Sixty years ago this week Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to successfully conquer Everest – and Kettering shoe workers and researchers played a vital part in the historic ascent.
On the expedition Hillary and his fellow mountaineers wore the Everest assault boot, designed, tested and made by Satra, the footwear research and technology centre based in the town.
In 1952, Satra received a request from the British Expedition to produce a high altitude boot for its planned assault of Mount Everest the following year.
Satra provided four prototype pairs, which were tested in the Swiss Alps.
Weighing just 1.9 kilograms, they were far lighter than rival designs, and 35 pairs were made with 33 pairs taken on the expedition.
Each boot was handmade to suit individual members of the team, both the Europeans and the Sherpas.
A spokesman for Satra said at the time: “It can truly be claimed that the boots are products of the British shoe and allied trades through the research association which they support, and it was for this reason that, on behalf of the trade as a whole, the association’s council decided that the 33 pairs of assault boots should be presented to the expedition free of charge.”
In February of 1952 Satra was asked to produce experimental felt boots for trials in the Himalayas. It was found that a boot of a more ambitious design was needed to provide the necessary thermal insulation for the Everest assault.
In October a meeting was held between directors of Satra and representatives of the Everest expedition and Satra gave an undertaking that, on behalf of the shoe industry, it would take responsibility for the design and production of the assault boots. Several pairs were produced for climbing trials in the Alps in December and, as a result of the tests, one of the Satra designs was selected.
Lasts for sizes five to 12 were loaned by GT Hawkins of Northampton and Mobbs and Lewis of Kettering.
Davis and Company of Kettering provided half the skins for the uppers.
The waterproof inner material, made of rubberised fabric and kapok, used for thermal insulation, were obtained from Kettering Clothing Manufacturing Co-operative Society.
A spokesman for Satra said at the time: “At this stage the help of a shoe manufacturing firm was needed, and we are pleased to record our thanks to Messrs Upsons Limited of Kettering for co-operating so readily and enthusiactically.
“They carried out the whole of the clicking, upper material preparation, assembly and closing of the 33 pairs.
“A special tribute is paid to their closing room operatives for their skill in closing these uppers, each of which contained 56 pieces.”
Testing of every component of the assault boot was carried out at Satra House and Hillary visited to see first hand the processes that went into producing the boot.
Further tests were carried out in the cold chambers of the Clothing and Equipment Physiological Research Establishment of the Ministry of Supply at Farnborough.
Everything possible was done to ensure that the boots would do their duty under the most adverse weather conditions.
The Everest assault boots were finally delivered on January 16, 1953, just five weeks after being ordered.
After the successful ascent by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29, expedition leader John Hunt wrote to Satra’s director of research, Harry Bradley, saying that the boots had been a great success and were worn by all members of the party above an altitude of 6,100 metres.
Unlike any previous Everest expedition, not one of the British team had suffered from frostbite in their feet.
Firms received praise
There was a number of Kettering and county firms which helped Satra with the manufacture of the Everest assault boot.
It received assistance, equipment and materials from Kettering Boot and Shoe Co-operative Society, Charles East Limited, Cheney & Sons, Kettering Battery Services, Caswell and Co, Kettering Cartons, AM Lee and A Coker and Sons and Phipps and Sons, of Northampton. Often services were given at short notice and without charge.