What links the conquest of Mount Everest and the small town of Llangollen in north Wales?
A faded entry from 1957 in the visitor’s book of the Chainbridge Hotel in the town, unlocks an amazing story in this, the 60th anniversary of the first successful Everest climb by an expedition led by John Hunt.
John Hunt’s signature as a Chainbridge guest is very clear and dated October 15th, 1957.
Above it is the name of Syd Wignall, who was the leader of the 1955 Welsh Himalayan Expedition.
It’s uncertain why the two men met in Llangollen, but their shared passion for climbing, and the Himalayas in particular, is the obvious connection.
Many will know the name of John Hunt, later Lord Hunt, but very few will have heard of the Welsh adventurer and climber.
When Sydney Wignall set off from Llandudno on a climbing expedition to the Himalayas in 1955, little did he know that he would become involved in a life-threatening escapade involving the Chinese Government that resulted in questions being asked in Parliament.
The diplomatic incident appears to have started as a fairly jovial suggestion to a group of keen climbers to ‘have a to at’ Gurla Mandhata, which at 25,355ft was the highest peak in Chinese-Occupied Tibet. In July 1955, Wignall and five companions set off from Llandudno in two Standard Vanguard estates and drove the 6,500 miles through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and into India.
Wignall’s intention was to plant three flags on the mountain – the Red Dragon of Wales, the flag of the Chinese Republic and a Skull & Crossbones sewn by his wife. Wignall and two other climbers were spotted by Chinese troops however, and were taken prisoner as suspected CIA spies.
Although they were held for two months in solitary confinement on starvation rations and subjected to beatings and mock executions, they never admitted to spying, refused to sign confessions and resolutely denied all charges put to them.
In the end the Chinese bowed to diplomatic pressure and released them in a remote area with little in the way of provisions in the hope that they would perish in the harsh conditions.
They survived, though Wignall understandably suffered nightmares for many years about the mock executions he endured.
He was later quoted as saying: “I never climbed after that, I’d had enough of mountains.”