by: Angie C. Marek

ERIC SHIPTON was one of Britain’s strongest mountain climbers, but he once took a hard fall—while standing on level ground. The year was 1952, and Shipton was slated to lead the expedition that, the following year, put the first men on the summit of Mount Everest. After months choosing a team and exploring the crevasses and icefalls at the mountain’s base, Shipton appeared before Britain’s Royal Geographical Society to learn that its Himalayan committee had given his position to someone else. “I leave London absolutely shattered,” he wrote to a close friend.

The ouster left the Everest team in tatters. Politicians whispered that Edmund Hillary, later famous for reaching the summit, might resign. But the committee had made the safe choice: The new leader was a skilled military organizer. Shipton, by contrast, was a lone adventurer, drawn to untouched mountains—a climbers’ climber whose reputation has only grown with the years.

Shipton’s style was born in the 1920s in Kenya’s freewheeling community of expatriate Europeans. He had settled there to try life as a coffee grower, but within months his vision turned skyward, and he became the first man to ascend both peaks of Mount Kenya in 1929. Shipton also gravitated toward Bill Tilman, dry witted and so hardened he would later bike across Africa eating mostly bananas and potatoes. While climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Ruwenzori together the men developed a streamlined style - -few porters, little gear, two-men teams— and joked they could plan an entire expedition on the back oif an envelope.

SUBLIME. Their appetite for adventure quickly outgrew Kenya. In 1934,they became the first outsiders to penetrate the Nanda Devi Santuary, an emerald valley accessible only by scaling 21,000-foot peaks. Shipton capured the British public’s imagination with a poetic account of the ascent, arguing that climbing with as spare a team as possible was key to apprehending the mountains sublimity. Then came attempts on Everest in 1935 and 1936, and a four-month mapping of the Karakor-am range. Britain appointed Shipton consul General to China’s Kashgar region in 1940, during World War II, Shipton supplemented amateur spying and half-hearted governing with fast ascents up the region’s major peaks.

In preparing for the Everest expedition, though, Shipton achieved some of his greatest feats. In 1951, with younger climbers (including Hillary) he found a new route up Everest’s steeper, southern face and was thus the first to traverse the treacherous Khumbu Icefall below. “There’s no doubt they wouldn’t have conquered Everest in 1953 without this groundwork,” says Peter Hansen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

In the 1960s, huge, military-style mountain assaults lost favor and Shipton’s lightweight, individualistic climbing style became dominant. But it was his call to seek out the blank spots on tghe map that resounded loudest after his death in 1977. “He was a true explorer,” says Steve Matous, executive director of the Access Fund, a climbing-industry nonprofit. “He told us we could all be pioneers.”



February 23 / March 1, 2004. (pg 82)

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