On a sunny morning in June 1922, mountaineer George Mallory, accompanied by fellow climbers Howard Somervell, Colin Crawford, John Noel and 13 Sherpas, set off from Camp III at 21,000ft for the North Col of Everest. It was the third and final attempt by the 1922 British expedition to reach the summit. It had snowed heavily for a few days and the climbers plodded on, often sinking into waist-deep snow. At 1.30pm, about 600ft below the Col—a precipitous ledge in the ridge connecting Everest to Changtse—there was an ominous sound “like an explosion of untamped gunpowder”. In an instant, the entire slope gave way. A huge avalanche thundered down and seven Sherpas died—the first of many tragedies on Everest. “Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed—why, oh why could not one of us Britishers have shared their fate?” Somervell remarked later.
The 1922 expedition was the first of eight attempts made by the British to reach the summit of Everest. After the success of the 1921 reconnaissance expedition, which established the route to the mountain from Tibet and reached the North Col at 23,000ft, the stage had been set for a full-scale assault on the mountain.
The 1922 team was led by the 56-year-old mountaineering veteran General Charles Bruce and made up of elite climbers, including Mallory, George Finch and Teddy Norton. The expedition doctor, Tom Longstaff, probably had more Himalayan experience than any of his team members, having climbed Trishul in 1907 and made attempts on Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Gurla Mandhata. Captain Noel, who had smuggled himself into Tibet in 1913 and captured some extraordinary photographs of Everest, was the official cinematographer on the team.
The first team left Darjeeling on 26 March and reached Rongbuk Glacier on the north face of Everest on 30 April, travelling over the Jelep La, through Chumbi Valley, and past Phari, Kampa Dzong and Shegar. At the monastery of Rongbuk, General Bruce met the presiding lama, Dzadrul Rinpoche, and took his blessings for a successful expedition. When the General enquired about the presence of the legendary Yeti in the valley, Dzadrul calmly told him there were five in the valleys above the Rongbuk monastery.
The 1922 expedition marked a first, not just for Everest expeditions, but many other debates that continue to dominate Himalayan climbing. One of these was that of climbing Everest by “fair means”, without using supplemental oxygen. Arthur Hinks, secretary of the Mount Everest Committee (set up by the Royal Geographical Society to organise and manage British expeditions from 1921-53), was of the belief that “only rotters would use oxygen”. Mallory too was not a proponent of using oxygen, though the expedition had a believer in George Finch, an Australian climber and chemist, who had worked on the equipment.
The first attempt to reach the summit was made without using supplemental oxygen, by Mallory, Somervell, Norton and Henry Morshead, with the summit team beginning the attempt on 20 May from the North Col. This attempt was following Mallory’s plan, and it was doomed to failure. Underestimating his opponent, Mallory had planned to put a light camp at around 26,000ft and make a push for the summit from there. Without the use of supplemental oxygen, there was not much hope of success, and climbing around 3,000ft in one push at that altitude was a herculean task.
As they climbed, gale force winds battered the team and frostbite threatened them all. While on the North Ridge, Mallory realised that he had to get out of the wind, so with huge effort he cut steps in the ice to the crest of the ridge and took his party to shelter on the leeward side, at a height of around 25,000ft. They soon found a spot where they could set up tents and hunkered down for the night. Norton’s ear was swollen and frostbitten and Morshead was suffering from a chill and oxygen-deprived lassitude.
The next morning, Morshead dropped out of the climb while the other three decided to soldier on. Hampered by a lack of oxygen, they could hardly cover 400ft in an hour. The fresh snow on the ledges also made progress difficult. With over 2,000ft still left to be climbed, the conditions just weren’t feasible, as the climbers soon realised. “We were prepared to leave it to braver men to climb Mount Everest by night,” Mallory would say later.
Around 2.30pm, they finally decided to retreat from an altitude of 26,985ft, the highest point that climbers had reached until then. On the way down, they decided to head all the way down to the North Col, after meeting Morshead at the high camp where they had spent the night. The fresh snow made route-finding difficult and while they were crossing a snowy couloir, Morshead slipped and took Norton and Somervell with him down the steep slope. Luckily, Mallory instinctively dug in his ice axe and provided a belay which saved the three climbers. Soon it was night, there was no moon to light the way, and the climbers crawled down the mountain in the darkness. Shaken and exhausted, the team reached the North Col at 11.30pm, having taken around seven hours to descend 2,000ft.
