Jan Morris, the writer celebrated for her lyrical, evocative prose and hailed as the Flaubert of the Jet Age, made her name with a bald report of barely a dozen words. “Snow conditions bad,” it read. “Advanced base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All Well.”

That downbeat dispatch, carried by runners down Nepal’s Khumbu valley then telegraphed to London, was in fact a coded message designed to protect a famous journalistic scoop. On June 2, 1953, the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, its true meaning was revealed in the Times: Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay had become the first to stand on the summit of Everest...

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