After Sir Edmund Hillary's historic ascent of Mt. Everest, everyone knew Hillary's name. Far fewer knew about his indispensable partner, George Lowe.
Hillary and his friend Lowe were the only two New Zealanders on the 1953 expedition to the top of the world's highest peak. If they could have had their way, they would have trekked to the summit together, but a number of circumstances, including the politics of giving two non-Brits on a British-led team the prime roles, conspired to leave Lowe among the unsung.
Lowe, the last surviving climber from the team that made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, died after an illness Wednesday in Ripley, England, his wife, Mary Lowe, told the Associated Press. He was 89.
Hillary and Lowe were almost cut off the team by expedition leader John Hunt. But Hunt reinstated them at the urging of the English climbers, who recognized that the New Zealanders' alpine skills were formidable.
Both Hillary and Lowe led the way through the icefall. But it was Lowe, who wielded an ice ax with legendary skill, who cut the route up the daunting glacial wall known as the Lhotse Face. And it was Lowe who helped cut the steps to the final camp 1,000 feet below the mountain's summit on May 28, 1953.
The next day, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal reached the 29,035-foot peak.
When Hillary returned to camp, he met Lowe, walking toward him with soup and emergency oxygen. "Well, George," Hillary recalled saying, "we knocked the bastard off."
Lowe and Hillary "climbed together through life, really," said travel writer Jan Morris, who was part of the Everest expedition as a journalist.
"And when it came to the point near the summit, George had to play a subsidiary role. He climbed very high, he climbed to top camp and said goodbye to Hillary, then helped him come down. He played a very important role."
Hillary often referred to Lowe in his autobiographies as a pillar of strength. "Calm and competent, he rode through the storm like a great ocean liner," Hillary wrote. "With his strong hand on the rope, I knew I couldn't fall far."
Almost 4,000 people have now successfully climbed Everest, according to the Nepal Mountaineering Assn., but that 1953 expedition remains one of the iconic moments of 20th-century adventure.
Morris said she was now the only survivor of the 1953 group.
She said Lowe was "a gentleman in the old sense — very kind, very forceful, thoughtful and also a true adventurer, an unusual combination."
Hillary, who died in 2008, inevitably got much of the media attention — and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. Mary Lowe said her husband "didn't mind a bit."
"He had a wonderful life," she said. "He did a lot of things, but he was a very modest man.... He never sought the limelight. Ed Hillary didn't seek the limelight either — but he had it thrust upon him."
Born in Hastings, New Zealand, in 1924 and a teacher by training, Lowe began climbing in the country's Southern Alps and met Hillary, another ambitious young climber with whom he forged a lifelong bond.
In 1951, Lowe was part of a New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas, and in 1953 he and Hillary joined the British Everest expedition led by Hunt.
Kari Herbert of Polarworld, which is due to publish Lowe's book "Letters From Everest" later this year, said Lowe's efforts were crucial to the expedition's success.
"He was one of the lead climbers, forging the route up Everest's Lhotse Face without oxygen and later cutting steps for his partners up the summit ridge," she said.
Lowe directed a film of the expedition, "The Conquest of Everest," which received an Academy Award nomination in 1954 for best documentary feature.
He also made "Antarctic Crossing" after participating in the 1955-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the first successful overland crossing of the continent. It, too, was Oscar-nominated.
Lowe later made expeditions to Greenland, Greece and Ethiopia, taught school in Britain and Chile, lectured on his expeditions and became Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools for England.
He was a founder of the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust U.K., a charity set up to support the mountain residents of Nepal.
In addition to his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1980, Lowe is survived by three sons from his first marriage to John Hunt's daughter Susan: Gavin, Bruce and Matthew.
Lowe often said in interviews that he was happy to have played a supporting role in one of the greatest adventures of the 20th century.
"I'm absolutely delighted I didn't have the life that Ed's had," he told the New Zealand Herald in 2008. "Ed was the right one. I would have been a bugger. I wouldn't have had the diplomacy."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun