Bruce Lilley remembers the real excitement of hearing from his Grandfather in 1953 that as part of the Mount Everest expedition, about to make world headlines, a flag had been set on the top of the “mountain”.
As an eight-year-old living in Mid-Canterbury, he thought the mountain being referred to was Mt Peel. But when he went out on a wintery morning he couldn’t see any flag.
Bruce and Monica laugh at the memories of a child’s viewpoint of an era-defining news flash. There is a serious side to the story. Bruce’s Mum Jeanette was a first cousin to George Lowe who was a key member of the Everest team led by British Army Officer John Hunt.
George Lowe was born in Hastings into a farming family. Bruce was also born into a farming family, and he worked both on his father’s farm, in Hinds, and later when he’d married Monica worked as a stock manager on a stud farm in North Canterbury.
Now, from their home in Diana Isaac Retirement Village they have time to look back at the ground-breaking mountaineering of Bruce’s cousin and the 1953 Everest expedition.
After his near ascent of Mount Everest, 29-year-old George Lowe cut some of the upper mountain ice steps to make it easier for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to summit the world’s highest peak. Lowe helped, as part of the advance guard, prepare the route up the Lhotse Face towards the South Col at close to 8,000m. Eventually Hillary flew the Union Jack at the top of Everest, at 8,849m.
George Lowe first met Hillary soon after World War II. Around Christmas time, 1946 both men were in the Mt Cook area, on a ‘mountain bus’. “Just as we were getting to know each other the bus jolted to a stop. Hillary had a rendezvous with a climbing friend at a hut somewhere up the glacier. We exchanged addresses and shook hands.”
Then in 1951 the two of them were members of the first New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas.
Lowe was the first to greet Hillary on the return from the summit, and heard the line: “Well George, we knocked the bastard off.” The expedition team were sworn to secrecy about Hillary reaching the top of mountain, Bruce says. Journalist James Morris used a code to send news of the triumph, with the news announced in The Times newspaper on June 2, the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.
Following the 1953 ascent, Lowe and Hillary returned to New Zealand. Bruce says both men, when being received in Ashburton by the mayor, were given the freedom of the town. There is a photo of them with the mayor and George’s uncle William Lowe of Hinds.
There were only a few occasions that he subsequently got to meet George Lowe. Lowe later moved to England and in 1962 married John Hunt’s daughter Susan, with whom he had three sons. The couple spent some years living in Chile.
George later married, for a second time, to Mary.
Bruce still laughs at the 1953 occasion when his Grandfather gave him the news, he’d just heard on the radio. While at Clarendon Farm, Winslow, near Hinds, his Grandfather said the expedition had been successful with a flag affixed at the top of Everest.
“I was with my Grandfather and he had a little Austin A40 truck, and we used to go up and get the mail at the mailbox at the gate. There’d been a southerly storm go through and Mt Peel had snow down to the skyline... and I said to my Grandfather: ‘I can’t see the flag’.
“The old fella giggled for months after that,” he says. “It became a bit of a family joke,” Monica adds.
Bruce and Monica have a copy of his memoirs of the climb, published in 2013, 60 years after the ground-breaking expedition. Lowe died on March 20, 2013 while living in Ripley, Derbyshire.
They also point to George Lowe’s inspirational letters (now published) home to his sister Betty. One is written from a perspective of Lowe as a walker, in springtime, in the beautiful Dudh Koshi valley. “I’m biased in favour of alpine scenery but even so the flowers are everywhere, whereas before there were none. There are gushing mountain streams with fern and moss clinging whereas before there were dry gullies,” George writes in a March 21st, 1953 letter.
After working in Mid-Canterbury, and bringing up three sons Stephen, Trevor and Andrew, the couple moved to a lifestyle block at Waikari. They moved into a townhouse at Diana Isaac village in July, last year.