Tweeting Everest

Stamps printed in New Zealand dedicated to conquest of Everest, circa 2003

What do you on your 60th? Fifty is big, a hundred is stellar. Sixty is just fifty redux. You have to bring something new to the party. Something that didn't exist ten years earlier.

This year,  twitter is rustling up interest in the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Followers of Everest1953 get tweets several times a day, as if through a wormhole in time, about the events of 60 years ago.

The 50th anniversary celebrations involved a Royal Gala event in London's Leicester Square and a ceremony in Kathmandu. But in 2003 no one was much interested in a month-long reprise of the Everest climb. People in Britain were too pre-occupied with the progress of British and US troops as they consolidated their grip on Iraq. The invasion of Iraq wasn't popular in Britain. Imperial nostalgia was at a low ebb outside the little circle of the government's cheerleaders. It wasn't a good time to celebrate the overseas adventures of a bygone age.

The ascent of Everest wasn't just an imperialist adventure. But it was partly an imperialist adventure. In spiriting the news out of Nepal under the noses of the press pack, Times correspondent James Morris (now Jan Morris), was only trying to secure a scoop for the Times. But the story became a scoop for Queen and Country, as perhaps it was bound to do once the  Times - a major sponsor of the expedition - had secured exclusive rights to the story and embedded its reporter with the climbing team. In those days, the Times was still pre-eminently the paper of the British establishment.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing (referred to at the time as  Sherpa Tensing Bhutia) reached the summit of Everest on 29 May 1953. The story broke on the morning of 2 June, the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It must have seemed a very good thing. India had been lost to the British Empire for just under 6 years. Now the world's newspapers carried a picture of Tenzing (a citizen of either India or Nepal - the government and the press were not quite sure which) standing on the highest point on earth holding aloft the Union Jack and, less visibly, the flags of the United Nations, India and Nepal.

James Morris was young, ambitious and, perhaps, innocent in the odd way that young journalists sometimes are. It cannot have been like that for everyone. The early 1950s were not an innocent age. Less than a decade earlier the world had been consumed by the most terrible, debauched and deadly festival of nationalism that has ever been seen. Afterwards the pre-war race for the world's highest peaks was taken up again by climbers from the world's great powers. It was an attractive opportunity for climbers. But it contained no possibility of innocence.

Britain in 2013, with the royal jubilee and the Olympics behind it, seems once again like a good place for flags and acclamation. Like 1953, this is not an innocent age.

Image of commemorative stamps: Neftali / Shutterstock.com

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