With the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest just a few months behind us, it’s a pleasure to have come across one of the most revealing and well researched books that I have yet read on that auspicious event. All the more remarkable is the fact that this is a daughter writing about her father's contribution to the expedition and his fascinating life and times, in a such a quiet, dispassionate way.
Everest-The First Ascent: the untold story of the man who made it possible, is a biography of one of mountaineering’s’ great unknowns-Griffith Pugh; scientist, doctor and physiologist whose contribution to the cause was-as the book painstakingly reveals- absolutely crucial in its successful outcome, yet cruelly under-played by climbing historians and fellow mountaineers. Not least, expedition leader, John Hunt. Author Harriet Tuckey’s work-ten years in the making-could not be described as a labour of love exactly with regard to her subject. In his lifetime, she loathed him at times and felt betrayed and rejected by a man for whom the description ‘socially dysfunctional’ was invented.
Born into a fairly privileged background, Pugh’s father was a career diplomat, his upbringing was predictably chaotic. Not least when his parents returned to a diplomatic station in India leaving 5 year old Pugh and his younger sister in the care of a young nanny and living in a remote rambling country house in the Mid Wales hills. Left to his own devices, the young Pugh developed into the self contained, free spirited loner that defined his character for the rest of his life. After the torture of boarding school, Pugh went on to study law at Oxford before switching to medicine. After qualifying he eventually found a career which complimented his love of sking and mountaineering; becoming an instructor at the army school of mountain warfare in Lebanon.
It was while serving at The Ceders Mountain School amongst the snow capped mountains of the Lebanon, that his career as an expert in high altitude physiology took off. By the time the Everest expedition was going through the recruitment process, Griffith Pugh was already a strong candidate to take on the role as scientific adviser. He had made a great contribution in the field of research during a preparatory expedition to Cho Oyo in 1952, where, despite the non cooperation of climbers like Hillary- who viewed Pugh’s physiological experiments as a needless distraction-he still managed to gain valuable information regarding the effects of altitude on the human body. Particularly the importance of supplementary oxygen and its impact on performance . Many climbers at the time were not convinced that carrying heavy oxygen apparatus was anything other than a self defeating burden. Pugh’s experiments with different types of apparatus proved to the contrary.
Subject and author
Apart from his work with Oxygen, he was instrumental in highlighting the importance of hydration when undertaking extreme exercise at altitude and his research and designs of effective clothing and footwear to counteract the worst excesses of extreme sub zero temperatures was a crucial factor in the ultimate success of the 53 Everest expedition.
John Hunt’s qualities as a leader and flaws as a mountaineer and human being have been detailed elsewhere. However, suffice it to say, Harriet Tuckey’s book doesn’t exactly diplomatically dance around his failings. Hunt is portrayed as an egotist and like so many British heroes, from Scott to Franklin, a bit of a buffoon at times. Fiercely religious, Hunt wanted the conquest of Everest to be seen as a victory for the human spirit guided by a higher force; most definitely not achieved through the cold application of rational scientific logic. If John Hunt is not covered in glory then a bigger surprise comes with the revelation that good old Edmund Hillary, the genial New Zealand beekeeper and intrepid mountaineer who went on to become a tireless charity worker in the field of Nepalese education, was something of a climbing journeyman who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In fact ,when the Everest team was chosen, Hillary had no real experience of climbing in the Greater Ranges and his mountaineering had largely been confined to his native peaks. Everest was always going to be the highpoint of his mountaineering career, however, the author describes how he never over came serious health problems performing at altitude and never established himself at the cutting edge. A real body blow to someone so competitive and egotistical. A trip he organised with Pugh to Makalu some years later saw Hillary suffering from altitude sickness and persuaded to come down off the mountain. Later events went from bad to worse when several climbers and Sherpas had to be rescued and evacuated thanks to the incredible efforts of a non climbing member of the group, John West. Pugh himself was conducting experiments at ‘The Silver Hut’, the teams scientific base lower down the mountain at the time.As with Hunt's Everest book, Hillary's original account practically erased Pugh's contribution from the records with Hillary even taking the credit for the scientific contributions.
Back home, Pugh’s wife, the former society debutant- Josephine (Doey)- was tiring of her husbands’ lifestyle. The amount of time he spent away from his family, the times when he did come home and he would lock himself away in his study-his penchant for expensive cigars, fast cars and fast women. Predating The Beatles by several years, Doey took herself off to India to hang out with the Maharishi Yogi and study transcendental meditation. When she did return she effectively had to fund and bring up her family virtually single handed. With Doey looking after their four children-one of whom was disabled- Pugh continued to do his own thing. Living high on the hog with millionaire friends while diverting his scientific energies into other fields of research.
His research into performance at altitude did continue however, and he was appointed as a chief scientific adviser to the British Olympic team competing at the high altitude games held in Mexico City in 1968. After retirement, his long suffering wife found him a role running a family farm and garage in which he applied the same intense scientific approach to these contrasting roles. With his health deteriorating, he was left to live out his days, a disillusioned and disappointed man who never felt he received his due desserts for the pioneering work in his field. It was only after she heard Michael Ward speak at an Everest lecture in 1993-a year before Pugh's death- organised by the RGS, that Harriet Tuckey began her journey to discover the truth behind the unknown person with whom she had shared so much of her life. Ward’s words of tribute lit the blue touchpaper and sent her on something of a magical mystery tour. Revealing sides to his character and life experiences of which she had never been aware of. Her goal.....to bestow- albeit belatedly-a degree of respect and recognition that the achievements and breakthroughs he had made in his field so richly deserved. In Everest-The First ascent the author’s quest has been well and truly achieved.