Two years before he reached the top of Mount Everest in 1953 Edmund Hillary had accompanied another Everest expedition, led by Eric Shipton. Of that climb, Hillary wrote: "It wasn't so much our achievements I remembered...[as] the character of Eric Shipton; his ability to be calm and comfortable in any circumstances, his insatiable curiosity to know what lay over the next hill or around the next corner and, above all, his remarkable power to transform the discomfort and pain and misery of high-altitude life into a great adventure."
Hillary's endorsement of Shipton's skill and mountaineering temperament goes much deeper than mere back-patting between mutual admirers. For Hillary would be the first to admit that the knowledge gained from expeditions to Everest in the '30s, in which Shipton and many others participated, contributed mightily to the success of Hillary's assault in 1953.
In his autobiography, That Untravelled World (Scribner's, $6.95), Eric Shipton himself tells even more about these earlier expeditions and his part in them. Born in 1907 into a family that was constantly on the move between England, Ceylon and southern India, he had his first taste of mountain climbing in Norway during a school vacation. From then on he took every available opportunity to go climbing in the Italian and French Alps.
Failing to get into Cambridge, he went to Kenya to learn coffee farming. He soon found there was little possibility of making his fortune there, but his stay was not fruitless, since he met Bill Tilman (who was to become a partner in many famous expeditions) and Wyn Harris. It was with Wyn Harris that he succeeded in climbing the Twin Peaks of Mount Kenya in 1929 (a feat achieved only once before—in 1899).
Two years later Shipton was asked to go climbing in the Himalayas. The invitation came from the famed British explorer, Frank Smythe, and Shipton snatched it up at once. It was to set the tone for the rest of his life. From then through the '30s Shipton spent much of his time in the Himalayas, climbing Mount Kamet and Nanda Devi, as well as making his first attempts at Everest. Those expeditions were handicapped, of course, by the primitive equipment and the lack of oxygen, for what was available in transportable oxygen at the time was too heavy and cumbersome to be of any use on such expeditions. Shipton, properly, avoids speculating on whether more modern equipment would have helped them achieve success. What he does is describe in cogent detail the trials of a high-altitude expedition in those early days of Everest climbing.
As to why Shipton's later efforts—for example, in 1951—were not successful, the answer perhaps comes from mountaineer W. H. Murray, who maintained that "no expedition, however strong and energetic, can hope to achieve the summit unless it be aided by three major strokes of good fortune...freedom from high wind near the top; no deep powder on the slopes below or above the South Col, and the right man high at the right time." Unfortunately, none of Shipton's assaults had the good luck to encounter all three elements at once.
He was leading an expedition northwest of the Himalayas from Kashmir through to Karakoram and Baltit when World War II broke out. He was offered the post of British Consul General in Kashgar (Sinkiang) and he writes interestingly of the bid for influence in that area by both the Chinese and the Soviets. He was later posted to Kunming in Yunnan—the southernmost province in China—and was there when the Chinese Red Army began to move in in 1950.
Shipton is obviously disappointed that he was not picked to lead the Everest expedition that Hillary and Tenzing took to the summit in 1953, but he sought new goals in another continent. Traveling to South America, he led exploratory expeditions into the western areas of Patagonia—a rugged, mountainous region of sweeping glaciers and thick forests along the Andes.
From there he traveled to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, where he was caught up in the local scene to the extent that the Chilean government asked him to be its geographic adviser in a lingering boundary dispute with Argentina.
Wherever he was, Shipton thrived on elemental challenges, as Hillary describes graphically on another occasion: "All our clothes were wet and so were our sleeping bags. And the smell was hard to put up with. The rain was pounding down on our flimsy roof and it was leaking in a dozen places. But nothing seemed to disturb Shipton. Sitting in his sleeping bag, with his umbrella over his head to divert the drips, he puffed at his pipe and read a novel in the flickering light of a candle. He couldn't have looked more contented...."
Shipton himself expresses it this way: "The springs of enchantment lie within ourselves: they arise from our sense of wonder, that most precious of gifts, the birthright of every child. Lose it and life becomes flat and colourless; keep it and—all experience is an arch wherethro'/Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move."