The next day, as they were descending to Camp III, they found Finch and Geoffrey Bruce heading up to the North Col to stock oxygen cylinders for a second attempt. Finch was of the belief that the chances of climbing Everest without oxygen were extremely slim, and had worked hard to make the oxygen apparatus as efficient as possible. He now decided to check his hypothesis on the mountain. On 22 May, Finch and Geoffrey Bruce climbed from Camp III to the Col in just three hours and descended in 50 minutes—an astonishing feat made possible by the use of oxygen. The Sherpas would call the bottled oxygen “English air”, and it was proving very effective.
Two days later, a party comprising Finch, Geoffrey Bruce, Noel and the Gurkha Tejbir set out for the North Col. Noel was going to remain at the North Col for support. They spent a listless night tossing and turning in their sleeping bags. The next morning, the three climbers set off for their high camp and around 1pm, decided to pitch their tent in the only suitable spot available, the edge of a precipice falling away to the East Rongbuk Glacier 4,000ft below. The weather was about to break.
It started snowing hard as they got into the tent and their sleeping bags. After sunset, gale force winds battered the tent, forcing the climbers to hold it down. As Finch said, “We fought for our lives, realising that once the wind got our little shelter into its ruthless grip, it must inevitably be hurled, with us inside it, down on to the East Rongbuk Glacier, thousands of feet below.” The storm raged through the night and the dawn was bleak and chill—the snow had stopped but the wind continued unabated. The climbers decided to sit out another day in the hope that the weather would improve. The wind dropped towards the evening but the climbers were exhausted. Finch then decided to use the oxygen to enable them to sleep; they did have a good night, with warmth flooding their chilled bodies. Finch later remarked that it was the oxygen that saved their lives.
The next morning, they set off at 6.30am but a few hundred feet out of the camp, Tejbir collapsed and had to retreat. In order to make better progress, Finch and Geoffrey Bruce unroped and despite the risk of the slippery slabs of the Yellow Band, reached 27,000ft. The wind started again, forcing them back towards the ridge but suddenly Bruce exclaimed, “I am getting no oxygen!” His oxygen apparatus had started malfunctioning due to a blocked tube. Despite repairing the apparatus, Finch realised that the climb was over. 27,300ft was the highest point to which any man had climbed before. Though it wasn’t the top of Everest, they had to be content with that. As Finch said, “If we were to persist in climbing on, even if only for another five hundred feet, we should not both get back alive.”
Mallory then decided to lead a third and final attempt. Longstaff was against this attempt, arguing that neither the fitness of the team nor the conditions on the mountain—with the onset of the monsoon imminent—offered any reasonable chance of reaching the summit. As Mallory later said in a letter to his wife, “The consequences of my mistake are so terrible; it seems almost impossible to believe that it has happened forever and that I can do nothing to make good.” Sadly, he had made a tactical error of judgement and the expedition paid heavily for it.
A hundred years later, on 7 May 2022, Ang Rita Sherpa and nine others set up the fixed ropes that have been guiding amateur climbers to the summit through the climbing season. In the process, Ang Rita summited the peak for the 26th time. In the beginning of May, there were around 300 client climbers at Base Camp who were waiting for a suitable weather window to summit Everest using the fixed ropes put in place by Ang Rita and his team.
Often referred to as the “invisible men of Everest”, the Sherpas have paved the way, expedition after expedition, for Western climbers to reach the top. In these hundred years, their role has also been fraught with tragic consequences. Everest, especially, has been the site of most of the major disasters. In 1970, six Sherpas died in an avalanche working for a Japanese expedition. In 2014, another huge avalanche killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall as they were preparing the route for the client climbers.
The devastating 2015 earthquake triggered another avalanche at Base Camp, and 10 Sherpas were killed along with other climbers. On Everest, around 40% of all climbing deaths have been of Sherpas. Since 1922, the one thing that has been constant about Everest attempts has been the cost in lives of the Sherpa people.
At least the quirks of history have been kind enough to ensure that one of the first men to actually set foot on the peak of Everest was a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay—31 years after the first attempt in 1922—on 29 May 1953, at 11.30am.
Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.