The Innocent on Everest

Another chapter from “Special Assignment” by my uncle John Alldridge
(published in 1960 and now long out of print)

The special correspondent doesn’t talk about ‘assignments’. He talks about ‘jobs’. His next ‘job’ may send him up the Amazon; or to cover a war in China. There may be a President to interview, with a revolution on his hands. But it’s still just another ‘job’. And no two of these jobs are ever quite alike.

He has no home life to speak of. And because wars and revolutions and hurricanes don’t usually send out invitations – why, he lives in a suitcase. And he never unpacks.

Someone once described him as a cross between a Secret Agent, a cat-burglar and a good Boy Scout. And it’s not a bad description.

He’s a resourceful, self-reliant, enterprising chap. He has to be. Most of the time he’s competing with professionals. And professionals – whether they are bandits or ballet dancers – haven’t much time for the amateur.

So he can turn his hand to most things. He’s a fair cook; and a better-than-average mechanic. He can eat anything and sleep anywhere. He knows more about the world than most travel agents.

For him the easiest part of the job is writing the story. It is finding the story – and then getting it back – that really puts him to the test. There aren’t many telephone boxes in the Antarctic. And none at all on Everest.

And it was to Everest in 1953 that the Daily Mail sent Ralph Izzard. To a base camp 12,000 feet up the tallest, toughest mountain in the world.

I suppose Izzard is almost the ideal Special Correspondent. He is a big man – he stands 6 feet 4 inches, and weighs nearly 14 stone – and is physically as tough and as active as a steeplejack. He is also a very shy man. You have to dig very deep into Izzard to learn that during World War II he joined the Navy as an Ordinary Seaman and left it a Lieutenant-Commander. On the way up he collected an O.B.E. and a Mention in Dispatches for his part in the Normandy Invasion.

He is the born explorer-type. He has tramped over most of the roughest and least-known countries in the world. In 1957 he took his wife and four small children on donkey-back along the High Lebanon Range: a three-month trek never before attempted by Europeans.

He doesn’t talk easily about these things. For Izzard is no ‘headline hero’. He would rather talk about animals. With very good reason. He is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and on his travels has collected a number of rare birds and animals for the London Zoo. His special hobby is collecting wild orchid plants for private growers. And I think his proudest moment came in 1957 when he was elected a member of The Shikar Club (the British big game hunters’ club).

To a man of Izzard’s temperament, the charm and challenge of his assignment to Everest (after his first reaction of dismay) was the remoteness of the mountain.

You can fly to the South Pole. But it is unlikely that a plane will take you nearer Mount Everest than Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, 180 miles away.

These miles you have to cover on foot. There is no other way. And because all the time you are walking from west to east against the grain of the Himalayas – that is, up and down the peaks of the ridges – it will take you the better part of three weeks.

In the middle of February, 1953, the news came through to Cairo, to which Izzard had just returned from Kenya, that his visa for a second visit to Nepal had been granted and was waiting for him at the Nepalese Embassy in New Delhi. With it came instructions by telephone from the Daily Mail in London to be off to Katmandu at once. The baggage party of the British Everest Expedition, it seemed, was due in Bombay any day.

In vain Izzard pleaded that it was months too soon, that no serious climbing could be attempted until April at the earliest. The voice from Northcliffe House was adamant: “Don’t worry about that. We want you in Katmandu in good time to beat The Times.”

At once a horrifying thought began to cross his mind. Did they mean they wanted him to gate-crash the expedition?

Evidently that was just what they did expect. For the voice wound up cheerfully: “Exactly. And the best of luck.” And rang off.

Thanks very much, thought Izzard gloomily. He was expected to find a story due to take place a three-weeks’ trek from the nearest telegraph office – and many thousands of feet above his head when he got there. Luck? He was going to need it!

But correspondents don’t argue with their editors. Not if they want to remain correspondents. So three days later Izzard flew out of Cairo bound for Karachi, Delhi and Katmandu, wearing the only suitable explorer’s kit he possessed – a weather-proof, reversible, kapok-lined Commando jacket (relic of his War service); a fleece jerkin and windproof jacket to match; a pair of woollen khaki pants (souvenirs from Korea); and a down sleeping-bag picked up in the Tokyo P.X.

