Legendary Everest reporter Jan Morris is dead

Jan Morris
Jan Morris (1926-2020)

She made sure that the news of the successful first ascent of Mount Everest arrived in England in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Last Friday the British writer Jan Morris died at the age of 94 years in a hospital in the Welsh coastal town of Pwllheli.

In 1953 Morris was still a man, his first name was James and he accompanied the British expedition as a reporter for the newspaper “The Times”. Later Morris underwent a male-to-female gender reassigment. Until her death, the writer lived with her partner Elizabeth, with whom she had five children. She wrote more than 40 books. How Morris transmitted the news of the Everest summit success on 29 May 1953 to London, is legendary.

Encrypted message

Nepalese south side of Everest
Nepalese south side of Mount Everest

Morris was the only journalist at base camp. But there were several other newspaper correspondents in Nepal at the time, eager to get the news of a successful first ascent of Everest to their newsrooms. Morris, however, wanted to land a scoop, the Times should be the first newspaper to report on it exclusively.

When it was clear when the summit attempt would take place, Morris ascended to what was then Camp 4 (now Camp 3) at 6,462 meters. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay arrived there on 30 May and Morris learned firsthand about their coup the day before. The reporter immediately descended with another climber through the Khumbu Icefall to base camp, where he arrived in the night. Morris encoded the message, had it delivered by a mail runner to Namche Bazaar in the early morning of 31 May, where it was transmitted by radio to the British Embassy and then to London.

Double reason to cheer

James Morris
James Morris in his time as reporter of “The Times”

He had formulated it in such a way that his colleagues from the competition did not consider it a coded message about a summit success, but rather an update from the expedition: “Snow conditions bad. Forward camp abandoned May 29. Waiting for improvement. All well.” According to the previously agreed code, this meant: “Everest climbed. Hillary May 29. Tenzing. All well.”

The colleagues in the home editorial office were informed – and the Times had its scoop. “Everest conquered. Hillary and Tensing reach the summit,” the newspaper headlined on 2 June 1953, the coronation day of Queen Elizabeth II. Britain had double reason to celebrate. Morris’s detailed article about the first ascent appeared in the Times on 8 June.

“Damn fine Queen”

R.I.P.

I met Jan Morris at the end of May 2013, at an event at the Royal Geographic Society in London on the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. In the presence of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the then 87-year-old recounted how she had delivered the message to London past competitors. “It was the national coronation gift for Elizabeth II,” said Morris, adding with a grin in the direction of the monarch: “In return, she was a damn fine queen.”