Jan Morris, Last Non-Sherpa Member of 1953 Everest Expedition, Passes

When Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to summit Mount Everest in 1953, a man then known as James Morris was awarded the exclusive scoop for The Times.

James Morris had never climbed a mountain before joining the 1953 Everest expedition.


At that time, Morris was a fledgling journalist. Born to a Welsh father and English mother, he considered himself Welsh. He served as a British cavalry officer before joining a news agency in Cairo. He then returned to Britain and studied at Oxford, where he graduated in 1951.

When Morris became a journalist for The Times, he had never climbed a mountain before. “I went up an unknown,” Morris told The New York Times in 1997, “and came down the most famous journalist in the world.” He himself made it to within 2,100m of the summit before breaking the story to the world.

This may well have been the story that launched his career, but it was the writing which kept Morris relevant until dying yesterday at the age of 94. Morris was the last living member of that original Everest expedition.

For several years, Morris continued working for The Times, then joined the Manchester Guardian in 1956. Darting around the world as a roaming correspondent, he covered the Moscow trial of U.S. spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and the Jerusalem trial of unrepentant Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann.

In Cuba, Morris interviewed Che Guevara and in 1960 published a grim assessment of what the future would hold for the country under Fidel Castro. He won a George Polk Award for journalism in 1960.

A year later Morris received a Master’s degree in English literature from Oxford and ventured out on his own as a freelance writer.

Breaking into travel writing showcased Morris’ true talent. Morris was skilled at bridging historic writing, fiction and non-fiction. He possessed a unique ability to create travel literature disguised as a novel and wrote more than 40 books, including The Upstairs Donkey and Other Stolen Stories (1961) and Last Letters from Hav (1985) which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His book, Venice, was a bestseller and featured a distinctive style of travel writing not seen before.

At the time, Venice was an independent republic of Italy and a place he described as “unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia.” His elegant prose evoked past and present all at once. Venice is one of his most remembered books. Michael Palin said it was “one of the most influential books of my life”.

In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckiness, with whom he had five children (one daughter died during infancy). Life appeared contented, but in perhaps the biggest twist in Morris’s life story, he underwent gender reassignment surgery, transitioning from male to female in the early 1970s, at the age of 45.

From then on, James Morris became Jan Morris. She was one of the earliest public figures to change genders and wrote a personal narrative of transsexualism, providing some of the earliest insight into the subject.

“It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity. Male and female are sex, masculine and feminine are gender, and though the conceptions obviously overlap, they are far from synonymous” she wrote in Conundrum (1974), which became an international bestseller.

“I was three or perhaps four years old,” Jan Morris wrote in her first book under her new name, “when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well” — sitting under the piano, while her mother played Sibelius — “and it is the earliest memory of my life.” In Oxford, Morris made the first tentative steps toward transsexuality, going out in public wearing dresses and makeup.

In marrying Tuckiness, Morris was upfront about her inner toil, telling her that “each year, my every instinct seemed to become more feminine, my entombment within the male physique more terrible to me.”

Under British law, the couple were no longer permitted to be married and so divorced while continuing to live together. In 2008, they entered into a civil partnership.

“I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,” Morris said. “We had to divorce. So there we were. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.”

Little changed in her professional life after surgery. Under her new name, she continue her prolific ways. She wrote for Rolling Stone magazine and completed her British Empire Trilogy. In 2018, she published Battleship Yamato, about an ill-fated Japanese warship that was sunk in 1945, which is believed to be one of the last books about World War II written by a veteran of the war. Morris also began writing memoirs, including Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989) and Herstory (1999).

Morris was never just a writer. Instead, she was creating her life story, through print.

“I’ve done all of my books to make one big, long autobiography. My life has been one whole self-centred exercise in self-satisfaction!” she told Michael Palin in 2016.

James Humphry Morris was born Oct. 2, 1926, in Clevedon, England and died in her home on November 20, 2020 as Jan Morris. In a statement, her son Twm Morys announced the death without stating the cause.

Kanchha Sherpa of Namche Bazaar survives as the last member of the 1953 expedition.