Eric Shipton’s style and quirks have shaped mountaineering history

In 1931, no one had climbed higher than Eric Shipton, a British coffee planter who cut his teeth in Africa and made the first ascent of the 7,756-meter (25,446-foot) Kamet in the Himalayas. Indian with Frank Smythe, and bagged eight more tops. outraged. Shipton introduced Tenzing Norgay to the game of rock climbing, gave a young Ed Hillary his start in Himalayan mountaineering, and was largely responsible for spreading the myth of the Yeti, or “abominable snowman.” But Eric Shipton’s most enduring contribution to mountaineering is style.

With his frequent climbing partner Bill Tilman, he took a lightweight approach to mountaineering at a time when Nationalist seats were all the rage. Although this aesthetic came to represent the highest form of mountaineering, in Shipton’s day it made him an outlier and likely cost him the opportunity to lead the 1953 British Everest Expedition. The honor instead went to Major John Hunt, an Army logistics officer who orchestrated a military-style assault on the world’s tallest mountain. Shipton, who had been on five exploratory expeditions to Everest, was nowhere near that mountain when his proteges Hillary and Norgay planted the Union Jack on its summit.

Shipton was born on a tea plantation in 1907 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. His father died when he was young and the family moved back to England where Shipton attended boarding school and became interested in mountaineering. As a teenager, he climbed in Norway and several seasons in the Alps, culminating with a crossing of the Matterhorn in 1928, when he was 21 years old. Later that year he moved to Kenya to apprentice as a coffee planter.

In Africa, he met a host of keen climbers, including Percy Wyn-Harris, with whom he made the first ascent of Nelion (5,188 metres), the smaller of Mount Kenya’s twin peaks, before tagging his brother slightly larger, Batian (5,199 meters). Shipton couldn’t stay away from Mount Kenya, scaling the peak three times that year with different partners.

The following season, in 1930, he attempted Mount Kilimanjaro with a fellow planter and novice climber named Harold William “Bill” Tilman. The attempt was a dismal failure, which Tilman later candidly and cheerfully described: “When a party fails to reach the top of a mountain, it is usual and convenient to have a picturesque excuse. The reason for our retirement was the most prosaic and common – the inability to go further.

Undeterred, Shipton led Tilman on the first ascent of Mount Kenya’s knife-shaped western ridge. Already refining the minimalist style of which both would become paragons, they wore no crampons and rather less rope than would have been prudent. They hadn’t planned on reaching the top, but once they had cleared a technical rocky step, they had no choice but to continue to the top.

“After that, I was imbued with a pleasant sense of abandonment,” Shipton wrote in his autobiography, That Untravelled World. “Our rope was not long enough for us to rappel down the red step, and the idea of ​​descending it without support from above was not an option; so we only had to reach the top.

Shipton and Tilman made the first ascent of the western ridge of Mount Kenya in 1929. Wikimedia Commons

They passed Batian in mist and light snow, two hours before dark. Then, according to Mark Horrell’s account, “they crossed the Gate of Mists, a strange pass between the two peaks, and scaled Nelion. . . . Tilman broke the pick of his ice ax while driving it into the snow, then dropped it completely while trying to arrest a fall. He raced down the mountain and he had to complete the descent without him. Shipton suffered food poisoning after eating “meat essence” on top of Batian, and had to stop to vomit. »

The duo arrived at their camp 28 hours later, having completed an epic trek across Mount Kenya. It was a remarkable feat, not least because Tilman was a novice rock climber. “Shipton was the more experienced climber and did almost all of the leadership,” Horrell writes. “But Tilman was fearless, and there was nowhere Shipton would go that he wouldn’t follow.”

Soon the partners were exploring the Himalayas and honing their lightweight style, which Mountaineer editor Katie Ives memorably describes in the foreword This unexplored world“Over time, their names have become synonymous with a particular way of climbing and walking: moving as lightly and as simply as possible through isolated massifs; plan minimalist expeditions “on the back of an envelope”; and focusing, not on conquering heights or publicizing achievements, but on finding a way – as Shipton called it – “to identify [oneself] with this enchanting world.’”

Shipton’s ascent of Kamet in 1931 established him at the forefront of British mountaineering, and his 1934 expedition with Tilman to Nanda Devi Shrine via the Rishi Ganga Gorge electrified the British mountaineering establishment . Not only had they solved the difficult approach to Nanda Devi (Tilman would return to claim the 7,816-meter summit in 1936, eclipsing Shipton’s record for the highest mountain ever climbed), but the months-long expedition had cost no only £287.

Although he was an accomplished mountaineer, Shipton was at his best exploring a new country. He is remembered for his reconnaissance expeditions to renowned mountains such as K2 and Everest. His observations helped solve the riddle of the two mountains, but his expedition logs are also full of small ascents. After his triumph at Kamet he trailed and climbed eight lesser peaks, and his 1935 Everest reconnaissance expedition reached 20 peaks over 20,000 feet.

The most impactful decision Shipton made on this expedition, at least in terms of Everest history, came before the team left their base in Darjeeling. “Out of a hundred applicants, we chose fifteen Sherpas to accompany the expedition,” Shipton wrote in That Untraveled World. “Almost all of them were old friends, including, of course, Angtarkay, Pasang and Kusang; but there was a nineteen-year-old Tibetan boy, a newcomer, chosen largely because of his attractive smile. His name is Tensing Norkay. Norgay, of course, would become the greatest climbing Sherpa of his generation, even before he set foot on top of the world with Hillary.

Years later, another impromptu decision put Ed Hillary on the path that would eventually take him to the top of Everest. In 1951 Shipton led the critical reconnaissance of the now standard South Pass route of the mountain. (During this expedition, Shipton photographed a large, vaguely hominid footprint that sparked a worldwide obsession with the so-called Abominable Snowman. American tanker Tom Slick got so badly fevered that he funded several expeditions to the search for the creature, one of which employed 500 porters and a pack of bloodhounds).

While preparing for this exploration of Everest in 1951, Shipton received a curious telegram from the president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, saying that four of his compatriots were climbing the Garhwal Himalayas and asking if two of them could join Shipton’s team. The club president didn’t even disclose their names.

Shipton and Tilman were the first to enter the Nanda Devi Shrine, seen here in 1936. Wikimedia Commons.

“The correct answer was obvious,” Shipton wrote in his autobiography. “I had already turned down several highly qualified candidates on the grounds that I wanted to keep the party small; our meager financial and material resources were already exhausted, and I had no idea where the two unknown climbers were or how to contact them. I was about to send a negative reply when, in a moment of nostalgic reminiscence, I recalled Dan Bryant’s cheerful face, and changed my mind.

Bryant, a New Zealander, was a member of the Everest reconnaissance in 1935. He had suffered terribly from altitude sickness, but Shipley liked his attitude. Hillary was there, and the rest is history.

Lesser known, but extremely important, is Shipton’s part in Everest’s history. His style legacy is even more influential. He climbed all his life, in the Alps, in Africa, in the Himalayas and in the Kashgar region of western China, where he served as British consul during and after the war. Towards the end of his life he focused on Patagonia, traversing the Southern and Northern Patagonian Ice Fields, traveling light and bagging peaks along the way, living, as always, by simple belief. .

“There are few treasures of more lasting value than the experience of a way of life that is in itself entirely satisfying,” he wrote. “These are, after all, the only goods of which no destiny, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can change the fact if for a moment in eternity we have truly lived.

He fell ill in 1976 while visiting Bhutan and was diagnosed with cancer. He died a few months later, in March 1977, at the age of 69.