hunt received an immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his leadership in bitter fighting on the Sangro River. The award of the DSO is clear evidence that John Hunt was a hands-on commander, and he could often be found leading patrols deep behind enemy lines and organising raids and ambushes. Also in 1944, his battalion was transferred to Greece during the unrest that resulted in the Greek Civil War, his leadership earned him the rank of temporary brigadier; he later described the task of keeping the peace as – ‘the most tense and difficult period in all my experience, before or since’
After World War Two John Hunt took on a number of Army staff posts then in 1952 whilst serving on the staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, he received the surprise invitation to lead the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition. It was the Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club and The Royal Geographic Society which governed all British attempts on Everest and jointly decided that John Hunt’s outstanding military leadership and massive climbing experience, including time in the Himalayas, would give the best hope for success.
At first, his choice was not popular with many expedition members including Edmund Hillary. But the committees knew it was critical that the expedition was a success, the French had permission to mount an expedition in 1954 and the Swiss in 1955; chances were that Britain would not return until 1956 and Everest would have been conquered by that time.
The 1953 Everest expedition is well documented; they established Base Camp on 12 April and then at 1130 on 29 May 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay from Nepal reached the summit.
News of the success arrived in London on the morning of 2nd June 1953 the day of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. Following the successful expedition, the now Sir John Hunt, returned to duties with the Army before retiring in 1956, after leaving the Army he led a number of appointments including the first Director of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and the first Chairman of the Parole Board. Plus advisory work on policing in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, which led to the creation of the Ulster Defence Regiment.
Created a Knight of the Garter in 1979, Lord Hunt died on 8 November 1998 aged 88 in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.
So who were the true heroes of the 1953 Everest expedition? No one can doubt the daring of both Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing. But what about the support team that helped them to the summit; the cooks, porters and guides, the doctors and all the base camp staff? And finally, the man who ensured they all worked on one common theme or as the military phase goes ‘All singing off the same hymn sheet’ – John Hunt; whose focused effort and leadership ensured the success of the expedition.