On the morning of Friday 20th November, at home in her beloved Wales, Jan Morris died. She was 94. A prolific writer, journalist, once soldier, and novelist, Jan Morris was lauded worldwide for her colourful prose and wit that breathed life into the historical cities of Venice, Oxford, Hong Kong and Trieste, and for Pax Britannica, her monumental account of the British Empire. She was also well-known for transitioning from man to woman in the 1960s, and wrote an extraordinary account of her journey, Conundrum, that was an international sensation when published in 1974.
But for those of us at the Himalayan Trust UK, Jan Morris has an inimitably special place in our hearts, for she was the ‘Gentleman of The Times’ who accompanied the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition to the base camp and beyond, through the ‘tangled labyrinth of the Khumbu Icefall’ and into the Western Cwm, and revelled in the thrill of announcing to the world that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had successfully ‘knocked the bastard off’ (Ed’s words). It was the Himalayan Trust UK’s much-loved late chair, George Lowe, the ‘other Kiwi’ on the expedition, whose ‘thumbs up’ in the Western Cwm was the first Morris knew of the triumph. And Michael Westmacott, later a trustee of the Himalayan Trust UK, who roped up with Morris and guided him back down through the Icefall in the dark. For there was not a minute to waste. Everest was climbed on 29th May and on 2nd June a young Queen Elizabeth II was to be crowned. Could he, possibly, get the news to London in time? Morris extracted his typewriter from the back of his tent and wrote a message for The Times: SNOW CONDITIONS BAD STOP ADVANCED BASE ABANDONED YESTERDAY STOP AWAITING IMPROVEMENT. A code, of course, which at first light next day he thrust into a fit young Sherpa’s hand and asked to run, no stopping, until he reached Namche Bazar where he knew there to be a radio transmitter. The code was transmitted to Kathmandu, and then to London, miraculously arriving in time for the crowds lining the streets for the Queen’s procession to Westminster Abbey, to celebrate, as one headline put it, ‘All this – and Everest too.’ To this day, the two events remain inextricably linked.
The Himalayan Trust UK is a direct legacy of the British 1953 Mount Everest Expedition. Jan Morris never returned to Everest but as she said, ‘Everest never quite left me’. For many years she and Elizabeth, her partner of 70 years, gathered with the 1953 climbers at their annual reunion at the Pen-y-Gwryd in Snowdonia. She and Ed Hillary and George Lowe were firm friends and on one occasion journeyed along the Nile on the clinker boat that featured in Swallows and Amazons. Sue Leyden, daughter of the 1953 Everest expedition leader, Colonel John Hunt, also a trustee of the Himalayan Trust UK, recalls her ‘as a presence for most of my life. One of my most striking memories was during her transition period,’ she says. ‘She came to one of our reunions at Highway Cottage [the Hunt family home in Henley], wearing tight fuchsia pink trousers, slightly short, and a white T-shirt with a bra clearly visible underneath. And the Everest crowd just carried on. They didn’t like to say a thing! We walked down to the river and she talked about what she was going through, how the children were dealing with it. I was young at the time but then read her book Conundrum and all became clear and understandable. She helped me understand what it must be like to be in a body that didn’t match what you felt, and what it was like to find unity in body and self. She was a pioneer in humanity.’
She was also a huge supporter of the Himalayan Trust UK. In 2010, she was the keynote speaker for The 2nd Annual Sir Edmund Hillary Memorial Lecture at the RGS, and read a thoughtful, witty account of her time on Everest, full of allegory. She spoke, too, at the 60th Anniversary of the first ascent of Everest organised by the Himalayan Trust UK and the Mount Everest Foundation, not missing the opportunity to introduce herself as a Welsh Republican, the Queen and Prince Philip in the front row. And just in the last few weeks she expressed her deep admiration of the Sherpa people in a short fundraising film for the Himalayan Trust UK (to be published soon)
Jan Morris was the last Western surviving member of the 1953 Mount Everest Expedition, with only Kancha Sherpa still alive, and her death marks the end of an era. Rest in Peace Jan.