Jan Morris and the Coded Message

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Amor Vincit Omnia
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Jan Morris and the Coded Message

Post by Amor Vincit Omnia »

I watched a fascinating programme last night: an interview between Sir Michael Palin and the late Jan Morris. I’ve known this story for many years, but it might make an interesting read if you don’t know it.

Morris, who died aged 94 in 2020, was the last surviving member of the 1953 Mount Everest expedition. She was a prolific writer and journalist and, not incidentally, she was a man at the time of the expedition. Known as James Morris, she was the Times correspondent attached to the expedition. This was 1953, of course, and no woman would have been considered for such a task.

Morris began to identify as female in the 1960s and underwent reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. Her subsequent treatment on camera by Robin Day and others was pretty barbaric, but not untypical of the time, and her calm demeanour in rebutting it was remarkable and dignified.

Back to 1953. The task facing Morris was to ensure a scoop for the Times if and when the mountain was eventually climbed. No phone or radio contact, of course, so the message had to be carried by runner down to the nearest town (Namche Bazar), where it could be relayed by telegraph via Kathmandu to London.

There was a danger of interception by rival media hounds on the snoop, of course (this was a BIG story), so a complex code was worked out whereby the Times alone would know what had really occurred. The message as written by Morris read: “Snow conditions bad. Advance Base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well.” To the eyes of the world a statement of failure. In fact, the message meant: “Summit climbed. Hillary, 29/05. Tensing. Everyone is OK.”

Everest was climbed on 29 May 1953, exactly 70 years tomorrow. The Times got its scoop, and crowds lining the streets of London saw one of the all-time great front pages on the morning of 2 June, the Coronation Day of Queen Elizabeth II.

A wonderful story featuring a remarkable person, and a brilliant travel writer.

Picture from “The Times,
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Re: Jan Morris and the Coded Message

Post by nbg »

@Amor Vincit Omnia
Thanks for posting that Steve. :thumbup:

I have just watched the interview. Looks like it will remain on BBC iPlayer for another 29 days. Easy enough to find for anyone who wants to watch it. What an interesting life.

Never been on a mountain before and ended up at 23,000ft, before having to descend the Khumbu icefall in the dark! :shock:

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Re: Jan Morris and the Coded Message

Post by rkovars »

^^^ A scary undertaking to be certain but at least the icefall will be at its most stable. Those seracs tend to tumble during the day when it warms up. That is why everyone tries to get through in the morning.
Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.
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