Newspaper Article 2004 – Pioneer of Everest, as well as Antarctic

ADVENTURER: A man crucial in Ed Hillary’s conquest of Everest returns to the Bay. Reader’s Reporter ALICE HUDSON chatted with hi [him]

Pioneer of Everest, as well as Antarctic


Hawke’s Bay’s most famous adventurer, George Lowe – who cut the final ice steps for Hillary and Tenzing on Everest and was in the first crossing of the Antarctic continent – is back in town.

When battling it up the big icefall on Everest more than fifty years ago, Lowe, who was part of the team that first conquered the world’s highest summit in 1953, got himself a souvenir.

At about 24,000 feet, a marker flag from the failed Swiss expedition of a year earlier remained.

“I went off quietly, took it off and put it in my bag. I had it for fifty years,” says George, as we chat at his younger brother Reuben’s place in Poraiti.

He hasn’t got the flag anymore. Earlier this year, the Swiss finally got it back, when George handed it over at a formal ceremony in Geneva. It is now housed in a museum there.

“They knew I had it. I took it to the ambassador and then my wife and I went to Switzerland for a formal handover ceremony.”

Just a couple of weeks after that ceremony, George was off to Atlanta – to mix with the likes of Neil Armstrong.

“He was a real character, a very interesting man,” says George.

“A friend’s son asked me to get an autograph. He wouldn’t do that because they can get sold off, but he wrote him a letter and signed it instead.”

George was attending an event held by the American Geographical Society, where leading adventurers and explorers are invited to sign a globe to mark their efforts. He had signed it with Ed Hillary back in 1954 after Everest, and was there this year to support new “signers”.

Today, George is back in New Zealand for his old school’s (Hastings Boys’ High School) centenary. He’s been based in England for many years but says he tries to get back as often as possible.

The 80-year-old is a guest speaker at this weekend’s combined Hastings schools’ celebrations, and has many memories of school life at Hastings Boys’ – playing truant, navy blue shorts, rugby, tennis, and the high jump – and being picked on by the prefects as a junior.

“My nickname was ‘Ditty Lowe’ – because I put everything into rhyming systems. I was in the first fifteen and was the best high jumper in school – I could do the Mexican roll,” he says.

Sitting at his brother’s dining table, George has something to show me. It’s a yellowed copy of the Herald-Tribune dated April 2, 1954 – the school’s fiftieth anniversary and a year after Everest. His older sister had saved it, he says, pointing to a small article accompanied by a black and white photo of himself as a young man. “That was at fifty years, now they want me for the 100th.”

George earned pocket money delivering the paper as a boy. “And how much do you think it was back then?” he asks me, reading glasses pushed down his nose. “Threepence.” How times have changed.

I am fascinated with George’s left arm – it’s the next thing he shows me. Permanently bent, it has been like that since he was five years old. I wonder whether it affected his climbing, but George laughs it off.

“Oh, no, I got by. I was called up in the war when I was 19 but they threw me out because I couldn’t stand to attention. Well, I went on to do much more interesting things.”

He surely did. Good mate Ed Hillary gets more attention for reaching Everest’s summit, but George was only 800 feet below – and cut the ice steps leading to the final ascent.

“It wasn’t too bad for a boy who was unfit to go into the services.” he says with a chuckle.

George still keeps in close contact with Ed Hillary, and stayed with him in Remuera last week.

Both men are concerned about the state of historic huts in the Antarctic, and are joining forces to try and protect them.

“The huts of Scott and Shakleton [Shackleton] are now being knocked to pieces,” says George, who was part of the first ever Antarctic continent crossing.

“The cruise ships can get there and there is no control or discipline over what happens. Ed’s trying to get things going so that other countries will give some support.

“I’m representing him in England through the Royal Geographical Society, to try to find a way to look after these very special old buildings.”

Back home in England, Eddie Bissell is working on George’s biography, and should be finished the draft by the end of the year.

But while chatting to George for half an hour reveals he has a ton of interesting stories to tell – don’t expect any major revelations. “No, no I haven’t got any dirt in my background.”

Photo caption  – REMINISCING: George Lowe still has a copy of the Herald-Tribune from 1954, in which he appears. It[‘s the] 50th anniversary of his old school Hastings Boys High School and the year after the famed Everest exp[edition]. Today he’s back for the centenary.

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Newspaper article

Date published

16 October 2004

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  • Alice Hudson


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


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