Cho Oyu Revisted

The British Cho Oyu expedition of 1952 is widely considered a failure. But, 60 years on, Mick Conefrey says another story is emerging
This year marks the 60th anniversary 
of the British Cho Oyu expedition, 
but while next year’s Mount Everest anniversary will more than likely be commemorated by numerous events and articles, Cho Oyu is unlikely to be remembered. Indeed, it’s one of the great black holes in the history of post-war British mountaineering.

The Cho Oyu expedition spawned no books or supplements in The Times. Its leader, Eric Shipton, devoted just a few pages to the expedition in his autobiography and the members of his team wrote little more. It’s almost as if everyone just wanted to forget about it.

And yet, the expedition represents a vital chapter in the bigger story of British Himalayan climbing. If 
it had not been for everything that went wrong on Cho Oyu, a lot of things might not have gone right on Everest the following year.

In the shadow of Everest
Cho Oyu has always been overshadowed by its illustrious neighbour. At 8,201 metres, it’s the world’s sixth highest mountain. Like Everest, it straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet. Today, it’s often regarded as a training mountain for those preparing for the challenge of Everest itself, and so it was in 1952, when a British team made the first attempt 
to reach its summit.

Before the Second World War, Britain had enjoyed a monopoly on Everest, staging seven expeditions from the Tibetan side during the 1920s and ’30s. This looked set to continue when Shipton led the first reconnaissance of the Nepalese side in 1951. 
He planned to return the following year to mount 
a full-scale attempt, until he discovered that the Nepalese government had given a Swiss team permission to mount an attempt of their own.

The Himalayan Committee, a body set up by 
the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society to organise Everest expeditions, tried to talk the Swiss into turning it into Anglo–Swiss attempt with Shipton as leader. The plan fell apart, however, so 
as an alternative, they organised a large expedition to nearby Cho Oyu, aiming to test men and equipment for a British Everest expedition in 1953.

Shipton – ‘Mr Everest’ – was at that time Britain’s most famous mountaineer. He had led one pre-war Everest expedition and reached almost 28,000 
feet (8,534 metres) on another. He wrote confidently in The Times about Cho Oyu, but in private, his preference for small, lightweight parties conflicted with the Himalayan Committee’s idea of laying siege with a large team and crates of oxygen.

His final team consisted of six British climbers and three New Zealanders, as well as Jennifer Bourdillon, the wife of climber Tom Bourdillon, and Griffith Pugh, a scientist from the Medical Research Council who worked on high-altitude physiology. Some, including Tom Bourdillon and Edmund Hillary, had been on the previous year’s Everest reconnaissance; others were completely new to the Himalaya.

Inauspicious start

At the end of March 1952, the team assembled 
at Jaynagar on the India–Nepal border. Three 
weeks later, they made their base camp at Lunak, 
a desolate spot close to Cho Oyu.

By the time they arrived, most of the team was 
ill with stomach and respiratory infections picked 
up on the march in. Pugh later wrote that Shipton paid little attention to basic hygiene. To make matters worse, the weather was unexpectedly 
bad, with heavy snowstorms on most days.

When Shipton sent a small party to scout the southern approach to Cho Oyu, they came back with more bad news. Steep cliffs all along the base made it virtually impregnable. Hillary and George Lowe took a look from the northern, Tibetan side and returned with news that the mountain looked difficult but not impossible from the northwest.

This posed a dilemma for Shipton. The British team had a permit from Nepal but knew that they would never get permission to enter Tibet. After 
the Chinese occupation of 1950, Tibet had become even more hostile to Westerners and there were rumours of Chinese troops in the area.

Shipton was unhappy about crossing the border illegally. With the main Everest expedition coming 
in the following year, he didn’t want to provoke an international incident, or get his whole team thrown into a Tibetan jail. But instead of acting decisively, he invited everyone to have their say.

Some were gung ho, confident that, if it came 
to it, they could outrun any Chinese troops; 
others were less certain. So Shipton opted for a compromise. He sent a number of Sherpas into Tibet to check for Chinese troops. If it was safe to proceed, he would send a small party across the border to make a fast, lightweight attempt on Cho Oyu. There was no question of moving everyone over to the Tibetan side – that would be too risky.

Leadership test
It was a sensible plan, but it didn’t end the arguments. The team needed firm direction, but Shipton wasn’t that type of leader. The hours of discussion served only to demoralise. Hillary later wrote that it would have been far better if Shipton had simply laid down the law.

