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Lesser-known hero of the first Everest ascent
Published 31/12/12

THERE will be plenty of commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest in which the names of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay feature prominently.

Less well known today, but unquestionably just as important, was Colonel John Hunt, a long-term Henley resident and leader of the British expedition.

In a way, to talk of his personal importance is to do him a disservice, for throughout his life he was utterly committed to the idea that the success of the expedition was all down to teamwork but there is no doubt that Hunt was absolutely central to the British team.

According to Lord Longford, he was the greatest Englishman of his time, a charismatic, inspiring figure who devoted his life to public service — and adventure.

John Hunt was born in 1910 in the Indian hill town of Simla, into a military family. He lost his father at an early age, a casualty of the First World War, and was brought up by a strong but rather distant mother.

He became an archetypal high achiever. He graduated from Sandhurst at the top of his year, winning a gold medal and an ornamental sword. He then returned to India as an officer in the British army.

During the Second World War Hunt was appointed chief instructor of the Commando Snow and Mountain Warfare School in Wales before seeing active service in Europe.

He won his DSO in the bitter fighting of the Italian campaign and a CBE in Greece, where he spent several very tense months keeping the peace after liberation.

By 1952 he had reached the rank of colonel but behind his impressive record and military background was a rather surprising person.

Hunt was a distant relative of Sir Richard Burton, the distinctly unconventional 19th century explorer and translator of the famous erotic text, the Kama Sutra.

Off duty, his two great passions were skiing and mountaineering.

In 1935 he took part in his first “proper” expedition to Saltoro Kangri in the Karakoram Mountains. It was a small-scale, loosely organised affair but tremendously fulfilling.

In the same year, at the age of 25, Hunt was elected to the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society.

To his amazement, he was invited for a trial in the Alps for the 1936 British Everest expedition but just when everything seemed to be going well, he was “ploughed” by the expedition’s medical committee.

They detected a heart murmur and warned him that never mind Everest, he should take care when climbing the stairs.

It was a bitter blow and his depression lifted only in the following year when he married Joy Mowbray Green, a Wimbledon-standard tennis player. Soon she too was converted to mountaineering and the couple spent their holidays climbing in the Himalayas.

After the war Hunt was stationed in France and Germany on General Montgomery’s staff.

Then in September 1953 the call came: the Everest organising committee had sacked the expedition leader, the famous mountaineer Eric Shipton, and wanted Hunt to take over.

It was a daunting task but he had no hesitation. Over the next sixth months, he turned a rebellious team into world-beaters. His organisational skills were legend but less well known, though equally important, were his skills as a man manager.

Hunt had that elusive but essential ability to lead a team and make each member feel happy doing what he wanted them to do.

Today, in the era of commercial climbing expeditions, Everest has lost some of its lustre but in the early Fifties, many believed that it was beyond the limits of human ability.

Hunt thought differently. He was sure that it could be climbed and that that it should be climbed by a British team.

For almost two months he and his men laid siege to Everest. Hunt led them through atrocious weather, porter troubles and the inevitable personal conflicts of a big expedition.

It was a very tense affair, a race against time as the British team tried to get to the top before the monsoon hit.

Finally, on May 29,1953, two members of the team reached the summit.

If Hillary and Tenzing had failed, Hunt might have gone himself, but more important to him than anything else was the idea that the expedition was a team effort. Today, in an age of rampant individualism, the idea of pulling together for a common cause seems rather quaint but Hunt was absolutely convinced that it led to success.

After Everest, he devoted himself to public service. He left the army and moved with his family to Highway Cottage in Aston.

In 1956 he became the first director of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. He thrived in the job and was instrumental in turning it into an international institution.

In 1967 Hunt moved on to take up a very different sort of post, when Home Secretary Roy Jenkins invited him to become the first chairman of the Parole Board.

In press and television interviews, he came across as a very thoughtful and serious person but as everyone who knew him said, he had a strong sense of humour.

In his autobiography, Life Is Meeting, he told the embarrassing story of how, during one of his prison visits for the Parole Board, he met an inmate who greeted him warmly and recalled that they had met several years earlier in friendlier circumstances.

When he asked where, the prisoner replied that as a schoolboy Hunt had presented him with a silver Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

Hunt survived major heart surgery in 1995 but died three years later, at the age of 88 — not bad for someone who had been warned by doctors 63 years earlier to take care on the stairs.

lMick Conefrey is the author of Everest 1953, The Epic Story Of The First Ascent

Published 31/12/12

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