First Scotch on the summit of EverestThe journey of a bottle of Royal Salute Coronation Edition being auctioned in London for charity
Around 7,000 people have now reached the highest point on the planet, the top of Mt Everest since it was first scaled by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. But only one bottle of whisky has ever made it to the top, and that was on 23 May this year.
And not just any whisky, but a unique bottle of Royal Salute Coronation of King Charles III Edition, one of only 500 crystal decanters specially created to mark the new British King’s crowning in Westminster Abbey.
Priced at a whopping US$25,000, the amber spirit is ‘a luxurious blend of 53 rare malt and grain whiskies’. A limited edition reflecting the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne, the birth of the Royal Salute brand and the year of Everest’s historic first ascent.
And not just for any trivial reason, but as a contribution to the 70th anniversary celebration events the flagon number 61 of the precious Scotch donated by Chivas Bros will be auctioned to benefit the people of the Himalaya at a charity fundraising event in London hosted by Bear Grylls, Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay, sons of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
The first ever bottle of Scotch to reach the top has notched up yet another record on Sagarmatha, to be added to the list of wondrous, admirable, astonishing and sometimes frankly bizarre summit successes.
To great relief all round, the bottle survived the gruelling ascent, not in its elaborate presentation box but carefully packed in bubble wrap and duct-tape by Adventure Consultants' expedition leader and Khumbu afficionado, Guy Cotter. The expensive content remained intact in the skilled, courageous and capable care of Nepali mountain guide Ang Dorjee Sherpa on his 22nd Everest summit.
The story of how the bottle got to the top started 20 years ago at the 50th anniversary when Sir Ed Hillary himself was presented with a 50-year-old bottle of Chivas Regal by brand leader Peter Prentice and the Duke of Argyll in full highland dress. Bearing the bottle aloft in tartan kilts, the music of massed bagpipes stunned the audience in the Hyatt Ballroom on 29 May 2003.
I suggested to Peter Prentice that Royal Salute might like to follow this up by donating a bottle to the Everest70 auction along with an escorted tour of Speyside distilleries. The French owners were reluctant and slow to respond, distracted by the London promotion. Peter and I persisted, and their interest piqued when I rashly proposed added value with an attempted Everest summit.
You never know what is going to happen on any expedition, and it was with some trepidation one warm spring afternoon at lunch in a Kathmandu courtyard that I requested Guy Cotter to arrange for this very special bottle to be carried to the summit with one of his Adventure Consultant’s guides.
A consummate professional mountaineer and Himalayan Trust member, Guy did not hesitate. It would obviously be an additional burden to his team and no unnecessary risks would be taken, but in essence: ‘Yes, but no guarantees.’
Peter was jubilant, and a Royal Salute bottle was delivered to me by courier in London in late April. Not daring to mess with the packaging, it reached Kathmandu carefully wedged in my suitcase. Still wrapped, I handed over the Scotch to Iswari Paudel of Himalayan Guides Nepal, Guy’s long-time partner agency.
The instructions were to send the package by helicopter directly to Everest Base Camp, but Guy later told me there were some anxious days when the bottle went missing having been despatched by mistake via Lukla. Luckily it turned up at the Adventure Consultants camp with a client who had no idea of its importance.
Although a cold and difficult year on Everest, the Adventure Consultants team achieved their goals. Originally from Pangboche, Ang Dorjee’s famous father Nima Tenzing climbed new routes with Chris Bonington in the 1970s. By chance, Sir Chris will be present when the bottle is auctioned by Himalayan Trust in London, with all proceeds benefiting health, education and women’s projects throughout the Everest and Kangchenchunga regions.
In a Lazimpat garden, Guy and I returned the Royal Salute bottle with triumph to Sir Graham Wrigley, Chairman of Himalayan Trust UK and former Chair of British International Investment PLC -- still in its summit packaging. It was Graham who had first conceived the Everest70 celebration programme, arranging with Tenzing, Hillary and Hunt’s descendants to trace the journey of the original expedition from Khumbu to Kathmandu, Delhi and London. He had co-opted me to help him coordinate in Nepal.
Seventieth memorials to honour the anniversary with the families included Khumbu treks, curated films, talk programmes, lauding summiteers, lectures, processions, openings, unveilings, speeches, receptions and parties. Everest70 celebrations culminate this week in London with the fundraising auction, a Nepal Embassy party and program at the Royal Geographical Society with Kenton Cool, Stephen Venables and Hari Budha Magar. The families have had audiences with Nepal President Ram Chandra Poudel in Kathmandu and King Charles III in Buckingham Palace.
I was in Khumbu on 29 May this year for events to mark the 70 years. It included the opening of Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Centre in Khumjung’s refitted ‘schoolhouse in the clouds’ by New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the Tenzing Norgay Heritage Centre with Kanchha Sherpa, the only surviving member of the 1953 expedition.
Helen Clark used the global media attention for a powerful call to action on climate change and its Himalayan impacts. A new 70 km loop was added to the Everest Marathon as an ultra-extreme option, rhododendrons were planted by distinguished guests, the music of local instruments reverberated around the white peaks, Sherpa dancers stomped and swirled, and a couple of skydivers filled the sky with a huge Nepali flag above Syangboche.
The weather was kind and as Everest slipped behind the clouds Sue Leyden, daughter of expedition leader John Hunt, reminded me that Tenzing and Hillary were ‘the right people’ to have made the first ascent, two humble men who both gave so much back to the people of Nepal. She remembered the moment when the news reached London, the day that changed their lives forever. She was 12 years old and sharing a bath with her sisters.