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  (Henry Cecil) John Hunt (1910–1998), by unknown photographer, 1953 [centre, with Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay (right)] (Henry Cecil) John Hunt (1910–1998), by unknown photographer, 1953 [centre, with Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay (right)]
Hunt, (Henry Cecil) John, Baron Hunt (1910–1998), mountaineer, was born on 22 June 1910 at Miss Tippet's Nursing Home in Simla, India, the elder son of Captain Cecil Edwin Hunt MC (1880–1914), of the Indian army, and his wife, Ethel Helen, née Crookshank (1884–1976). His father was killed in action at Givenchy-la-Bassée, France, in the early months of the First World War.

John Hunt was educated at Marlborough College and passed first of his year into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1928. He also passed out first as a senior under-officer with the king's gold medal and the Anson memorial sword, setting a personal standard of performance that he maintained throughout his life. In 1930 he was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps and next year sailed for India. But he soon became bored with cantonment routine and the social round, where hopeful mothers showed off their nubile daughters, and he preferred playing rugby with the other ranks to polo with his fellow officers. He developed his natural gift for languages, adding Urdu and some Bengali to his fluent French and German. When Bengal was in the grip of a wave of revolutionary fervour for which he had some sympathy, Hunt volunteered for secondment to the Indian police. His intelligence work—occasionally squatting unobtrusively in the bazaar in Chittagong, wearing a lunghi and skullcap—led to the award of the Indian police medal. On 3 September 1936 he married Joy Mowbray-Green (b. 1913), a former Wimbledon tennis champion; they had four daughters.

After returning to Britain in 1940 Hunt donned a green beret and was appointed chief instructor at the Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare School in Braemar. He was a strong advocate of the value of mountain terrain in preparing troops for war, and wrote a paper on its relevance to the education of youth in general. In 1943 he rejoined his regiment in the Italian campaign, commanding the 11th battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps, on the Gargliano River in April 1944, and was awarded the DSO in bitter fighting along the Sangro. In the following October his regiment was sent to Greece following its liberation from the Germans. Keeping the peace between the various dissident groups supported either by the communists or the government-in-exile provided, he said, ‘the most tense and difficult period in all my experience, before or since’ (Hunt, Life, 76). It earned him the CBE.

In 1946 Hunt returned to attend the staff college, after which he became general staff officer I (operations) at the general headquarters Middle East land force, followed by various European staff appointments. It was while serving on the planning staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) under Montgomery at allied headquarters in Fontainebleau that he was invited to lead the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition. It was a turning point in his life. Hunt had been an enthusiastic mountaineer and skier from his youth, when he had been taken from the age of ten by his mother for summer and winter alpine holidays. At fourteen he was guided up Piz Palu, and his first six climbing seasons were all in the Alps. When he was twenty-three he started climbing guideless at home, and discovered the particular joys of leading on steep rock, which he was then able to test with friends on the Aiguilles above Chamonix, which became a kind of second home. While serving in India he naturally gravitated to the Himalayas. His attempt in 1935, with James Waller's party, on peak 36—now known as Saltoro Kangri—when they reached 24,500 feet, was among the more audacious Himalayan exploits of the 1930s. He was elected to both the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society, but was turned down for Ruttledge's 1936 expedition to Everest after an RAF medical board detected a murmur in his cardiograph: he was advised to be careful going upstairs. In 1937, together with Reggie Cooke, John and Joy Hunt reconnoitred the eastern slopes of Kangchenjunga, climbing the south-western summit of Nepal Peak, and making the third ascent of the Zemu Gap between Kangchenjunga and Simvo, where they came across strange tracks that Sherpa Pasang firmly declared were those of a Yeti.

