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1953: Everest stories - George Band

George Band had to take a year out from studying at Cambridge University to go on the 1953 expedition.

But he had built up some impressive mountaineering credentials in his student years and at 24 years of age became the youngest member of John Hunt's team.

There must have been about a dozen of us who were trying to do the harder climbs in the Alps then from Britain, but I had a bit of luck which I turned my way.

In 1952 there was a big shortage of foreign exchange and you were only allowed to take 25 abroad, so any climbing holiday had to be a pretty short one.

Fit for Everest

But I managed to get round that by taking a rather unusual job arranged by an American businessman who by hobby was a geologist and glaciologist.

He wanted a tunnel dug for glaciological research, high up on the north side of the Monte Rosa.

Most people weren't too keen on that, but I thought it was a wonderful way to get fit and I was able to spend nine weeks out there and do quite a lot of climbs.

So when I wrote in my list of climbs, John Hunt realised it was much longer than anybody else's that year.


"It was a great privilege to serve in a team led by John Hunt"

I had also organised quite a successful alpine meet for the mountaineering club, and those two things helped to pull the balance and I was chosen.

I first met John Hunt for interview in October at the Royal Geographical Society [RGS].

One wondered if he was a military martinet of the kind who would say, "Stand by your beds! Stand to attention! Get on with the job!"

But he wasn't - he was very friendly and informal. When you met him he gave you a very warm handshake and immediately put you at ease.

It was certainly a great privilege to serve in a team led by him.

Rumours

We were mostly gathered at advance base camp at the head of the Western Cwm, at about 21,200 ft [6,400 m], when we heard the news of Tenzing and Hilary's success.

The astonishing thing these days was that we weren't actually going to know whether they had been successful until they came down and told us by word of mouth.

I'd had the radio on earlier to pick up the weather forecast, and there were all sorts of rumours around, started by journalists in Kathmandu, that we'd actually failed and would be withdrawing from the mountain before the monsoon broke.


"We rushed out to meet them and shake hands"

So I flipped the radio off and went out - and we could just see the returning party about 100 yards [91.4 m] away.

We walked out to meet them and they seemed to come with their heads bowed low.

But then George Lowe, who was on the front of the rope with Hilary and Tenzing behind him, waved his thumbs up and pointed to the summit, and we realised they had succeeded.

We rushed out to meet them and shake hands. That wasn't enough for John Hunt who embraced Hilary and Tenzing.

Coronation

It was a very dramatic moment and we very happily then escorted them back to our tents and sat them down for a very well-earned drink.

We were all basically climbers hoping to make the first ascent which had defeated so many earlier expeditions.

But the fortuitous event that we got the news back just in time for the coronation must have been a great present for the Queen.


"As a student I didn't object to having a good dinner and some free drinks!"

It created a sort of synergy and something that I think in the post-war years really uplifted the British public.

So we did have a rather fabulous time on our return.

I was a young 24-year-old, still a university student, and I had receptions at Buckingham Palace, Lancaster House, Lloyds of London, the RGS and all sorts of events I wouldn't normally have experienced.

Sometimes we felt five or six receptions in one week was a bit much, but as a student I didn't object to having a good dinner and some free drinks!

I was very glad I was there at a time when we were he only expedition of the year. In this Jubilee year over 20 expeditions have applied to try and climb the mountain from the south side.

It's still an achievement to top-out on Everest - there's no doubt about that - but I'm glad I was there earlier.

In Context
George Band lived off the proceeds from lecturing about the ascent for four years.

In 1955 he also made the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak.

He then worked in oil and gas exploration for the rest of his professional life, but has also been president of the Alpine Club and British Mountaineering Council.

Everest Glossary
Icefall
Chaotic and often dangerous area of glacier.

South Col
A col, or pass, is a lower gap in the crest of a mountain ridge. The "normal" route up Everest goes via the South Col.

Cwm
Welsh word for a glacially-scoured bowl in a mountain's side. Also called a corrie (Scottish) or cirque (French).

Top-out
Reaching the summit of a mountain.


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