A photographer’s dream: First Everest climb

By Jefferson Penberthy 23 May 2013
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A photographic legend, Alfred Gregory gave the world its first glimpse of the summit of Everest.

A WELCOMING HOUSE IN the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, nestled among steep daffodil fields and temperate rainforest, seems an unlikely roost for a living legend. Yet one approaches an elderly man living there, Alfred Gregory – team photographer of the British expedition that first reached the top of Mt Everest – with a lowlander’s sense of awe.

Gregory’s fame rests in an earlier period. In late May 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was approaching. Eight kilometres up in the sky in Nepal, John (later Lord) Hunt’s men were stretching for Everest’s summit with their second assault team: craggy New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. A support group climbed ahead of them, including Alfred, known as ‘Greg’, George Lowe and Sherpa Ang Nima.


Cutting steps to conserve the assault team’s energies, the support crew each carried about 30kg of supplies to the top camp, at 8500m. Even in the later era of solo mountaineering, these remain probably the heaviest loads ever carried that high, 385m below the summit. They gave the summit climbers every chance. Greg made the descent back to the South Col without keeping any oxygen for himself. “The load was much lighter and going down’s easier – but I suppose it was dangerous,” he recalls. “I got down worn out, but okay – I was pretty fit then, you know. A cup of tea and a rest in a tent and I was fine.”

On 29 May, Hillary and Tenzing made the triumphant final climb, spending 15 minutes on Earth’s highest point. They raised the Union Jack and Nepalese flag, and Tenzing buried ceremonial food offerings in the snow. “We finally knocked the bastard off,” an exhausted Hillary told his countryman Lowe, who came out to meet them with hot soup as they arrived back at the South Col. News of the success broke across the British Empire on 2 June, the day of the young Queen’s coronation.

Greg and his Melbourne-born wife Sue settled in Victoria in 1996. The spry old Lancastrian is a keen local Rotarian, but he and Sue have lived here in a rambling bushland house almost anonymously for 11 years.

Capturing images of Edmund Hillary

He comes to the door, a silver-grey haired man, slim, aided by a walking stick. He had knee reconstructions 10 years ago: “The result of stumbling down mountains.” Oddly, although he has since climbed all over the world – from the Alps to the Himalaya, Uganda and the cordillera of Peru – he never went up Everest again.

“It was a case of ‘been there – done that’,” he says. “It was a team achievement, and we had all been part of its success.” Actually, Greg regards a 1955 expedition that he led to Rolwaling, west of Everest, as his crowning mountaineering achievement. The team reached the top of 19 peaks, 17 previously unclimbed, did surveys, and named many mountains. He’s contemptuous of the invasions of Everest now, and of the litter left behind. “It’s all money,” he says – summiteering based on guides’ assistance, and oxygen bottles half as heavy probably lasting twice as long.

Yet Everest turned Greg’s interest in photography from incidental to vocational. Born in 1913, Greg had started climbing in the Lake District. After serving as an officer with the Black Watch during the war, he opened a travel agency in his home town, Blackpool. By the early 1950s he was an experienced climber; in 1952 he and Hillary were on Cho Oyu, in Nepal. The following spring, the Everest team gathered at a climbers’ hut in North Wales and John Hunt began allocating jobs for the expedition. Greg’s selection as photographer couldn’t have been simpler. “Does anybody know anything about photography?” Hunt asked. “Yes, you do, Greg. Right, you’re in charge of photography.”

Hunt had been chosen to lead the expedition over the greatest British climber of the era, Eric Shipton – the result of some politics in the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, but a decision Greg does not dispute. “Without John Hunt’s leadership, the 1953 attempt would not have succeeded,” he says. “He had been a brigadier, and had great leadership qualities.”


After Everest, Greg spent many years lecturing for Kodak. He set up a trekking agency in Derbyshire and turned his lens to people as much as mountains. The swinging sixties holidaymakers jamming Blackpool became the subject of his third book. From there Greg took his camera to the Third World, seeking the essence of indigenous peoples – Karamojong tribesmen, round-faced Aymara Indian women of Peru. He and Sue travelled hard, preferring simple accommodation to five-star hotels. The Gregorys landed in outback Australia in 1989. “He fell in love with it immediately,” Sue says proudly.

Their house in the Dandenongs is named Ingalari, after a waterhole west of Katherine, in the Northern Territory, “the place of crocodile eggs”. Their friend Bill Harney, artist and elder of the Wardaman people, once came and laid an ochre circle around it for their spiritual protection.

First photographer to climb Everest: a legacy

Despite two exhibitions, Greg’s presence in Melbourne went largely unnoticed outside photography circles. In 2003, the 50th anniversary of the first successful Everest expedition, the Gregorys were of course invited to London. This time, it seemed a stretch, and they declined. Compensation arrived in the form of an invitation to be guests at an Australian Himalayan Foundation event in Sydney. The foundation’s chairman, mountaineer-writer Simon Balderstone, only learned of Greg’s presence in Australia when George Lowe and his wife Mary arrived on a visit.

“Why didn’t you tell us you were here?” Simon asked Greg on the night. “Well,” Greg recalls saying, “you don’t turn up in a country and announce, ‘I’m here,’ do you?”

Through happy coincidence, some already knew. In 1998, Sue took Greg’s precious Rolex watch into the company’s Melbourne store for repairs. Rolex, a supporter of expeditions since the 1930s, had presented watches to the 1953 Everest team members; Greg’s had stopped ticking. The Melbourne watchmakers repeated what Sue had already heard in London: the watch was too old to fix. When Sue protested, the kerfuffle caught watchmaker Hugh Easton’s attention. Alfred Gregory! Hugh’s dad had given him Greg’s first book, The Picture of Everest, in 1953, when he was just a boy. Something must be done. The watch was sent to Geneva and repaired with parts cannibalised from watches in the Rolex Museum, then returned and re-presented to Greg.

Greg’s fourth book, Alfred Gregory – Photographs from Everest to Africa, was published in 2007. Greg passed away on 9 February 2010. He was 96 years old.

Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2007