When inclement weather stopped the great Sir Edmund Hillary training for Everest on the peaks of Snowdonia National Park, he would practice his trickiest climbing techniques on a stack of chairs in the corner of a Welsh pub.
That’s what Elwyn Edwards, barman at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, told me anyway. And, as everyone knows, barmen are an infallible source of local knowledge.
The Pen-y-Gwryd is a classic climbers’ hotel near the foot of Mt Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales. Originally built as a farmhouse in 1810, the exterior is vine-covered stone with a slate roof and towering chimneys; inside it’s all dark wooden panelling and mountaineering memorabilia.
It’s popular with the Brits as a hiking base and for its quaintly old-fashioned ways, but for the handful of Kiwis who stumble into the bar after a hard day’s peak-bagging the real attraction is its connection with our Sir Ed.
The beekeeper from Tuakau and the rest of the ninth British Everest expedition spent six months at Pen-y-Gwryd in 1952-53 testing oxygen masks and tanks, plotting routes, practising rescues and honing their climbing skills ahead of their assault on the world’s highest peak.
They must have also tested the ale as part of their all-important team bonding sessions.
That was not the end of Sir Ed’s connection with the hotel. Until his death in 2008 he returned regularly for expedition reunions, held every five years on the anniversary of his ascent on May 29, 1953.
Reminders of the world’s best-known New Zealander are everywhere inside the Pen-y-Gwryd.
The walls are lined with photos from the Everest expedition and a display case in the “smoke room” is crowded with mementos including the rope used to hitch Sir Ed and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay together, an enamel mug immortalised in the famous portrait of Sir Ed after his descent, a Kiwi $5 note, an oxygen cylinder, Tibetan prayer flags and a chip of summit rock.
Puzzlingly, the cabinet also contains a Peruvian shrunken head.
The head was there for purely practical reasons, Elwyn explained.
“It used to hang up in the corner, but people were always mucking about with it, so we put it in the cabinet instead,” he said.
In another room, where Sir Ed would test his oxygen equipment while scaling a stack of chairs, Elwyn pointed out his signature on the ceiling. Dozens of famous guests, including celebrated mountaineers, actors and musicians, have left their mark at the invitation of past publicans.
The most famous guests who didn’t sign the ceiling were The Beatles, Elwyn said. The band was in its spiritual phase and passing through Snowdonia to visit a yogi in the Welsh town of Bangor, but the proprietor decided they just weren’t famous enough.
A final reminder of Sir Ed is chained securely to a wall behind the bar, where a row of polished tankards is engraved with the names of each member of the 1953 expedition.
All guests aged 12 and under who walk up and down Mt Snowdon, and solemnly swear they did so without adult help, are honoured with a ceremony and a commemorative badge.
They are also allowed to drink from the tankard of their choice. Needless to say, they always choose the tankard engraved ‘Edmund Hillary’.
Elwyn said a few Kiwis visited to pay homage to Sir Ed, others stumbled on the hotel by chance and were “pleased to bits” to find the connection.
However, as a patriotic Welshman, he was obliged to point out that Everest was named after a Welsh surveyor, George Everest; and that, but for a problem with his oxygen tank forcing him to turn back a day before Sir Ed’s ascent, the expedition’s Welsh deputy leader, Charles Evans, would have been the first man on top of the world’s highest mountain.
Elwyn said he had met Sir Ed several times at the Pen-y-Gwryd.
“The first time I met him I told him my grandfather used to keep bees. He was impressed by that.”
“But no, I didn’t talk to him much. He’s a huge guy, massive jaw, quite intimidating really. I’m quite shy, and why would he want to talk to a little Welshman?”
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After this story was published in the New Zealand Herald Travel magazine in January 2015, Tony Evans of Opotiki contacted me with this anecdote about Sir Ed at the Pen-y-Gwryd:
“In 1962 the BBC gathered all the members of the 1953 Everest expedition together to make a 10 year commemorative documentary of the expedition.
It was in the form of an informal gathering held in the Pen-y-Gwryd.
As part of a climbing party that had rescued a Junior Leader following a fall on Crib Goch, I was invited to sit in and watch the filming, although not to take part.
In those days there was camping very close to the hotel, where my companions and I camped. Being of younger years I returned to my tent when filming was over, about 11pm or so.
About 2am there was a terrific commotion from the area of the hotel, we went outside just in time to see Sir Ed and Tenzing in full climbing gear complete with crampons, ice axes and oxygen sets, summitting the roof of the hotel and planting a flag in the chimney.
An experience that has stayed with me and will continue to do so and, I hope, give you another insight into Sir Ed and the Pen-y-Gwryd.”