So Hunt arrived at Everest in 1953 with impressive credentials, despite having been outside the mainstream of Himalayan and alpine climbing after the war. He was appointed leader of the expedition at short notice, after the Himalayan joint committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society decided that he should replace the experienced Eric Shipton. Shipton had presided over the unsuccessful expedition to Cho Oyu in 1952, organized after the Swiss had pre-empted the British by securing permission for Everest in both the spring and autumn of that year. The French had permission for 1954 and the Swiss again for 1955, so 1953 was Britain's last chance to be first to the summit and redeem the failures of the 1920s and 1930s. Hunt was thought to be the leader more likely to ensure success. ‘I was able to supply an element of military pragmatism’, he said modestly (The Guardian, 9 Nov 1998). But it was also greatly to his credit that he was able to win over the core of the Cho Oyu climbers who had understandably remained loyal to Shipton and, with the strength of his personality and determination, mould a group of strong individualists into a happy team. He was not the brusque and conventional military man some people expected. He was a very sensitive and intensely human person. With his engaging blue eyes and confident handshake, warmth, and sincerity, he would immediately put one at ease. He had a real talent for making people from all walks of life seem important to him.

An abiding memory of Hunt on the expedition was at advance base in the western cwm while awaiting reports of progress on the icy Lhotse face. The south col had not yet been attained, and for a critical period in mid-May the impetus of the assault seemed to be running down. He would sit on a packing case, elbows resting on knees, smears of sunblock cream giving him an unnaturally pale face, only partly shaded by a floppy hat, eyes peering through binoculars up at that dazzling backcloth of whiteness. He drove himself hard; at forty-two he was the oldest of the climbers, who wondered at the extent of his reserves. The world had to wait until 2 June for the news of success. ‘Everest—the Crowning Glory’ was the headline greeting the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. Four days earlier, on 29 May, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had for the first time reached the summit—now surveyed at 29,035 feet. But it was to the leader that the greatest credit was due. Even though he had personally climbed to 27,350 feet in support of the two assaults, it was his battle-hardened powers of leadership and skilful planning that assured success. Both Hunt and Hillary were knighted and Tenzing was awarded the George Medal. Further honours were showered on Hunt for this achievement: the order first-class Gurkha right hand; the Indian Everest medal; the Hubbard medal (US); the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society; the Lawrence memorial medal of the Royal Central Asian Society; and honorary degrees from Durham, Aberdeen, and London universities.

Everyone has his critics, and Hunt was no exception. He has been portrayed as a ‘terrific thruster’ (Daily Telegraph, 9 Nov 1998) but this suggests an aggressive nature or abrasiveness: on the contrary, he could seem almost innocent and diffident at times, but even so always prepared to volunteer to take the lead or speak at any function. He was judged by some to have little appreciation of science and scientists. This impression may have arisen owing to his singleness of purpose when planning the expedition. The objective in 1953 was solely to climb the mountain, undistracted by research projects, however worthy, which did not contribute directly to that aim. His new foreword to the reprint in 1993 of his The Ascent of Everest (1953) included a generous tribute to the contribution of ‘our scientific consultants’, notably the work of the field physiologist Griffith Pugh. Pugh's seminal report from the Cho Oyu expedition had helped to influence the design of much of the expedition's equipment, clothing, and diet, and to demonstrate the benefits of slow acclimatization and the optimum rates to breathe supplementary oxygen. Hunt himself was a keen naturalist, collecting butterflies in his early India days and compiling bird lists whenever on trek.

After Everest, Hunt was appointed brigadier and assistant commandant at the Staff College, Camberley. At this time he was increasingly in demand to lecture or respond to invitations to work with young people, and in 1956 he retired from the army to become the first director of the newly created duke of Edinburgh's award scheme, to which he gave ten years. Although a demanding job, it gave him more time to pursue climbing: alpine holidays, leading expeditions to the Caucasus and Pamirs in 1958 and 1962, and trekking parties across Nepal on both the twentieth and twenty-fifth Everest anniversaries. He particularly enjoyed sharing experiences with groups working towards the award, taking them to the Stauning Alps, east Greenland, the Pindus Mountains of Greece, and the Polish Tatras. He delighted in introducing young people to the mountains and must have inspired and influenced thousands to take up and enjoy challenging outdoor pursuits, an interest he sustained into his eighties by editing In Search of Adventure (1990).

