SIR JOHN’S DAUGHTER CONQUERS EVEREST HERO
By Tina Packer
Susan Hunt was just twelve years old when she first met George Lowe. It was at London airport, in a chaos of press photographers, politicians and surging onlookers all welcoming home her father, Sir John Hunt, after his team had conquered Everest.
It had been the adventure expedition of the age. And the little fair-haired girl was lost in the crowds. But then her daddy came forward to greet her – and introduce her to the men who had climbed the high mountain.
There was Edmund Hillary and Tenzing, who had reached the summit, there was Mike Ward, the doctor, Tom Stobart, the photographer, Charles Evans, the second-in-command. And there was George Lowe, tall, weatherbeaten, the man who had worked four days and nights to build the highest camp on Everest to enable Hillary and Tenzing to make their assault.
Susan kissed her father and smiled shyly at the other climbers. To her they were heroes. She had followed each stage of their journey with fanatical interest. For months before the expedition began she and her sisters had been sewing name-tabs on equipment and clothing.
And George Lowe had been so touched that he wrote a letter to this little girl, thanking her for working so hard. But he never sent it. He said it seemed daft, sitting up there on the mountain, to send a letter to a stranger for sewing name-tabs on his socks. Now he wishes he’d posted it.
For that little girl will soon become his wife.
If, at the airport, Susan was too overwhelmed to do any more than gaze at these gigantic, tough men, she was able to get to know them better later – at least Ed Hillary and George.
For the Hunt family and the two climbers went off to Austria that winter for a skiing holiday. “And I developed a real schoolgirl crush on George. I fell for him, hook, line and sinker,” Susan told me with a laugh.
We were sitting outside the Hunts’ cottage in deep Oxfordshire countryside. George, in faded blue jeans and a fisherman’s shirt, was wandering round the garden. Occasionally he’d come over and join our conversation.
“That winter, nine years ago, he looked just the same as he does now,” said Susan. “Big, handsome, brown and creased – and always telling jokes – so can you blame me for loving him with all my schoolgirl heart?”
All through the next five years Susan continued to adore George – though usually from afar. His home was in New Zealand, and George returned there to visit his parents. He lectured in America. He went back to the Himalayas to try and find the Abominable Snowman. For three years he explored the Antarctic with Fuchs.
All this time Susan followed his exploits. If her father was on the same expedition she asked him to keep her posted on news of George Lowe.
“As I grew older my schoolgirl crush developed into a real interest in him as a person,” said Susan. “I always wanted to know what he was doing. To me he was a fascinating man.”
FELL OUT OF LOVE
John and Joy Hunt smiled benignly at their daughter’s passion. Then, when Susan was seventeen, she and her mother were invited on an Outward Bound expedition. George was appointed chief photographer.
Susan was overjoyed. “It was the first time I’d been on an expedition.”
Once they arrived in Greenland the party split up into two groups. George’s group, including Susan and her mother, went northwards to find the Eskimos.
It was a long journey and the winter was bitter. It took weeks of travelling over cracks and crevasses, rivers and rocks.
And it was on this trip that Susan fell out of love with George.
He crossed a river and secured a rope on the other side for the rest of the party to follow. Susan was first. Half way across, the rope slackened and she fell into swift, icy water.
They hauled her out, blue with cold, shivering with fright. They made a fire to dry her clothes.
“And I cursed George, I blamed him entirely,” said Susan. “I was so cold . . . all the time we trudged on I cursed him under my breath.”
And George? For the first time he fell to thinking about Susan – what a plucky girl she was, pretty as well. He’d always thought of her as a sweet little thing, but after she’d fallen into the river. . . well, she didn’t grumble, or make a fuss or cry. It was quite a revelation to him.
When the expedition returned to England, Susan went to Nottingham University. George got a job as a teacher at Repton school, about twenty-five miles away.
Sue entered into university life, met lots of new people, had a succession of boy friends; and she and George became casual friends.
After two years, when Susan was twenty and George thirty-seven, they began to see more of each other. “And before I knew where I was I was back in love again,” Susan said. “But this time George took some notice of me as well.”
George suggested quite casually, one weekend, that they get married. And Susan agreed.
Susan knows that much of her married life will be spent waiting for George to come home.
This month he starts on a trip to the Pamir mountains on the Russian-Chinese borders. He will be away three months. In that time Susan won’t hear a word from him, but she’ll wait.
They are getting married on September 9 in a tiny church near the Hunts’ cottage in Aston.
“George will be back on the third, so he’ll be just in time,” Sue said cheekily, looking at her fiancé. And then she smiled.
It was the smile of a girl who had known her man a long time, and learnt to love him deeply.
Photo captions –
Susan and George after they announced their engagement. He was her schoolgirl crush.
George on Mount Everest where he climbed with the British expedition – and wrote his first letter to Susan
Susan, as a child, welcomes her father, Sir John Hunt, after his conquest of Everest