And so on March 10th there he was at Bhatgaon, the expedition’s base 10 miles outside Katmandu, watching Hunt, Hillary, Tensing and the rest start out at the head of their long, straggling train of nearly 500 porters.

He watched them go with mixed feelings. He would have given almost anything in the world to have been striding out with them instead of running at their heels. And even as he watched the last porter disappear down the road he saw, with an urgent twinge of dismay, his story vanishing before his eyes. He must get after them – somehow. . . .

He had no kit. Only what he stood up in. So he looked around Katmandu and bought what he could.

The main items were one large tent which split in half the first time he erected it; and a small ‘Pup’ tent made years before by an American toy firm.

“As I had no climbing boots I bought three pairs of tennis shoes and threw them away as I wore them out. My most useful possessions proved to be my down sleeping bag and an air-mattress which mercifully remained unharmed.”

As for stores, he bought a great amount of porridge, which is light to carry, and forty slabs of chocolate. For the next three weeks porridge and a bar of chocolate was to be his basic daily ration. To break the monotony he added a few tins of canned meat and a good deal of tea and several tins of condensed milk.

Not much for a journey into the Unknown. But he reckoned he could add to it by buying eggs, and possibly potatoes, on the way.

Even so, it added up to a formidable heap of baggage. Certainly more than one man – even a big man like Izzard – could carry on his back.

However, that was no real problem. Nepal is a land of walkers and weight-lifters, and strong men can always be found to carry your bags for you as far as you like and for only a few shillings a day. They even provide their own food and bedding. The standard load is 60 pounds per man. And there are plenty of boys who will carry half a load for half-pay and call themselves ‘half a porter’; or even a few Supermen who will hire themselves out as two porters and carry a double load for double pay.

Izzard hired eight of these giants; three more than he really needed. But these extra men he planned to drop off at suitable intervals along the march, turning them into runners who would find their way back to Katmandu with his copy.

Of course, they all had to be paid. And paid regularly. And since banknotes aren’t accepted in the hills below Everest – there are no banks either, for that matter – Izzard had to take his own private treasury with him: a small tin trunk gaily painted with roses and filled with silver rupees. That was one porter’s load in itself.

So, eventually, this ill-equipped but brave little expedition started off down the road after Hunt and Hillary, already two weeks ahead of them.

A fortnight later, after a tortuous up-hill-down-dale march, they limped wearily into Namche Bazar, the capital of the Sherpa country.

About the same time readers of the Daily Mail were learning all about that colourful, but back-breaking journey:

“One climbs upwards through clusters of orchids, later through patches of violets and wild strawberries and thickets of golden raspberries and finally over a carpet of pale blue primulas between groves of rhododendrons, now gorgeously dressed in deep red, cerise, cream, white and sulphur-yellow blossoms. Always away to the left are the majestic snow-clad High Himalayas, all too frequently at this time of year hidden in haze.”

“The company one meets along this trade route, which meanders on beyond Namche Bazar into Tibet, is excellent. One is constantly stopping to pass the time of day with craftsmen and peasants carrying stacks of homemade rice paper or large baskets of crowing and clucking poultry down to Katmandu. We have been greeted with great friendliness in every village we have come to – an open-heartedness sometimes tempered by the conduct of the village mastiffs who are the shaggiest and fiercest dogs I have ever encountered. These, however, can be subdued by a salvo of well-directed stones of which, happily, there is always an ample supply to hand.”

“There is, though, an ugly reverse side to the picture, and this will show when the monsoon arrives. By that time hundreds of feet of dry, firm boulders which now form convenient ladders up some of the stiffer sections, will be roaring watercourses. Miles of upward winding paths, now baked clay, will be greasy mud where one slips back a step for every two gained.”

“Worst of all, the dense vegetation which clothes most of the route will be infested by leeches. To a man struggling day-long up a greasy slope in streaming rain, panting and perspiring, nothing can be more depressing than leeches. Out here, in a badly-infested area, leeches occur not in twos and threes but in hundreds.”

“They drop on your hair and down your neck from the trees – attach themselves to your clothing and slip inside your shirt as you brush past bushes – cling to your body and work their way through the eye-holes of your boots as you tread on sodden leaves.”

They had travelled fast: they had taken exactly fourteen days and two hours to reach Namche Bazar from Katmandu; which still stands as a European record. An even more remarkable feat, when you consider it was attempted without maps by a scratch team of barefoot porters from the bazaar, led by an innocent in tennis shoes, who had never tackled a real mountain in his life.

They deserved a rest. And Izzard would like to have stayed in Namche Bazar for a week at least and inspected the picturesque little hill-top town with it sixty white-walled, sugar-lump houses so familiar to all Himalayan climbers.

JerryF, Going Postal
Namche Bazar today.
Namche Bazar,
Jerome Bon
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

But there was no time to waste. Hunt was somewhere above and beyond him. And Izzard must press on and find him before he got right out of reach.

According to latest reports, Hunt had made his base in Thyangboche Monastery, two days journey from Namche Bazar, and would stay there until Monday at least. Today was Friday. So he had plenty of time – providing he could recruit a fresh team to take him there. For, obviously, his original team had come as far as they could. They were above the snowline, now, and bare-foot porters would be helpless in the heavy snows that lay ahead.

So regretfully – for he had grown very fond of the cheerful, great-hearted little men – he paid them off and looked around for replacements.

Namche Bazar is the heart of the Sherpa country: and every Sherpa worthy of the name is a born mountaineer. But Hunt had already taken his pick.

Fortunately for Izzard, his good luck was still holding. Though the best climbers in the district had gone on ahead with Hunt there were plenty of volunteers who offered to take him up the mountain – and right to the top, if need be.

One of these was a colourful character called Sherpa Gyalsen who presented himself next morning wearing full Swiss mountain kit. He spoke some English, and announced that he was quite prepared to organise a small expedition to the top of the Khumbu Glacier – the site of Hunt’s base camp – providing that he was not expected to do any carrying. He explained that he had overtaxed his strength during two Swiss attempts the year before. And he spat loudly into the snow to prove it.

With some misgivings – for he looked far from well – Izzard agreed to take him on. And with grave delight – for the Sherpas are a dignified race – Gyalsen went off to recruit his porters.

The next morning he returned with the complete expedition. It consisted of two human pack-horses called Nawang Tensing (no relation to the famous ‘Tiger’ Tensing) and Kirkia, an amiable gorilla of a man. Each man had strapped to his back a contraption rather like a school easel, on which he had already packed an appalling amount of personal equipment, most of it quite useless. (Kirkia, for instance, insisted on taking with him an enormous pair of blacksmith’s bellows).

Neither man would give up anything: it was a matter of personal pride, they explained. And when they finally left each was carrying a load of well over 100 pounds – to the huge delight of the crowd, who thought it immensely funny.

It was now Friday, and they had three full days to catch Hunt before he moved up to the glacier from Thyangboche Monastery. But they were soon in trouble. Poor Gyalsen was coughing steadily. It looked most unlikely that he would finish the course.

Before them now was the long 2,000-foot climb to the Monastery.

“Our pace became so pitifully slow and boring that in the end I pulled a book out of my pack and progressed sedately upwards, reading as I climbed, in true monkish fashion”, says Izzard.

The Buddhist monastery of Thyangboche marks the dividing line between the valley and the mountain. To the south lies mile after mile of lush vegetation, glowing with magnolia and rhododendron and alive with the song of birds. A mile to the north the mountain begins – bleak, harsh moorland where only the hardiest men can live.

It was here at the monastery that Izzard expected to come up with Hunt. To his horror, he found only scraps of abandoned equipment. Hunt had already pushed on up the mountain towards the glacier! There was nothing for it. Izzard and his scratch team must follow as best they could.

Unhappy about the condition of Nawang and Kirkia, who kept stoutly on, although obviously woefully over-loaded, he took on a third porter, an uncouth but happy Ind called Da Tensing.

It was as well that he did, for the following day they found themselves battling through a blizzard, which suddenly broke over them and nearly swept them off the mountain.

This short, but fierce, snowstorm finished poor Gyalsen. They carried him between them as far as they could. But some hundreds of feet farther up they had to leave him behind in a stone hut – together with Nawang, half their food and – much more important – half their firewood.

Then, with one unhappy backward glance, Izzard set off up the glacier with the two remaining porters, Da Tensing and Kirkia.

They made slow progress. A mile and a half was all they covered that afternoon. But they were comforted to see that they were on the right route. It was clearly marked by empty soup packets left behind first by the German climbers, then by the Swiss, finally by the British.

