Now here is a typical pub quiz question for you, albeit not an easy one.
What is the connection between the small town of Crickhowell in South Wales and the Pen Y-Gwryd hotel in North-West Wales?
If you do not know the answer, then read on…
On the fourth of July 1790, George Everest was born at his family estate of Gwernvale Manor, just outside Crickhowell. He was educated at a military school and joined the East India Company at the age of 16. He eventually joined the Great Trigometric Survey as an assistant, the survey covering about 2,400 kilometres, from southernmost India to Nepal.
Everest was appointed superintendent of the survey in 1823 and in 1830 was promoted to Surveyor General of India. The survey was completed in 1841 and Everest resigned and returned to England in 1843. He had previously been a Fellow of the Royal Society and he was knighted in 1861.
The survey identified the highest point on Earth as being 8849 meters, and after much resurveying and recalculation, it was named Peak XV, pending an official naming. Normally a local name would have been allocated, but the borders of Tibet and Nepal were closed at that time, and there was much disagreement about what the name should be, due to multiple local names. Eventually Everest’s successor, Andrew Waugh, proposed that the peak be named Mount Everest after his predecessor, and it was made official in 1865.
It is ironic that Everest never saw the mountain, nor did he want it to be named after him, but the name persisted. He died the next year.
Despite several attempts, the first being in 1921, Mount Everest was not conquered until 29 May 1953, when Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) made the first successful ascent. It was Tenzing Norgay’s sixth attempt.
The team that made the first successful attempt on Everest, was led by Colonel John Hunt (1910-1988), and was sponsored by The Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club. In all the team would eventually include eleven chosen climbers, only four of whom were selected to make the final ascent, plus about 350 porters and support staff.
For their preparations for the attempt, the climbing team was based in the Pen-Y-Gwyrd hotel, in Snowdonia, and it was on the nearby mountains they trained and tested out their equipment. The Pen-Y-Gwyrd Hotel is about 7 km west of Capel Curig, at the junction of the A4086 and the A448. It was built in 1810 as a farmhouse, later becoming a coaching inn and hotel.
Now you may wonder why a team about to attempt to climb Mount Everest for the first time should have based their training and the testing of their equipment in an area of what appear to be cuddly little hills. Indeed, as the photo of my two eldest sons can attest, scaling the highest point in Snowdonia, Mount Snowdon, on a beautiful summer day, would hardly present much of a challenge to future conquerors of Everest.
But the weather in Snowdonia can quickly change and become extreme, especially during the winter months, as I well know from my own experience, when I went hiking there with a Welsh friend during a late December break. Before starting out, I asked the parking attendant about the weather prospects for that day and he replied ‘Rain, rain, and more rain!’ But we were well equipped, so no worries.
On the way back from Snowdon, we decided to take the more challenging route along the ridge, via Crib Goch. Despite the rain, the weather did not seem threatening, but after thirty minutes, the wind suddenly dramatically strengthened, the rain turned to snow, the temperature dropped, and visibility was reduced to near zero. And each time we scaled what we thought to be Crib Goch, another ascent loomed ahead.
Finally, we started to descend and kept going rapidly down, until I realized that we were no longer on the correct path, visibility being obscured by the snow. I checked my map, compass and altimeter and we were obviously way off course. We retraced our steps back up to the ridge, assumed the correct path, and by the time we returned to the car, it was quite dark.
My sons are adult now and scattered around the globe. They have inherited my love of the mountains and between them they have hiked in the French and Swiss Alpes, in the Rockies, Andes, Kilimanjaro, in New Zealand, in Wales and possibly a few others that I have not yet been told about.
The conquerors of Everest have passed on, but I feel sure that they would have agreed with my advice to my sons – ‘Be aware of the weather and don’t be too stubborn to turn back; the mountains, like Everest, will always be there for another day’.