As Year 7 students take on Mount Everest in their ‘Stair Climb Challenge’, they might be interested to learn of a St Mary’s connection with the first ascent in 1953. Among Sir John Hunt’s team of mountaineers, two of whom successfully scaled the peak, was Michael Westmacott. He had two sisters, Monica and Catherine, who were pupils at St Mary’s during the 1940s. Six months after the expedition, Westmacott visited the school to tell the pupils about the expedition.
Michael Westmacott, a mountaineer and statistician, was 27 when he joined the team. One of 15 members, he had a supporting role pioneering a route through the glacier at the base of the peak and keeping ropes and fixtures in good order to allow supplies to move up. He waited with John Hunt at the advance base (Camp IV) for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to descend following their historic ascent. Westmacott then accompanied the journalist, James Morris, down the mountain to send the message of success back to Britain. That news reached London on Coronation Day, 2nd June 1953.
Two pupils gave an account of the lecture at St Mary’s in the news sheet of 1954:
‘He illustrated his lecture by a varied selection of coloured slides, beautiful, horrifying and amusing, especially when coupled with Mr Westmacott’s anecdotes. The 170-mile trek through the foothills, crossing rivers by fantastic bridges and intervening spurs resplendent with magnolia and rhododendrons, took seventeen days. Black umbrellas were invaluable as sunshades and also during the return journey, when they marched through the monsoon rains clad in gym shoes, shorts and beards. The 400 porters were paid off when reaching base camp at Thyangboche, having carried loads of sixty pounds all the way from Kathmandu. One of them had been accompanied by his fiancée, a sixteen-year-old sherpani who happily carried her load with the rest.
‘The party then split up. Mr Westmacott’s group spent an arduous few days at great heights getting acclimatised. Being one of the smaller members of the party, he and a companion occupied the cramped quarters provided by a low red tent, known as the ‘blister’. He then joined Hillary’s party on the ice fall, the dangers of which were vividly portrayed by slides. Particularly horrifying were the toppling blocks of ‘Mike’s Horror’ and ‘The Nutcracker.’ Camps, most of which were exposed to the dangers of avalanches, were established at various points on the glacier.
‘The final assault was perfectly described by Mr Westmacott, who showed us how the ultimate victory was due to all members of the party working together to form this team, under the brilliant leadership of Sir John Hunt. They did not fully realise what they had achieved until, back at base camp on Coronation Day, they tuned into the wireless and heard that the Queen had been crowned and Everest conquered.’