The next casualty was Da Tensing, who woke up the following morning complaining of severe pains in his stomach. Izzard put this down to rank over-eating. But there was nothing to be done. Da Tensing had to be left behind with the bulk of the equipment while Izzard and Kirkia made a quick dash for the British Expedition’s camp.

“It looked easy enough,” Izzard recalls, “I reckoned that, at the outside, we should not have more than 8 or 9 miles to cover in the day. I felt so confident that I took only one bar of chocolate with me for the two of us!”

At first, all went well. Then a rock-face forced them on to moraine and at times on to the glacier itself. This meant scrambling up and sliding down what seemed a never-ending series of banks, rocks and boulders.

It was no real problem to Kirkia, born to these altitudes as he was. But Izzard, staggering along behind him, his heart pumping as never before, was always very near the limit of endurance. A dozen times he was on the point of giving up. But the sight of that shaggy figure ahead of him, always cheerfully pointing upwards, kept him going.

At last they came out over the final ridge and onto the rim of the glacier. They found themselves standing, gasping for breath, and looking down on what seemed to be some fantastically beautiful moon country made up of pyramids and spires of palest green and purest white ice.

And there at last they found the British camp. Two minutes before Izzard had been ready to turn back; which would have been a heartbreaking decision to make after having walked nearly 200 miles of a journey that had lasted nineteen days.

And now they were in sight of journey’s end – the neat ring of tents, some scarlet, some yellow; and the tiny figures of the Sherpa cooks busily preparing dinner.

After that long and arduous climb, the end came as an anti-climax. For it was made obvious at once that Izzard was not a welcome guest. He had no right to be there. He was gate-crashing the party.

Officially, they could not talk to him. They might not even pose for photographs. But, after all, they were a dozen Englishmen on the highest and loneliest mountain in the world. So they offered him tea-and-biscuits and chatted, guardedly, about the weather.

Then it was time to leave, if he was to be back in camp by nightfall.

“I took some hurried photographs of the camp while the climbers hid in their tents, having now been warned that there must be no more posing for ‘outsiders’.”

Then Kirkia and Izzard set off back down the glacier. It had taken him nineteen days to get there, and he had stayed barely half an hour. But he had got his story. He had been. And seen.

Now they had to pay for their audacity. For Everest always extracts a toll from her ‘guests’.

Next day Izzard woke up virtually snow-blind. In his baste to get off after Hunt he had forgotten to buy sunglasses. He knew this blindness was only temporary, but it was extremely painful while it lasted; and while it lasted he was staggering about helpless.

With two sick men on his hands – for Gyalsen should have been in a sanatorium and Da Tensing was still complaining about his stomach although he never stopped stuffing himself with butter – with Kirkia walking almost barefoot (for he had worn the bottoms right off his Tibetan boots), Izzard decided to make for Namche Bazar as quickly as possible. As soon as his eyes stopped aching and he could see clearly he gave the order to strike camp. But there was one more thing to do. He climbed to the top of the Thyangboche saddle, and looked back at Everest for the last time.

“The afternoon still held sufficient daylight, and I hulled my eyes towards the black pyramid of the Mountain trailing its plume of smoke over the Khotse-Nuptse curtain. And I confess I shuddered. . . .”

At Namche, where the ‘old originals’ from Katmandu greeted him with cries of delight, he dipped his hand for the last time into the tin-trunk treasury and paid off the four Sherpas. Their odd little adventure was over.

And that night he slept in a bed for the first time in nearly three weeks.

In his account of what he calls modestly ‘my own little effort’ Izzard always insists that he did no more than get to the foot of the mountain in time to see the start of the climb. But that was more than enough. He had got there in time. And in the strange, unpredictable world of the Special Correspondent timing is everything.

Nothing like those dispatches of Izzard’s had ever come from Everest before. In the words of his own newspaper:

“Izzard’s adventure is not, after all, the full Everest climb. It is just another example of a good reporter’s determination to cover his assignment at all hazards.”

Note (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Ralph William Burdick Izzard, OBE (1919-1992) was an English journalist, author, adventurer and, during World War II, a British Naval Intelligence officer. As a journalist, Izzard spent virtually his entire career with one newspaper, the Daily Mail.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Ralph Izzard.
Lt. Commander Ralph Izzard, RNVR (circa 1944),
M. Fitzpatrick
CC BY-SA 2.0


Jerry F 2022