28 Nov 2016

The New Zealanders who shaped climbing history

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 28 November 2016

Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 expedition to the top of Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is remembered as one of the greatest achievements by a New Zealander.

But the dream team of New Zealand climbers who paved the way for that success have been outshone by Hillary in the eyes of history.

In the new book Only Two for Everest journalist Lyn McKinnon turns the spotlight on Earle Riddiford and Ed Cotter, who with Pasang Dawa Lama in 1951, reached the summit of the highest-available Himalayan mountain at the time.

Many now believe the success of Riddiford and Cotter led directly to New Zealand's involvement in the British Everest reconnaissance mission later that year and the successful 1953 mission.

Only Two for Everest centres on a 1951 expedition known as the First New Zealand Himalayan Expedition. New Zealand climbers Riddiford, Cotter and Pasang Dawa Lama made the first ascent of Mukut Parbat – the highest available Himalayan peak at the time.

Accompanying them on the expedition, although not to that summit, were two other New Zealand climbers, Hillary and George Lowe.

To tell the story, McKinnon balanced Cotter’s diaries – which not even his son Guy had seen before – and Riddiford’s expedition records.

Until now, nobody writing about the expedition had managed to find two corroborating sources.

“I was just the most privileged, fortunate person to stumble on a story like this, which had never been written, and also to have two sources which had never been seen” says McKinnon.

Beaven, now 90, has been climbing since he was 14. He says it was Riddiford who introduced him and his brother to high climbing.

For Riddiford, climbing Everest was the ultimate objective, says Beaven.

When news of the ascent of Mukut Parbat broke in New Zealand, the New Zealand Alpine Club suggested to the Alpine Club in London that the four New Zealanders – Riddiford, Cotter, Hillary and Lowe – were already acclimatised and could be valuable on the forthcoming 1951 British Reconnaissance of Mt Everest, to be led by Eric Shipton.

This suggestion was followed by an invitation from Shipton for two New Zealanders to join the party. A bitter argument went on for a day and a night among the climbers about which two should go, says McKinnon.

Lowe claimed in his biography that Riddiford immediately declared he would be the one to go.

While Hillary could see Riddiford had a strong claim, he was determined to bag the other position for himself.

Lowe – who had been Hillary’s climbing partner and friend – also felt he had a God-given right, McKinnon says.

And while Cotter had performed just as well, if not better than Lowe and Hillary, he was much younger and possibly more deferential than he needed to be, says McKinnon. He quickly withdrew from the argument.

“It was a situation where there were three men who were pretty good at self-promotion and one person who was useless at it” says McKinnon.

“No mountaineer who had climbed high mountains in New Zealand and who’d read all the stories would give up at that stage” Beaven adds.

Eventually, though, Lowe reluctantly conceded and returned to New Zealand with Cotter, and a month after summiting Mukut Parbat, Riddford and Hillary joined the 1951 British Reconnaissance of Mt Everest.

Beaven says he is absolutely delighted to see the story brought to light, and it has been his “quest in life” for Riddiford’s contribution to Hillary's Everest conquest to be acknowledged.

“I agree that Ed was great climbing Everest, wonderful for New Zealand, and what a wonderful person he’s been since… But Earle Riddiford was such an important part and he’s never had that recognition.”