What was Jan Morris’s secret code to say that Everest had been climbed?

Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement
All well!Jan Morris, Coronation Everest

There have been many tributes to the journalist and travel writer Jan Morris, who died last month at the age of 94. She is famous for writing Pax Britannica, a trilogy about the British Empire, and for the travel books Venice and Trieste. She is perhaps most famous for being transsexual back in the days when it really wasn’t very common, an experience she wrote about in her book Conundrum.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about her in a mountaineering blog. Back in the days when she was James Morris, she was the official correspondent for the 1953 British Everest expedition, an event she wrote about in Coronation Everest, one of the more interesting of the many books about the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain.

Coronation Everest by Jan Morris
Coronation Everest by Jan Morris

Why was it more interesting? Lots of actual climbers in the 1953 team have written accounts of the expedition, including John Hunt, Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, George Lowe and Wilfrid Noyce. But Jan Morris was a far better writer than any of them, and her book described the events from a very different angle. While the primary goal for the others was to reach the summit, the primary goal for Jan Morris was to report the ascent ahead of her rivals in time for the queen’s coronation.

This was easier said than done. Although Morris was writing for The Times, and was officially contracted to the 1953 expedition team, two enterprising rivals – Ralph Izzard (no relation of Eddie) of the Daily Mail and Peter Jackson (not the film director) of Reuters – had hired guides and porters and were snooping around the Khumbu region trying to pick up news.

As the official expedition reporter, Morris was always going to be first to any news, but getting the news back to London without her rivals finding out and getting there first, was another matter.

p.6 of The Times newspaper, 2 June 1953, announcing that Everest had been climbed for the very first time alongside news of the queen's coronation and the lesser known event of a cricket pavilion being struck by lightning
p.6 of The Times newspaper, 2 June 1953, announcing that Everest had been climbed for the very first time alongside news of the queen’s coronation and the lesser known event of a cricket pavilion being struck by lightning

The news had to be conveyed by runner from Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazar, where a radio operator with the Indian police, Mr Tiwari sent it by telegraph to the British Embassy in Kathmandu. From there it was passed on to Arthur Hutchinson, another correspondent for The Times based in Kathmandu, who then sent it to London.

Jan Morris knew that news could be intercepted at any point between leaving base camp with the runner and reaching Hutchinson in Kathmandu. The runner could be stopped and interrogated, as could Mr Tiwari. The telegraph itself was public and anyone could listen in. Gossips at the British Embassy could let slip any news before Hutchinson got it home.

So how to keep it secret before it reached The Times editorial team in London? She decided to devise a secret code, known only to herself and Hutchinson. But this in itself presented a problem because she knew that Mr Tiwari would be unlikely to transmit a message written in gibberish if he didn’t know what it meant. She would therefore need to make Mr Tiwari party to the code, something she was reluctant to do.

The solution was simple and inventive. Morris described it thus in Coronation Everest:

I must produce another code in which messages enciphered seemed to be clear. Such a message would make perfect sense – but it would be the wrong sense.

To keep things simple, she reserved the code to be used only for the most important message of all: the one to say that Everest had been climbed. A series of mountaineering phrases suggesting failure would then be used to indicate which members of the team had reached the summit.

The code is reproduced in full on p.47 of Coronation Everest.

Meaning Code
Message to begin Snow Conditions Bad
George Band South Col Untenable
Tom Bourdillon Lhotse Face Impossible
Charles Evans Ridge Camp Untenable
Alfred Gregory Withdrawal to West Basin
Edmund Hillary Advanced Base Abandoned
John Hunt Camp Five Abandoned
George Lowe Camp Six Abandoned
Wilfrid Noyce Camp Seven Abandoned
Tenzing Norgay Awaiting Improvement
Michael Ward Further news Follows
Michael Westmacott Assault Postponed
Charles Wylie Weather Deteriorating
Any other Sherpa Awaiting Oxygen Supplies
All else Genuine i.e. anything else contained in the message could be taken literally

Luckily John Hunt, George Lowe and Wilfrid Noyce didn’t all reach the summit together, or it would have sounded suspiciously like a rout. On 30 May 1953, Morris tapped the following message on her typewriter at base camp, to be carried down the trail by a runner and then transmitted by Mr Tiwari on his radio at Namche

Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement
All well!


  • Snow conditions bad (the summit has been reached)
  • Advanced base abandoned (by Edmund Hillary)
  • Yesterday (on 29 May)
  • Awaiting improvement (and also by Tenzing Norgay)
  • All well! (everything is hunky-dory!)

With her duty done, all that remained was for Morris to return to Kathmandu and hope that the message had reached its destination.

There was a nasty moment when she bumped into Peter Jackson approaching Namche and she had to pretend that the expedition had failed.

‘There’s always the French,’ said Morris (meaning the French team who had a permit for Everest in 1954).

But Jackson smelled a rat. He knew that if the British didn’t climb the mountain in the spring season, they would try again in the autumn before the French came the following year. He therefore suspected that they had been successful, but Morris was his friend and he said nothing.

On 2 June, Jan Morris was camping beside the Dudh Khosi river six miles south of Namche Bazar when she switched on her radio to hear a voice in English announce that Mount Everest had been climbed and that Queen Elizabeth had been given the news on the eve of her coronation. The announcer kindly added that the news of ‘Coronation Everest’ was first announced in a Times dispatch.

Mission accomplished. Things could not have worked out better.

Jan Morris died peacefully on 20 November 2020, 67 years after announcing the news that Everest had been climbed for the very first time. 5,788 people have climbed it since, including myself (I was the 3,508th).

Queen Elizabeth, on the hand, is still the queen; there haven’t been any more kings or queens since.

To receive email notifications of my blog posts about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.
Note: I get a very small referral fee if you buy a book after clicking on an Amazon link.

5 thoughts on “What was Jan Morris’s secret code to say that Everest had been climbed?

  • December 2, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    Weirdly enough I had mistaken Jan Morris for Elizabeth Hawley, who certified when a climber summited Everest and also passed away at 94 years old.
    Enthralling story, though.

  • December 3, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    It’s not the sort of mountaineering book I would normally read, but I’d thoroughly recommend it. As Jan Morris was no climber the book is very much about the people and the journey – a fascinating account of the 1953 expedition. Well worth a read.

  • April 16, 2024 at 6:53 am

    Your article has been useful for my husband as he is teaching this story to his class today. Thank you! I’ve read a couple of Jan Morris books so will put this on my list. Sadly, Queen Elizabeth has now died.

  • April 18, 2024 at 7:59 pm

    OMG, our dear old queen is dead? They just don’t report these things any more 😉

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published, but it will be stored. Please see the privacy statement for more information. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend, please read the commenting guidelines before posting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.