THE DOMINION POST SATURDAY, MARCH 23, 2013
Gifted mountaineer, prized companion
Wallace George Lowe, mountaineer: b Napier, January 15, 1924; m (1) Susan Hunt (diss) 3s; (2) Mary Richards; d Ripley, England, March 20, 2013, aged 89.
GEORGE LOWE was a key member and the last survivor of the 1953 expedition in which Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mt. Everest.
Lowe played a crucial part in the party’s success, displaying phenomenal strength and stamina to ferry kit up to the South Col, just shy of the peak, from where his friend, Sir Ed, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay pushed on to the summit.
Spending day after day at altitudes of more than 7000 metres, Lowe often had to wade through waist-high snow to ensure everything was where it needed to be.
According to John Hunt, the British-led expedition’s leader, Lowe “put up a performance which will go down in the annals of mountaineering as an epic achievement of tenacity and skill”.
It was nothing less, Hunt added in his memoir, The Ascent of Everest, than an “astonishing feat of endurance”. Such was the effort that at one point Lowe himself felt “hollow and weak”.
When Sir Ed and Norgay were descending from the summit of Mt. Everest, it was Lowe, coming up from the South Col camp, who was the first to meet them.
He handed Sir Ed a mug of warm lemonade and heard his famous exclamation: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
He also passed Lowe a fragment of marine limestone. Millions of years earlier the rock had formed part of the sea floor. In 1953, it was a souvenir from the highest point on the planet.
Lowe had displayed superb ice craft over 10 days in spearheading a route up the Lhotse face, immediately below the South Col.
But he was not just a climber. He also carried with him a Kodak Retina II, capturing many images that effectively made him deputy to the official expedition cameraman, Tom Stobart.
When the party reached altitudes that Stobart, weakened by a bout of pneumonia, was unable to endure, Lowe provided the photographic record.
The film of the triumph, The Conquest of Everest, was itself a great success, and nominated for an Oscar. With his reputation on ice and with film assured, Lowe was recruited as official photographer in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957-58, which made the first successful overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole.
Lowe joined the 12-man party of expedition leader British explorer Vivian Fuchs, which set out from Shackleton Base on one side of the continent, while Sir Ed led the support party from Scott Base on the other side, dropping supplies and establishing depots.
Fuchs relied on Lowe’s expertise to spot crevasses that were, Lowe later noted, “wider, deeper and harder to detect” than any he had previously encountered, and which posed a mortal threat to the tractors, dog teams and snowmobiles they used to get around.
In the event, Sir Ed reached the South Pole first, on January 3, 1958.
The teams met when Fuchs arrived on January 19.
Wallace George Lowe was the seventh of eight children. His father was a fruitgrower.
Aged 9, he shattered the bone in his left arm just above the elbow after falling off the steps of the veranda at home. The bone would not set correctly and had to be rebroken seven times.
His subsequent skill as an ice-climber was all the more remarkable, because the accident left the limb almost entirely without strength.
He was educated at Hastings West and Hastings Boys’ High School and soon developed an interest in photography, playing truant to hang around the studio of aviator Piet van Asch, who was taking large landscape photographs from the air.
Lowe even joined van Asch on several flights.
After qualifying as a school teacher, Lowe spent the immediate postwar years teaching at a primary school.
During the school holidays, however, he trained as a mountain guide, frequently teaming up with Sir Ed, five years his senior, in the Southern Alps, where they perfected their technique on peaks such as Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.
In 1951, the two men joined a four-man, four-month, New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas. The team had hoped, before setting off to conquer one 6000m-plus summit. In the event, they scaled six.
On the strength of this experience, he and Sir Ed were invited in 1952 to join Eric Shipton’s attempt on Mt Everest’s neighbour, Cho Oyu (8.180m), a journey which would also involve exploring the Barun Valley in the same region. Their talents ensured that both secured their places on what was to prove the historic Mt Everest expedition the next year.
However, planning in 1952 was not always up to the meticulous standards Hunt would set. Running short of supplies on the return journey to the Indian border, Sir Ed was forced to bargain with locals for one abundant foodstuff – bananas. According to Lowe, in an ensuing competition, Lowe consumed 120 in a single day. Hillary won their battle by eating 134.
After his return from the Antarctic in 1958, Lowe settled in England and became an inspector of schools till his retirement in 1984.
In 1989, he helped found the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust in Britain, established to improve conditions for Sherpas in the Himalayas. Lowe served as chairman till 2003.
With his ready wit, mobile face and gift for mimicry, he was an entertaining and amusing comrade. Few of his companions will forget his imitation of Cheyne-Stokes breathing patterns, a condition suffered by some people at high-altitude.
His 1962 book, Because It Is There, recounted his experiences on his two major expeditions. He was appointed OBE for services to mountaineering and exploration.
He counted himself Sir Ed’s oldest friend. Before his own death, Sir Ed wrote the foreword to The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent, which Lowe compiled with Huw Lewis-Jones and is to be published soon.
According to Sir Ed, Lowe “saved my life a few times over the years”.
“Down in Antarctica, I remember when we were trying to get our ship, Theron, clear of the ice and I was standing with George on an ice floe, cutting a channel. A steel cable fouled the propeller just as a rope end flicked and locked around my ankle. Quickly, yet calmly, George managed to knock it free before it came tight. A moment later and I would have been sucked under…
Lowe’s home in Derbyshire was filled with boxes of souvenirs from his climbing adventures – slides, press clippings and the like. But above all, he treasured the fragment of rock from the summit that Sir Ed had given him, and which he kept on his desk.
“It was always fairly simple,” he noted recently. “The mountains were a deep source of real happiness. They dispense a lion’s share of sorrow too, but it’s the joy that always wins out.” Telegraph Group
Photo caption – Top man: George Lowe was the last surviving climber from the team that made the first successful ascent of Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
According to John Hunt, the British-led expedition’s leader, Lowe put up a performance which will go down in the annals of mountaineering as an epic achievement of tenacity and skill”.