Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Man Who Almost Made It

Mountaineer Eric Shipton, the man who almost made it, was born on this day in 1907 in Ceylon.

Eric Shipton was one of the world's most respected climbers in the two decades before Mt. Everest was finally conquered by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, and was scheduled to lead the 1953 expedition himself. Shipton, however, was more interested in climbing than in summiting, and was perhaps a victim of British ambitions regarding Everest.

The son of a colonial tea planter who died when Shipton was 3, Shipton grew up with dyslexia and without any discernible prospects. After ambling around the Alps during his 20s, he went to work on a coffee plantation in Kenya, where he made his mark as an amateur mountaineer on some previously unclimbed mountains in East Africa.

A scant 7 years after the disappearance of George Mallory on Everest, Shipton was in the Himalayas. In 1931 he summited Kamet (25,263 ft.), and participated in or led small mapping and reconnaissance expeditions (the kind of climbing he enjoyed most) on the Tibetan side of Everest in 1933, 1935, 1936 and 1938 - bagging 26 20,000-ft. peaks during the 1935 expedition alone, and establishing a camp at 27,200 ft. on Everest in 1938. In 1938 he received the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he was still dirt-poor, and with World War II beginning, Everest seemed out of the question for awhile; so highly-placed friends saw to it that Shipton would be appointed as consul-general in some of the greater Indian territories where he could continue map-climbing in uncharted areas. Chinese border hostilities limited his efforts, however, and in 1951 he was expelled from Yunnan.

Later that year, however, he led another reconnaissance mission on Everest, this time from the Nepal side. The British offered Shipton the chance to lead the 1953 group which eventually got to the top of Everest, but they made it clear to Shipton that his casual style of exploration was not at all what was expected, and basically forced him to resign from the job, leaving John Hunt in charge.

Afterwards, Shipton's reputation was never quite the same. He never made it to the top of Everest, although during the 1960s he made important reconnaissance missions in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and armed with his knowledge of the terrain was an adviser to Chile in their border dispute with Argentina. Shipton died on March 28, 1977 in Anstey, Wiltshsire.

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