Transgender journalist who announced the conquest of Mount Everest dies
Saturday, 21 November 2020
Journalist Jan Morris, who rose to fame on reporting the climbing of Mount Everest, then became one of the first British personalities to come out as a transgender person, died on Friday at the age of 94.
“This morning at 11.40 […], the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth,” her son Twm Morys said in a statement quoted by the BBC on Friday.
Jan Morris became famous when in 1953, she sent The Times newsroom a coded message with the scoop that Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tensing Norgay had conquered Mount Everest. At the time competition between newspapers was fierce, but The Times was the only one to have a journalist in the expedition: Jan Morris, who was discovering mountain climbing at the age of 26.
Fearing that her messages might be intercepted by the competition, the young reporter had developed a code in which “snow conditions bad” meant the climbers had tamed Everest while a reference to adverse winds meant the attempt to climb the mountain had been abandoned. Each climber was also given a code name.
On 31 May 1953, Morris sent an apparently innocuous telegraph message to The Times: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” For those in the know, the message had a totally different meaning, that Everest had been conquered on 29 May by Hillary and Tenzing.
By the following morning, the crowd attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II learnt in The Times that the two men had planted the British flag on Everest.
Born James Morris, the journalist also became famous for coming out as a transgender woman in 1972, definitively adopting the name “Jan”.
As a transgender pioneer, she faced multiple difficulties, ranging from indiscreet questions from a BBC journalist who wanted to know if she had a full sex life to being forced to divorce her wife Elizabeth after 23 years of marriage.
The couple, who had five children, were reunited in a civil union in 2008.
Many years after her scoop, Jan Morris gave up journalism for literature. She went on to write 45 books and in 1985, her novel “Last Letters from Hav” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a prestigious British literary award.
‘Conundrum,’ which Morris published in 1974, was one of the first books to openly explore the feeling of being transgender and what transitioning meant, based on her personal experience.