Eric Shipton’s style and whims shaped mountaineering history

In 1931, no one had climbed higher than Eric Shipton, a British coffee planter who cut his climbing teeth in Africa and made the first ascent of 7,756 meters (25,446 ft) Kamet in the Indian Himalayas with Frank Smythe, bagging eight other peaks besides. Shipton introduced Tenzing Norgay to climbing, gave a young Ed Hillary his start in Himalayan mountaineering and is largely responsible for spreading the myth of the Yeti, or “Abominable Snowman”. But Eric Shipton’s most lasting contribution to mountaineering is style.

Along with his frequent climbing partner Bill Tilman, he advocated a lightweight approach to mountaineering at a time when nationalist sieges were in vogue. Although this aesthetic has come to represent the highest form of alpinism, in Shipton’s day it made him an outlier and probably cost him the opportunity to lead the British Everest Expedition in 1953. The honor instead went to Maj. John Hunt, an army logistics officer who orchestrated a military-style assault on the world’s highest mountain. Shipton, who had participated in five exploratory expeditions to Everest, was nowhere near that mountain when his protégés Hillary and Norgay planted the Union Jack on the summit.

Shipton was born on a tea plantation in 1907 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. His father died when he was young and the family returned to England, where Shipton attended boarding school and took an interest in mountaineering. As a teenager he climbed in Norway and several seasons in the Alps, culminating in a traverse of the Matterhorn in 1928 when he was 21 years old. Later that year he moved to Kenya to learn an apprenticeship as a coffee planter.

In Africa he fell in with a group of keen climbers, including Percy Wyn-Harris, with whom he made the first ascent of Nelion (5,188 metres), the smallest of Mt. Kenya’s twin summits before marking its slightly taller sibling, Batian (5,199 metres). Shipton couldn’t stay away from Mt. Kenya, climbed the peak three times that year with different partners.

The following season, 1930, he attempted the Mt. Kilimanjaro with another planter and novice climber by name Harold William “Bill” Tillman. The attempt was a miserable failure, as Tilman later described with frankness and good humor: “When a party fails to reach the top of a mountain, it is customary and convenient to have a picturesque excuse. The reason for our retreat was the more prosaic and not uncommon—inability to go further.”

Undaunted, Shipton led Tilman on the first ascent of Mt. Kenya’s knife-like West Ridge. Already honing the minimalist style that both would become paragons of, they carried no crampons and rather less rope than would have been prudent. They had not planned to reach the summit, but having cleared a technical rocky step, they had no choice but to continue over the summit.

“Thereupon I was infused with a pleasant sense of abandonment,” Shipton wrote in his autobiography, That Untravelled World. “Our rope was not long enough for us to abseil down the red step, and the thought of climbing down it without support from above was out of the question; therefore we just had to reach the top.”

Shipton and Tilman made the first ascent of Mt. Kenya’s West Ridge in 1929. Wikimedia Commons

They summited Batian in fog and light snow two hours before dark. After that, i Mark Horrell narrates,” they crossed the Mist Gate, an eerie mound between the two peaks, and climbed Nelion. . . . Tilman broke the pick of his ice ax driving it into the snow, then dropped it entirely in an attempt to arrest a fall. It ran down the mountain and he had to complete the descent without it. Shipton got food poisoning after eating a ‘meat essence’ on top of Batian and had to keep stopping to vomit.”

The duo arrived at their camp 28 hours later, having completed an epic traverse of Mt. Kenya. It was a remarkable achievement, especially since Tilman was a climbing novice. “Shipton was the more experienced climber and did almost all the leading,” writes Horrell. “But Tilman was fearless, and there was nowhere Shipton went that he would not follow.”

Soon enough, the partners were exploring the Himalayas and honing their effortless style, which Alpinist editor Katie Ives memorably describes in up to The untraveled world: “Over time, their names became synonymous with a particular way of climbing and hiking: moving as easily and as simply as possible through isolated areas; planning minimalist expeditions ‘on the back of an envelope;’ and concentrates, not on the conquest of summits or the publication of results, but on finding a means – as Shipton called it – “to identify [oneself] with this enchanting world.”

Shipton’s ascent of Kamet in 1931 established him in the vanguard of British alpinists, and his 1934 expedition with Tilman to the Nanda Devi Reserve via the Rishi Ganga Gorge electrified the British mountaineering establishment. Not only had they solved the difficult approach to Nanda Devi (Tilman would return to claim the 7,816-metre summit in 1936, eclipsing Shipton’s record for the highest mountain yet climbed), but the months-long expedition had only cost £287.

Although an accomplished climber, Shipton was at his best exploring a new country. He is remembered for scouting expeditions to great mountains such as K2 and Everest. His observations helped crack the mystery of both mountains, but his expedition notebooks are also full of smaller climbs. After his Kamet triumph, he hung around and climbed eight smaller peaks, and his 1935 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition shot 20 peaks of more than 20,000 feet.

The most influential decision Shipton made on that expedition, at least in terms of Everest history, came before the team left its base in Darjeeling. “From a hundred applicants we selected fifteen Sherpas to accompany the expedition,” Shipton wrote in That Untravelled World. “Nearly all of them were old friends, including, of course, Angtarkay, Pasang, and Kusang; but there was a Tibetan boy of nineteen, a newcomer, chosen chiefly for his attractive grin. His name is Tensing Norkay.” Norgay would, of course, become the greatest climbing Sherpa of his generation, even before he set foot on top of the world with Hillary.

Years later, another off-the-cuff decision set Ed Hillary on the path that would eventually land him on top of Everest. In 1951, Shipton led the critical reconnaissance of the mountain’s now standard South Col route. (During this expedition, Shipton photographed a large, vague hominid footprint that ignited a worldwide obsession with the so-called Abominable Snowman. American oilman Tom Slick caught a fever so bad that he financed several expeditions in search of the creature, one of which employed 500 porters and a pack of bloodhounds).

While preparing for the Everest expedition in 1951, Shipton received a curious telegram from the president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, saying that four of his countrymen were climbing in the Garhwal Himalaya and asking if two of them could join Shipton’s team. The president of the club did not even reveal their names.

Shipton and Tilman were the first to enter the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, seen here in 1936. Wikimedia Commons.

“The right answer was obvious,” Shipton wrote in his autobiography. “I had already rejected several applicants with very strong qualifications on the grounds that I wanted to keep the party small; our meager resources of money and equipment were already stretched, and I had no idea where the two unknown climbers were or how to contact them. I was about to send a negative reply when, in a moment of nostalgic recollection, I remembered Dan Bryant’s cheerful face and changed my mind.”

Bryant, a New Zealander, was a member of the Everest reconnaissance in 1935. He suffered terribly from altitude sickness, but Shipley liked his attitude. Hillary was in and the rest is history.

Shipton’s part of Everest’s history is less well known but hugely significant. His legacy of style is even more influential. He climbed throughout his life in the Alps, Africa, the Himalayas and in western China’s Kashgar region, where he served as British consul during and after the war. Late in life he turned his attention to Patagonia, crossing the southern and northern Patagonian ice fields, traveling light and shooting peaks along the way, living as always by a simple faith.

“There are few treasures of more lasting value than the experience of a lifestyle that is in itself completely satisfying,” he wrote. “Such, after all, are the only possessions that no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can take from us; nothing can change that fact, if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.”

He fell ill in 1976 while visiting Bhutan and was diagnosed with cancer. He died a few months later, in March 1977, aged 69.

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