Jan Morris Recalls 1953 Everest Climb, Twitching Queen

Sixty years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Of the original expedition team members, just one is still alive: Jan Morris, the embedded Welsh correspondent for The Times (of London) who broke the big story.

Over the years Morris has written dozens of travel books and, in 2008 was named “the 15th greatest British writer since WWII” by The Times. But her participation in the ‘53 expedition is what mountaineers remember most.

After fathering five children, Morris in the 1970s underwent a sex-change operation and switched her name to Jan (from James). She will be in London May 29, the day of the 60-year climb anniversary, to celebrate with Queen Elizabeth.

I recently sat down with Morris, 86, at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel in New York. We had morning coffee in the bar -- she dressed in a bright yellow-striped pants suit, me in a black jacket. I found her to be warm, witty and disarmingly smart.

Clash: Tell me about your coded message when Everest’s summit was reached May 29, 1953.

Morris: It was a hot story and there was a lot of competition to break it. The Times had largely financed the expedition, so we had a right to an embedded correspondent, and that was me. We worked out carefully how to get the story back from Everest to London.

We weren’t allowed to use long-range radio, so it had to go by runners we paid to make the journey to the cable office in Kathmandu. I paid them more money to go faster, and to keep quiet. Even they could be harassed along the way for information by ruthless rival papers.

Big Scoop

I invented this devilishly clever code structured in a way that made sense, but the wrong sense. When Hillary and Tenzing made the top, I sent: “snow conditions bad -- stop -- advance base abandoned yesterday -- stop -- awaiting improvement.” Sure enough it got back to my editors and, on the front page of The Times the day the Queen of England was crowned, my one-and-only scoop appeared.

Clash: What are your lasting memories of Norgay and Hillary?

Morris: One day I saw this strange figure coming out of the snow -- like the abominable snowman -- and nobody else around for what seemed millions of miles. He had this amazing spring to his step, like a wild creature. As he came close, I realized it was Tenzing. He was off to see his mother.

We talked and he gave me a picture of himself with little Tibetan terriers. I asked him to sign it. At the time, he couldn’t read or write, but the one word he did know was “Tenzing” -- and he proudly wrote that at the top of picture.

Edmund Hillary

Hillary became godfather to one of my children. He was a big fellow with a big spirit. One day I was having a catnap, miserable, cold. Suddenly the tent opened and this big face said, ‘Will you please come out and help me?’ It was Ed Hillary. I could have cursed him at the time but I went out and he inspired me to great efforts cutting steps in the snow. I felt he was this elemental force, and a bit of this force was coming to me!

Clash: How do you feel about fights on Everest this year between western climbers and the indigenous Sherpa?

Morris: I have not kept up closely, but I will say this: Many parts of the world have been ravaged by tourists. They come in brash and rich on holiday, and are not the least bit interested in the culture. I side with the Sherpas.

There’s a lot of bad in the climbing community, and a need for more good. Climbers can be a great force for good as well as have fun. Look what Hillary and Tenzing did by building schools and hospitals in the Khumbu region in their later years.

Clash: What will you say to Queen Elizabeth?

Queen Elizabeth

Morris: On the 50th Everest anniversary, I gave a speech before the Queen. I said I was a Republican Welsh separatist, and people laughed. I assumed the Queen was amused, but someone sitting behind her box said she twitched.

So they have asked if I would mind not saying it this time. I won’t for two reasons: One, because she’s an old lady now, and two, the reality is, despite my republican instincts, she’s been a very good Queen.

Clash: What’s your biggest regret?

Morris: Everyone was gloomy at Hillary’s funeral [in 2008]. Ed had asked that his body be buried at sea in Auckland Bay. So when they left with the coffin, we stayed in the chapel. It was grim and the organist was playing some morbid thing. I suddenly became inspired by Hillary and nearly broke out in a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” I know if I had, everybody would have joined in. But I didn’t, and that is one of my big regrets.

Clash: Where would you put yourself in the context of the ’53 climb?

Morris: The story of my coded message is still told today, and I am constantly asked about it. So I’m just a footnote, aren’t I -- a happy little footnote?

(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Martin Gayford on European art, Jeremy Gerard on theater and Jeff Burke’s book review.

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