Past Everest anniversaries

As the 65th year of the first ascent approaches, the mystery of a specially blended Chivas Regal is solved

As the 65th year of the first ascent approaches, the mystery of a specially blended Chivas Regal is solved
YO HO HO: Lord Hunt, Lisa Choegyal, Sir Chris Bonington and Elizabeth Hawley at 40th anniversary of the Everest ascent in 1993 in Kathmandu.

"I know he’s an imposter.” The short wiry man with weasel eyes hissed loudly in the row behind me, his voice husky with vehemence. “That can’t possibly be the real Duke of Argyll.”

I smiled as the wail of bagpipes reverberated off the walls and the Duke sashayed his way down the length of the Hyatt ballroom in full highland dress – tight green jacket, bone buttons, clan tartan kilt and silver-mounted fur sporran swaying jauntily in time to the beat. Escorted by uniformed pipers, he bore aloft the elaborate gold-embossed bottle containing the rare 50-year-old Chivas Regal that was specially blended in a limited edition to celebrate the occasion, distilled the same year as the historic first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

During the golden jubilee rehearsal, his whisky colleague Peter Prentice had told me with glee: “Torquhil Argyll is wearing only his second best gear this evening -- his main outfit is listed as a national treasure and cannot leave Inveraray Castle in Scotland.”

Responding to the rousing music and drama of the moment, the audience rose to their feet in spontaneous applause as the bottle, along with a large cheque for the Himalayan Trust, was presented to Sir Edmund Hillary waiting on stage flanked by Tenzing Norgay’s relatives and members of the Sherpa community.

The festivities continued with Sherpa singing and dancing, feet sliding and stomping in celebration of the 50th anniversary in 2003. The men wore identical pale felt hats with their dark chubas, the women glowing in bright striped aprons, multi-coloured ribbons and intricate gold headdresses.

June Hillary, resplendent in red velvet, leaned over to whisper with concern: “Seems like an awful lot of people here.” The huge room was filled with mountaineers, ambassadors, filmmakers, media, family and friends. So many had turned up that the Hyatt had to raid their freezers to ensure enough dinner for everyone.

Heaps of cream silk khadas adorned the dignitaries, and guests wore distinctive turquoise sashes emblazoned with ‘Triumph on Everest’ and the date 29 May 2003, exactly 50 years after the highest mountain in the world had been scaled. Mine is still draped over a picture in my office, slightly faded but vivid with memories of that distant day that I had helped organise.

Ed arrived at the Hyatt in a helicopter showering flower petals from a felicitation event with the Prime Minister, and the morning had been spent in the British Embassy garden – broadcast in real time by Television New Zealand with Nepal TV technicians.

Presenting the show was New Zealand’s star host Mark Sainsbury, always genial with a quick wit lurking behind his luxuriant trademark moustache.

Amidst the rose beds and yellow Ambassadorial residence, with a decorated elephant for added glamour, a dazzling array of Everesters rotated in front of Mark’s live microphone – multi-summiting Sherpas, veterans from the 1953 expedition, legends such as Messner, Habeler and Breashears. And of course Sir Ed, elderly and warm in the humid May sunshine. The Ambassador’s stylish French wife had set aside their study as a sanctuary for Ed and June, and I asked if they needed a shower to cool off. “Not necessary, Lisa. We’re not fussy like that!” June retorted.

It was of course a British expedition in 1953, even though the first to summit were a Kiwi and Tenzing Norgay from Darjeeling. The Brits have been gracious in hosting the Everest-Sagarmatha-Chomolungma anniversaries ever since. Elizabeth Hawley and Chris Bonington took me to the 1993 40th celebration in the Ambassador’s drawing room where I met the original expedition’s fearsome leader Lord John Hunt, mellowed into a charming old man. In 2013 the 60th took place in the Defence Attache’s house as the Residence was undergoing timely earthquake strengthening.

The then-Chief Secretary (now Nepal Ambassador to China) and Everest leader Leela Mani Paudyal did the honours, with Reinhold Messner and New Zealand’s Lydia Bradey jointly cutting an anniversary cake, their speeches lost to a faulty microphone. And next week the 65th will again be marked by Nepal, Britain and New Zealand.

It was three years after the Kathmandu golden jubilee that Torquhil and Peter asked me to arrange another Chivas ceremony, this time close to the Hillary home in a classy Auckland restaurant full of showy begonias and New Zealand wine masters, hosted by their Paris-based boss.

The plan was to present Sir Ed with another large cheque for the Himalayan Trust and in return to retrieve the most expensive bottle of whisky of all time for the Chivas Brothers Archive in Speyside, Scotland’s oldest distillery, where it now resides.

There was some confusion and red faces when it came to finding the precious bottle – for safekeeping it had been carried back from Nepal to UK, but a search of Torquhil’s rambling Scottish castle drew a blank. To widespread relief it was eventually tracked down in the bottom left-hand drawer of the brand manager’s desk in the London office.

That balmy summer evening in New Zealand, Sir Ed had as usual prepared notes for his speech. On the back of an old envelope in spidery handwriting, he muddled up whom he was thanking for what bottle and for which cheque. I gently put him right, but I do regret not having kept that envelope.

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Third generation Hilary

Sherpa Hillary

Hillary meets Hillary

Sir Ed's funeral

Lisa Choegyal