Everest hero who stayed below
Today’s 50th anniversary of Mount Everest’s conquest will be another busy day in the life of George Lowe, to whom Edmund Hillary confirmed his triumph with one of the 20th century’s more memorable quotes. Doug Laing reports.
He has been referred to as the forgotten man of the Everest expedition. But that expression completely understates the role of George Lowe, the other New Zealander on the mountain when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally – in Hillary’s blunt words – “knocked the bastard off”.
First, it was George Lowe’s account of that first greeting from his climbing mate Hillary as he and Sherpa guide Norgay descended the mountain that immortalised the Kiwi conqueror’s comment about their feat, which is now regarded as one of the achievements of the 20th century.
His account of that moment, a few hours after Hillary and Norgay had set foot on top of the world’s highest peak about 11.30am on May 29, 1953, was: “Ed unclipped his mask and grinned a tired greeting, sat on the ice and said in his matter-of-fact way: ‘Well, we knocked the bastard off!’”
Speaking from his home in Matlock, Derbyshire, approaching the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary, it’s immediately clear Lowe has never been forgotten.
There’s hardly been a day when he hasn’t been doing something about Mount Everest. The celebrations are overshadowing even the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, speeding things up to an almost frustrating degree for a man turning 80 in eight months.
Lowe and his wife, Mary, who both spent three months in New Zealand during our summer, had just got back from Switzerland the night before I spoke to him.
As the British chairman of the Edmund Hillary Trust, he fronts the celebrations on the home front while his old climbing mate Hillary attends events in Katmandu.
Last Wednesday, the BBC was coming to Lowe’s home, and ITN wanted to visit for a “hook-up” which would go all the way back to New Zealand.
The phone calls were disrupting his efforts to reply to one important piece of mail which had landed while he was away – an invitation for him and Mary to be at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation commemoration on Monday, after which they would be guests of New Zealand High Commissioner Russell Marshall and Princess Anne.
The Lowes are now based in London for a week, and it will be from there, today, that he will speak to Sir Edmund, who will be at the Everest jubilee banquet in Nepal’s Himalaya region.
The two will be together for a Hillary Trust function in London on Tuesday, and it is then he will compare, as most do these days, the conquering of Mount Everest and man’s first steps on the moon, 16 years and three months later.
“What I am going to be saying,” he said, “is that the oxygen system which was developed for the assault (on Everest) was the same as they used to get on to the moon”.
The system was invented by expedition member Tom Bourdillon and his father, who added a soda-line canister which absorbed exhaled carbon dioxide but allowed exhaled oxygen to return to the breathing bag.
It was used for the first time by Bourdillon and Charles Evans when they were beaten back by snow in an Everest summit bid on May 26, just a few hundred feet and three days short of the ultimate goal, but with the first conquest of the mountain’s South Summit behind them.
In Edmund Hillary – The Life of a Legend, author Pat Booth records that George Lowe spent 11 days above 7000m (23,000ft) directing construction of the expedition’s approach up Lhotse Face, and the camp site just 300m from the summit.
When the party settled on a camp site, Lowe offered to stay at that height to help the chosen pair down the next day.
Hillary recalled the moment. “With a lump in my throat, I thumped him on the shoulder in appreciation and shook my head. A hearty handclasp with them all, and (Alfred) Gregory led off wearily down the mountain – a tired but watchful George going down last.”
He was last to go – but the first to greet Hillary and Tenzing the next day.
Lowe first met Hillary when they began chatting on a bus in the Mount Cook area, and realised the queen bees used by Lowe’s father, Archie, in the beekeeping sideline on the family orchard at Stortford Lodge, in Hawkes Bay, had come from the Hillary bee stock at Papakura in Auckland.
They climbed together and kept in touch, and somewhere the idea of climbing in the Himalayas, untried by any New Zealanders, emerged with a letter from Lowe to Hillary in Switzerland being effectively the first step in the climb to Everest. Lowe suggested they join a party planning to climb in Nepal.
Going overseas was rare enough, except in wartime, and George’s brother, Reuben Lowe, one of the eight sons and daughters of Archie and wife Teenie, recalled in Hastings recently: “I remember our mother saying to him, ‘Why do you want to waste your money and come back with nothing?’”
Of the family, only eldest brother Archie, a member of the Heretaunga Tramping Club for more than 50 years and patron at the time he died about two years ago, was involved with tramping.
Putting his entire life savings of 150 pounds ($300) into the 1300 pounds needed to fund the expedition, George Lowe walked out of his job teaching at Parkvale School in Hastings to join Hillary, Ed Cotter, and Earle Riddiford in the first New Zealand expedition in the Himalayas, conquering Mukut Parbat (7242m) and five other peaks over 7000m.
It led to the invitation from Englishman Eric Shipton for two of the foursome to join an expedition in the Everest region, but Lowe, now financially wanting and needing to get back to the career he had left behind, had to reluctantly decline and return to New Zealand.
Once Hillary and Shipton had assessed the possibility of assaults from the south, not previously attempted because of Nepal’s closure to foreigners, Lowe was in for the 1952 assault on Cho Oyu, effectively the training climb for Everest. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Stortford Lodge orchard where George Lowe grew up is still marked by its gates opposite the saleyards in Maraekakaho Road, by Sunnybank Crescent – named after the orchard – and by Lowe Street, named after his father, a 1938-41 Hastings borough councillor.
The children all went to Hastings West, now known as Raureka School, and George was at Hastings High School for six years, from 1938-43, with two seasons as a lock in the first XV at rugby, and his last year at the school as a prefect.
An arm injury at the age of nine had curtailed some of the activities of the young Lowe, but there was an indication of his determination in his teenage jobs, riding his bike with canvas bag and newspapers on a delivery run in the evenings, and the same bike with cans of milk balanced on the handlebars as he rode from house to house on a milk run each morning.
The injury ruled him out of enlistment in the war and he was “manpowered” into the teaching profession and trained for two years at Wellington Teachers’ College.
He returned to Hawkes Bay, and between climbing with the Heretaunga Tramping Club and taking part in search and rescue missions in the hills, taught at different schools in the area.
At Parkvale, Lowe was renowned for dispensing with traditional suits and ties on hot days and dressing only in shorts.
Following the conquering of Everest, and their return to England and then New Zealand, George Lowe, Hillary, and Charles Evans undertook an extensive lecture and speaking tour of the United States.
Lowe taught in England, and then Chile.
He then returned to England as an inspector of “Her Majesty’s schools”’ but does, actually, get “home” to New Zealand for several months each year.
In February, he visited Hastings Boys’ High School, and intends being back there for the school’s centenary next year.
His return in 1953 was with significantly more fanfare, as he was driven down Heretaunga Street in an open car, through ticker-tapes and balloons and approving crowds, for a civic welcome.
George Lowe and Sir Edmund Hillary will be together for a Hillary Trust function in London on Tuesday, and it is then Lowe will compare, as most do these days, the conquering of Mount Everest and man’s first steps on the Moon, 16 years and three months later.
Mountaineers return: Sir Edmund Hillary and George Lowe with flying-boat Captain CG Griffiths