Coronation Everest

James Morris

Read August 2004

In the minds of some, the last hurrah of the British Empire was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: for on that same day, the world heard news of the ascent of Mount Everest. Perhaps symbolically, though the team that mounted the summit attack was led by a Briton, it was the broader Commonwealth that actually stood at the top. At the time, however, it was seen as simply another triumphal event. People of a certain generation still remember it.

Some combination of luck and preparation gave a talented young reporter named James Morris exclusive rights to this story. This book is his account of how he arranged for the news to be available in London on the dawn of the coronation, which involved both creating channels for the information to flow, and keeping his rival newspapermen from scooping him. This is reflexive journalism: the ascent itself forms a backdrop to this story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be just so much self-aggrandizing, but Morris is too astute for that; indeed, we are presented the author in all his humanity, sometimes nervous and at other times conniving.

We know James Morris as Jan Morris today. Signs of her keen eye and elegant style are already in this book. The younger Morris is, however, also a product of his times, and like his self, some of his mores are also obsolete. Morris apologizes for the prejudicial tone of the book in the preface, and it is interesting to witness her personal growth between this early work and her later writings. What is perhaps more subtle but also more surprising is the younger Morris's veneration for public figures (there is a vignette regarding Montgomery; for that matter, arranging for the news to arrive on Coronation morning was at least partly Morris's idea) in light of the older Morris's staunch republicanism.

The book's renewed publication is valuable also to those trying to understand the evolution of climbing, and a reader can't help but develop a deep sympathy for Reinhold Messner's views. While Messner's theory of climbing by ``fair means'' has made sense in the abstract, this book put a face on it. It isn't coincidental that the Everest group was commanded by a Colonel, for it truly resembled nothing so much as a military expedition. A mdoern reader can easily begin to wonder if, with that much infrastructure, the ascent was not somehow inevitable, and begins to appreciate the challenge Messner craved.