Everest: The other Kiwi and the other stuff you don't know
by Gareth Davies
May 20 – June 4
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Sixty-three years ago today, on May 29, 1953, a beekeeper from Pukekohe and a Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer reached Earth’s highest point, Mount Everest. A mountain named after Welsh surveyor and geographer Colonel Sir George Everest and whose surname, though well known, has been mispronounced for decades. The real story of the 1953 British expedition on Mount Everest (think Eve-rest, with ‘Eve’ like the biblical name) has been lost along with the mountain’s correct pronunciation.
‘Conquered’ would not be a word that expedition leader, Sir John Hunt was fond of using when referring to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent. For no one “conquers a mountain,” explained Sir John, played by Stephen Lovatt in Gareth Davies’ opening scene. Perhaps it was that respect mixed with his military training and strategy that was key to winning the race to the top. Unlike the Swiss who almost but failed to achieve it the year before and the French who were planning their ascent the following year, the British understood that capitalising on their precious window of time depended on two things.
First: assembling the best team of climbers, that included two Kiwis – Mr Hillary and George Lowe. And second: a lot of “stuff,” that included oxygen equipment and supplies, approximately 10,000lbs of it. This “stuff,” frequently mentioned throughout the play, was pivotal to the core team of 13’s survival, as were its quality, quantity and delivery. The Sherpa guides too, 20 altogether, were as equally important as George Lowe, played by Edwin Wright, who commented: “Without Sherpas, you’re up s*#t creek without a paddle.”
The story of the Kiwi who made it to the top of the world and the top of our five dollar note has been narrowed and frozen in a romanticised tale. But the true chain of events – revealed to the audience through a play that is part history lesson, part memoir – involves a lot more preparation, trial and error and of course, a lot of luck.
What playwright Gareth Davies manages to uncover in one short hour are the complexities of the ascent and how these lent themselves to the celebrated, if incomplete, story we know today. Of those complexities, we learned that the 13-strong team included climbers from a diverse but also advantageous (in treacherous conditions) range of professions including doctors and scientists. Hillary and Norgay are household names thanks to relentless efforts by team members like Mr Lowe, who helped cut steps and prepare routes despite the snow that fell around him the “size of shearing sheds.”
It was a feat all the more remarkable since once arm, shattered in an accident at age 9 at his Hastings home, was never set correctly and left his limb considerably weaker. And while physical difficulties of frostbite and hypoxia were constant, other difficulties were more political in nature. Would two New Zealanders in a British-financed expedition, recognised for their formidable alpine skills, ever be allowed to reach the top of Everest first? Few Kiwis know that two Brits were originally chosen to make the final climb to the summit but had to return only 300 feet short of their goal.
With a Kodak Retina II, George Lowe captured many images used in Davies’ play, and even became the expedition photographer after the official cameraman Tom Stobart was weakened by pneumonia. Lowe was a man of many talents, a primary school teacher and according to Sir Hunt, “put up a performance which will go down in the annals of mountaineering as an epic achievement of tenacity and skill.”
Lowe, who handed the triumphant Hillary a welcoming mug of soup after his return from Mount Everest, counted himself as his oldest friend. Gareth Davies’ play shows Lowe’s infectious joy for the mountains, his perseverance and his loyalty. One leaves feeling as if one has brushed shoulders with historical figures, not actors on a stage. It re-educates the audience on the story behind the story; of the ‘other Kiwi’ in the 1953 British expedition and of the fascinating, but widely uncelebrated team of men who helped carve the steps to the ‘Roof of the world.’