Friday, 17 March 2017

Norton of Everest.....Review

Mount Everest and its climbing history, still retains a keen interest within the mountaineering community and the general public, none more so than the early attempts in 1921, 1922 and 1924. The members of those expeditions have had many books written about them; Mallory, Irvine, Morshead, Somerville, Finch and Noel but until now no volume has appeared about the part played by Colonel Teddy Norton in the 1922 and 1924 parties.

A career soldier, an officer of the Royal Field Artillery, how he became selected for the 1922 expedition remains to this day unclear. He was related by his mother’s family to Sir Alfred Wills, who was a founder of the Alpine Club and who made the first ascent of the Wetterhorn, but more famed for his role as the judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde to two years hard labour for gross indecency than his climbing record, impressive as it was for the part he played in the golden age of Alpine exploration. Wills had a chalet built in the Haute-Savoie in the Vallee des Fonds as a retreat, and it was on family visits to this facility that Norton learned to climb, along with his three brothers. However in 1922 his Alpine record was ‘thin’, and the very few ascents he had made on the higher peaks above the Chamonix Valley, mainly on the Aiguilles were with guides and he was yet to be elected a member of the Alpine Club.

However those who knew him were impressed by his calmness and decisive character, perhaps developed by his experiences in the 1914-1918 war which in surviving he remained a statistical miracle. For He soldiered at the Marne, Aisne, Ypres, Loos, and the Somme, and he was awarded every medal for gallantry and combat save for the Victoria Cross, and he emerged from the war with a certain quality of being, a serenity and a confidence that would stand him in good stead on Everest in 1924 when the ill health of General Bruce, the appointed leader, forced Norton to take over in his place. By 1922 Norton had seen much army service in India, and probably his linguistic abilities and familiarity with some of the dialects of the expedition porters stood him in good stead. Physically he must have stood out against such, for at 6 feet 4 inches, thin and spare he was unusually tall for his generation and at 38 years old; it is again surprising that he was selected to take part. It is interesting to me that the Everest Committee had all the expedition members medically tested before departure. I do not think we even considered doing that in my generation. Another matter that I do find surprising is that although the early Everest expeditions were made up of climbers, used to climbing in the Alps with guides, they never thought of taking some of them to bolster their technical skills on Everest. Yet they did achieve some impressive results, two parties reached 27,000 feet in 1922, Norton, Somervell, and Mallory without oxygen, while Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached 27,300 feet using oxygen. The 1922 attempt came to a sad end when below the North Col, a party made up of Somervell, Mallory and Crawford, with thirteen Sherpa porters was avalanched, in which seven of the Sherpa’s died.  I have read previous accounts of this event, and it seems that some feel that Mallory was to blame, for although there had been a heavy snowfall, he was determined to make one final summit bid. However surely the other two climbers involved, and the leadership were equally to blame for they were too late on the mountain by that time and into the monsoon season, and yet they had agreed to this going forward?

1924 Everest was Norton’s truly impressive effort, although by then 40 years old, he had to take over the leadership when the leader General Bruce had to turn back during the approach march due to an attack of Malaria. The approach through Tibet during those early expeditions was a challenge in itself, taking four to five weeks and even today travelling in that country can still be demanding. The 1924 party was made up of some of the same climbers as 1922, and Norton climbing with Somervell without oxygen reached solo, after his partner had been forced to give it best due to breathing problems, to within a 1000feet of the summit. A height record that stood for fifty-four years until in 1978 when Messner and Habeler climbed the mountain without oxygen to the summit. The failure of the Norton/Somervell bid led on to a determination by Mallory to have one more go at summiting, for which he decided to use oxygen. He chose as his partner the relatively inexperienced climber, but excellent oxygen practitioner Sandy Irvine.

The story of Mallory and Irvine’s attempt, and how it ended in their tragic disappearance is now one of the most discussed and fantasised events in mountaineering history; plays, books, films have all entered into a guessing game, of ‘did they reach the summit?’ Norton was certain that their deaths had been caused by a climbing accident, and he was vindicated in this view by the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999, lying low on the slopes of the north face with the rope which was still tied around his waist broken a short distance from his body.

In the face of this tragedy Norton as expedition leader was however praised not only for his high altitude achievement, but in the way he handled events surrounding the accident, and its aftermath in liaising with the lost climber’s families and friends, in dealing with the media and for his overall qualities of leadership. Somervell and a later Everester, Dr Mike Ward (a member of the successful 1953 party) recognised Norton as ‘probably the best of all Everest leaders’. Various things flowed from the Everest Expeditions in his later life, the 1922 party were awarded Olympic Gold medals in the winter of 1923-1924, he was elected to the Alpine Club and he was given the RGS’s gold Founder’s Medal in 1926. He was also considered as leader for two of the later Everest Expeditions in 1933 and 1935, and even Presidency of the Alpine Club in 1946, but he turned all such down for his military career took precedence. A significant outcome of his temporary celebrity as a mountaineer was the naming of a peak in the Canadian Rockies in 1927, Mount Norton 10,200feet, by an American climber Alfred Ostheimer (who named another of his first ascents Mount Somervell) .

I have not noted Norton’s other interests, like Somervell he immersed himself in painting and sketching, but he also was something of a caricaturist and the book contains many examples of his work. These illustrate very much the interests and the gentle humour of his times. He was also a keen naturalist and collected hundreds of botanical specimens whilst taking part in the Everest expeditions. However apart from a few later Alpine ascents, and hill walking in Scotland; Norton did not go on to make any more Himalayan journeys.

He slowly ascended the army promotion ladder finishing as a Lieutenant General, having held many command posts in India. He started his career at the pinnacle of the British Empire; but slowly over his decades of service he witnessed its slow disintegration. He was a man of his times, although interestingly he had been born in Argentina where his father was a shipping line and estancia owner. But grew up in England, and was schooled at Charterhouse (which he disliked) and entered RMA Woolwich which was then the school of artillery, before becoming a commissioned officer. 

In 1940 he acted as the governor of Hong Kong for a short period, appalled on arriving there at the lack of preparations against the possibility of a Japanese invasion, whose troops had already conquered huge swathes of eastern China. He immediately set about preparing air raid shelters to protect the civilian population, organising the drilling of caves into the nearby mountains to do this and trying to alert London to the seriousness of the situation. He did leave the colony before the Japanese occupation, and eventually after a brief period back in Quetta, where he commanded that garrison; he was recalled to England and the War Office.

I found whilst reading this book a growing questioning, why it was that Norton who was obviously an accomplished and kind person, and his fellow rulers of the Empire never seemed to understand, that such as Indians, Chinese, and the other subject people did not wish to be ruled by the British or anyone else for that matter? At least if they did, they never seemed to have declared that this was so.  Knowing China like I do, I am always amazed that after the opium wars and the forced treaties imposed on that country, which is how Britain gained Hong Kong, that we are not pariahs when we travel and work amongst them. Norton, true to his station in life was a monarchist, and a social conservative, and like the rest of us a product of his environment.

I enjoyed reading this book, and to anyone interested in the early Everest expeditions, and in a wider context the tumultuous events of the 20th century which changed all our lives, particularly the two world wars, I believe they will like me be both educated and held by reading this timely Norton biography, by one of his surviving sons. I guess writing about such a distinguished parent must have been difficult, but I think there is a degree of separation helped by the passage of time from the events described, that the book avoids becoming a hagiography.     

Dennis Gray: 2017

Norton of Everest. Hugh Norton. Vertebrate Publishing. £12.99
Available to Pre-order direct from Vertebrate.