London: Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd for Allen Lane, 1981.

8vo (233 x 157mm), pp. xiv, 578; 8 colour and 24 monochrome plates with 17 colour and 55 monochrome illustrations printed recto-and-verso, 5 maps (4 full-page) and 4 illustrations in the text; original blue cloth, spine lettered and decorated in gilt, photographic dustwrapper by Gerald Cinamon, retaining price; extremities very lightly rubbed and bumped, dustwrapper very lightly creased at edges and with two small marginal chips, otherwise a very good copy; provenance: (Wallace) George Lowe (1924-2013, mountaineer and explorer; pre-publication presentation copy with loosely-inserted printed compliments slip from Allen Lane Publicity Office with typed text ‘With the author’s compliments[.] Published 24 September 1981’; pictorial bookplate on upper pastedown; loosely-inserted manuscript notes, for which see further below).


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First edition. ‘This is the story of Man’s attempts to climb a very special mountain’ begins Unsworth’s book, which was very well reviewed when first published in 1981, thanks to his depth of knowledge of his subject, and his original contributions to the historical retrospective of the adventures of those who tried to ascend Everest. Unsworth’s aim was not to write yet another descriptive account of the expeditions and their fate, but rather, to ‘fill in some of the background, often explaining why success or failure came about’ (p. xi).

This presentation copy was sent by the publisher, at the author’s request, to a member of the first expedition to conquer Everest: George Lowe. Unsworth (1928-2017) mentions Lowe on no fewer than 20 pages, and includes a description of the young mountaineer around the time of the Cho Oyu trip: ‘of medium height, well built, and a primary school teacher. At twenty-eight he was five years younger than his friend and compatriot, Edmund Hillary, but had been climbing for longer and indeed had introduced Hillary to some of the harder New Zealand climbs’ (p. 308; Lowe is also thanked in Unsworth’s acknowledgements). Indeed, with regard to the Everest climb, Unsworth muses ‘what might have happened had there been no Tenzing: would it have been Hillary and Lowe for the summit?’ (p. 319). Finally, after a detailed account of the trials of the Hunt expedition, Unsworth reproduces an account by James Morris of how he received the news of the successful ascent, from Lowe: ‘I could not see the returning climbers very clearly […]. But I watched them approaching dimly, with never a sign of success or failure, like drugged men. […] I pushed the goggles up from my eyes; and just as I recovered from the sudden dazzle of the snow I caught sight of George Lowe, leading the party down the hill. He was raising his arm and waving as he walked! It was thumbs up! Everest was climbed!’ (p. 338).

Loosely inserted in this copy is a leaf torn from a lined notebook, with manuscript notes in Lowe’s hand headed ‘Heights of 8000+ Metre Peaks at Austrian Museum’ on the recto (203 x 161mm). The Austrian museum mentioned is the Messner Mountain Museum, whose six sites, each on a different Tyrolean mountain peak, were opened between 1995 and 2015 (the last of these established after Lowe’s death): it seems likely that Lowe visited the museum and took these notes on peaks during the visit, supplementing them later with dates of their first ascent. (Reinhold Messner was the first to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen in 1978 and 1980, a task that had previously been considered impossible, which marked the next significant step in Everest mountaineering after the 1953 expedition.) Also inserted is a sheet of paper with printed Department of Education and Science heading and Unsworth’s address (presumably in his own hand), with a series of manuscript calculations below (208 x 149mm).

Neate U21 (‘Definitive history of Everest climbing’); Perret 4373; Yakushi U40a.

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