Over the following two weeks, the expedition imploded. Shipton developed such a bad respiratory infection that he was forced to descend in order 
to recuperate. The remaining men hung around in camp, occasionally venturing out to climb nearby peaks. At one point, they became so bored and mutinous that they considered crossing the border and making an attempt without their leader.

Eventually, Shipton returned and half the team moved over to the Tibetan side, but no-one was happy. With Hillary and Lowe in the lead, they reached 22,500 feet (6,858 metres) before being turned back by some dangerous-looking ice cliffs.

They then scattered in all directions. Hillary and Lowe went on a trip to the north side of Everest, Shipton took a party to explore some unmapped territory to the west of Everest and Pugh and the remaining men set up a scientific camp.

Meanwhile, their Swiss rivals were doing very 
well on Everest. They didn’t reach the summit, 
but they came back claiming a new world altitude record. The door was still open for a British attempt in 1953, but the Cho Oyu expedition had done 
little to inspire confidence.

Delayed return
Shipton’s team returned home in dribs and drabs. There was no public criticism, but it was clear 
that some members held Shipton responsible for what went wrong on Cho Oyu. The Himalayan Committee regarded the expedition as a humiliating failure and began thinking the unthinkable: Everest without Mr Everest.

Shipton himself was nowhere to be seen. Instead of returning straight away to begin preparations for 1953, he took a small party and carried on exploring and climbing in the Barun Valley.

He seemed somewhat happier, but he was still ill and cantankerous, and wracked with doubts about Everest. When the weather turned, he decided to race back to Britain before changing his mind and heading for Kathmandu instead. He finally returned in mid-July 1952 and was called before the Himalayan Committee to account for what had gone wrong.

Despite their considerable doubts – and Shipton’s own – the committee somehow talked him into taking on the leadership of the 1953 Everest expedition. But the fall-out from Cho Oyu continued. Damaged equipment came back; bills came in from Indian customs; expedition sponsors threatened to pull out. Dissenters within the Himalayan Committee began to argue that Shipton should be removed.

It all came to a head at a meeting in early September at which Shipton was sacked and replaced by John Hunt, an army officer. Hunt’s expedition proved to be everything that the Himalayan Committee wanted: large, well organised and, ultimately, successful.

Shipton’s next few years were inauspicious. He lost his job, his marriage broke down and he ended up working as a farm labourer.

History revision
In October 1954, Cho Oyu was finally climbed by a small Austrian team led by Herbert Tichy – via the route pioneered by Hillary. It’s now regarded as one of the first Alpine-style ascents of the modern era.

With the passage of 60 years, the British Cho 
Oyu expedition looks slightly less disastrous than 
it did back in the summer of 1952. Shipton’s core team – Charles Evans, Hillary, Lowe, Bourdillon 
and Alfred Gregory – went on to play key roles 
in the 1953 Everest expedition. Pugh conducted groundbreaking research on oxygen equipment and diet that was put to good use the following year. And Shipton’s own exploration of the Barun Valley, which included first ascents of 11 peaks over 21,000 feet (6,400 metres), was an impressive feat.

The most important thing to have come out 
of the expedition remains the most controversial: the removal of Shipton as leader of the 1953 
Everest expedition. At the time, it was said that 
the Himalayan Committee did the right thing in 
the wrong way. But some maintain that Shipton would also have succeeded in 1953. They argue 
that the success of modern lightweight expeditions vindicates his ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy.

However, if the Cho Oyu expedition was a rehearsal for Everest, then Shipton showed himself to be distinctly uncomfortable in the leading role. He had no enthusiasm for trophy peaks and large ‘national’ expeditions. He played a minimal part 
in the organisation of the Cho Oyu attempt, was indecisive on the mountain and did everything 
he could to delay his return to Britain. Some of his behaviour was so strange that it almost seemed 
as if he were deliberately sabotaging his Everest leadership credentials.

Turning point
Ultimately, Cho Oyu was a testing ground, not just for new climbers and new oxygen sets, but for Shipton himself. It proved that he wasn’t good with big teams. Everyone came to the same conclusion.

In his autobiography, Shipton admitted that he had, perhaps, been overly cautious on Cho Oyu, and acknowledged how damaging the ensuing leadership controversy was to his self-esteem. It 
was not, however, the end of the Eric Shipton story.

During the late 1950s and early ’60s he became 
a pioneer of Patagonian climbing and exploration. Today, Cho Oyu can be seen as a turning point, one that brought him back to where he really wanted to be – seeking out that untravelled world, not leading expeditions inspired by national obsessions.

October 2012

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