Hunt was elected president of both the Alpine Club (1956–8, including its centenary year) and the Royal Geographical Society (1977–80), a distinction shared only by Sir Douglas Freshfield and Lord Chorley. He wrote numerous articles and contributed to several books on mountaineering, including the best-selling The Ascent of Everest, composed in an astonishing thirty days. In 1966 he was created a life peer as Baron Hunt, of Llanfair Waterdine; he sat initially as a cross-bencher but joined the Social Democratic Party shortly after its formation. He took his title from the little village near Offa's Dyke among the gentler hills of Radnorshire, where he loved to walk from his country cottage. His record of public service was exceptional: he advised the Harold Wilson government on relief after the Nigerian civil war, served as first chairman of the Parole Board and of the advisory committee on police in Northern Ireland, was a member of the royal commission on the press and president of the Council for National Parks, and served on the Council for Volunteers Overseas and the National Association of Probation Officers. In 1979 he was appointed a knight of the Garter. Above all, he loved his fellow men—and women—calling his autobiography Life is Meeting (1978). The last chapter is devoted to some of his favourite alpine excursions and more than anything expressed his love for climbing.

After heart surgery in 1995 Hunt at last began to show his age, but still attended occasional meetings at the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society. It gave him enormous pleasure to preside with his wife, Joy, over the extended ‘Everest family’ at its private forty-fifth anniversary reunion in May 1998 near Snowdon. He died later that year on 7 November at his home, Highway Cottage, Aston, Henley-on-Thames. In that very week many of his friends received from him two volumes of his Parliamentary Speeches by an Amateur Politician, transposed and edited from Hansard between the years 1967 and 1994. His body was cremated at Slough crematorium on 13 November 1998 and his ashes were scattered on the hills above Llanfair Waterdine. A service of thanksgiving for his life was held in the Garter knights' chapel of St George's, Windsor Castle, on 26 January 1999. His personal Garter banner, depicting a Himalayan bear, was later rehung in the church at Llanfair Waterdine.

George Band

Sources  

WW · J. Hunt, Life is meeting (1978) · Alpine Journal (1999) · G. Band, GJ, 165 (1999), 120–22 · The Times (9 Nov 1998) · The Independent (10 Nov 1998) · Daily Telegraph (9 Nov 1998) · The Guardian (9 Nov 1998) · Daily Express (9 Nov 1998) · J. Hunt, The ascent of Everest (1953) · E. H. Hunt, A rainbow of memories (1973) [privately printed autobiography] · I. Cranfield, ed., Inspiring achievement: the life and work of John Hunt (2002) · private information (2004) [Lady Hunt; Sue Leyden, daughter] · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

Alpine Club, London, presidential papers etc. · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., copy notes of life and military career, incl. details of mountaineering expeditions · King's Royal Hussars Museum, Winchester, military medals · priv. coll., Royal Geographical Society founder's medal and Indian Everest medal · RGS, diary and an Everest file · RGS, presidential papers  

FILM

 

‘The conquest of Everest’ (1953)

 

SOUND

 

BBC Library, ‘Everest 1953’, BBC Home Service (24 July 1953), no. 19212 · Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, Oral History Archive, ‘John Hunt’ (31 March 1995)


Likenesses  

photograph, 1953, NPG [see illus.] · L. Fildes, oils, c.1954, Staff College, Camberley · Cortina Studios, photographs, c.1956, Alpine Club, London · J. Schwartz, photograph, c.1977, Joint Services Command and Staff College, Watchfield, near Swindon · J. Mendoza, oils, c.1983, RGS

Wealth at death  

£555,300—net: probate, 17 June 1999, CGPLA Eng. & Wales