It was April 1953, and the weather in Nepal was calmer than anyone could remember. All agreed that if Everest was ever to surrender, it had to be now. So the narrow lanes of Namche Bazaar were thronged with Sherpas, yaks and reporters from a dozen countries fiercely bargaining for the standard entourage: a Sherpa guide, a cook, a porter, a yak with driver and a small boy to make tea and carry messages.
And the price had risen to the unprecedented level of one ten-tola gold bar per diem.
Most of the national climbing teams were encamped in the grassy compound of Thyangboche Monastery, where the oddly foreshortened prayer flags were hanging limply in the still air. The Brit team, however, organized along strictly military lines and led by Colonel John Hunt, had already gone on to the Khumbu Ice Fall to establish a base camp. After 29 failures, they were determined to deliver Everest as a gift to their new sovereign, due to be crowned in May.
Back in London, Percy W. Izzard, gardening correspondent to the Daily Mail, stood quaking before his editor as the great man frowned.
“Izzard,” he said, “you are to be our sole representative with the British Everest Expedition. You leave tomorrow for Kathmandu.
Here is your air ticket and 100 pounds for expenses. Do not let us down.”
Percy lived with his mother in the London suburb of Penge, and started to mumble something about never having climbed higher than their staircase, but the great man frowned again, and Percy, forever intimidated by rank, bowed himself out backwards.
Fortunately, English winter clothing is perfectly adequate for the lowest slopes of Everest. But aside from his ordinary walking shoes, Percy was unable to scrape up more than an old pair of tennis shoes saved from his school days.
Notwithstanding his absurdly underfunded condition, he contrived to reach Namche Bazaar with one pound still in his pocket, only to face the impossibility of hiring the essential retinue. However, when he disclosed his predicament to the four splendidly equipped New York Times reporters, they, with typical American generosity and sympathy for the underdog, donated the necessary gold from their bulging treasure chest to support Percy for a month.
The approach to the Khumbu Ice Fall at 17,500 feet, skirting the old bed of the Khumbu Glacier, requires no special climbing skill, though for the unacclimated newcomer it is utterly exhausting.
But the ice fall itself, being a chaotic jumble of huge ice blocks delivered by the glacier from the Western Cwm and in continual motion as the sun warms it, is arguably the most dangerous part of the whole route, having claimed more lives than all the rest.Moreover, tennis shoes are unquestionably the least suitable footwear for traversing a glacier.
So Percy was stuck right there. But the Brit base camp, from which the climbing team had departed some days before, agreed to put him up provided he agreed not to breathe a word of anything he might hear there.
So Percy was privy to hourly radio reports from the advance team; he sighed as the preliminary assault failed, then thrilled on May 29 to the distorted voices of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they proclaimed success. And here I am ashamed to admit that while the Brit administrative unit was confirming the garbled message, Percy asked if he might call his mother in Penge and, being granted that privilege, told her the news, which she promptly relayed to his editor.
Thus the Daily Mail was the very first to announce the triumph.
On returning to Fleet Street, Percy found himself fired for failing to transmit regular reports, but was later reinstated for scooping the rest of the world. His personal story has never before been revealed.
I have retraced Percy’s epic journey in tennis shoes and marveled at his courage, particularly his defiance of military discipline at the proper moment, and, in recognition of my hero worship, he allowed me to carry one of his worn-out tennis shoes as an inspiration on my stiffer climbs.