James Morris was a 26-year-old sub-editor at The Times in 1953 when he was given his big break.
He was sent by the paper to the Himalayas to cover Sir John Hunt’s expedition to Everest.
The paper held the copyright over all dispatches from the mountain, and over lunch at the Garrick Club he was invited to join the team as Special Correspondent.
Morris had no previous experience of mountaineering, but he was prepared to learn as the opportunity was too good to miss. When the choice was made, the foreign editor at The Times commented: ”I wish that Morris didn’t look quite so pleased.”
The biggest problem was how to secure the news and get it back to London. Competition was intense and ruthless. The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph both had reporters who had travelled to Kathmandu with instructions to intercept the news and spoil The Times’ scoop. In order to deceive the other journalists, Morris had the ingenious idea of using code words, devised to disguise personal names, key events and places on the mountains.
By the time he reached base camp on the Khumbu glacier, he was sending back regular dispatches. At the end of May he had made the exhausting climb to Camp IV at 22,100 ft, where the party was awaiting news of the final assault by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
The code system he used allowed him to tell London that Everest had been climbed and to name the members of the successful party. Morris used an Indian government radar post at Namche Bazar and sent a runner there with the coded message: Snow condition bad abandoned advanced base and awaiting improvement. When decoded, this read: ‘Summit of Everest reached on May 29 by Hillary and Tenzing.’The message leaked en route, and several newspapers took it at face value, reporting the expedition’s failure, justifying Morris’s need for a code.
So, with a large amount of subterfuge and a degree of cunning, he managed to get the scoop that would make his name. The Times ran the story to coincide with the coronation of the Queen on 2 June, giving both events equal prominence on the front page. Morris won respect for his courage and determination in breaking the news, as well as for his evocative and vivid word pictures. When the two triumphant climbers returned from the summit he wrote: ”It was a moment so thrilling, so vibrant, that the hot tears sprang to the eyes of most of us.”
His world exclusive catapulted him to international fame. The cachet of the Everest achievement established his reputation and he became known as ”Morris of Everest”.’
In many of the lengthy newspaper obituaries on Hillary published on 12 January, the writers referred to Morris’s role. His description of Hillary in the half-light was quoted by the Daily Telegraph obituarist: ”Huge and cheerful, his movement not so much graceful as unshakably assured, his energy almost demonic. He had a tremendous, bursting, elemental, infectious, glorious vitality about him, like some bright, burly diesel express pounding across America.”
Morris and Hillary shared a tent at base camp and went on to become friends. Hillary was godfather to Morris’s second son who was born while he was on the expedition.
His sensational scoop marked him out as a stylish writer with a distinct voice. He went on to be a foreign correspondent covering the 1956 Suez crisis for The Guardian, and as Jan Morris (following a sex-change in 1972), became a celebrated travel writer and historian of the British Empire.
Jan Morris, 81, currently lives in North Wales and still writes book reviews and travel articles.
Paul Clements is the editor of a book of 80th birthday tributes to Jan Morris: Around the World in Eighty Years, published by Seren.