On 5 June 1921, on a windswept plain in Tibet, Lt Col Howard-Bury, the leader of the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, had an unhappy task to perform. He was to preside over the last rites of Alexander Kellas, 53, who had died en route, before the team could even reach the foot of Everest. So, as Howard-Bury read from the Corinthians, surrounded by his team of Everest climbers and Sherpas, Kellas was buried near the Tibetan fortress of Khamba Dzong in the shadow of the three mountains he alone had climbed—Kangchenjau, Pauhunri and Chomiomo. The team made its way to the Rongbuk base camp on the north face of Everest but the loss of Kellas and his experience would prove to be a major setback.
Mount Everest, or Peak XV as it was originally known, was “discovered” in the 1850s when a Survey of India team, with surveyor general Andrew Waugh and Indian surveyor Radhanath Sikdar, among others, plotted the peak as the highest point on earth. Seventy-odd years passed before the British were able to organise an expedition to physically find the mountain in 1921. This was made possible by the efforts of Charles Bell, the de facto British India ambassador to Tibet, who convinced the 13th Dalai Lama to allow the expedition and make the first survey of the country around Mount Everest.
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Sir Francis Younghusband, who had led a British mission to Lhasa in 1904, was key in getting the 1921 expedition off the ground. Its members were led by Howard-Bury, an accomplished writer and naturalist. Harold Raeburn was the climbing leader, supported by Kellas, a Scottish chemist, George Mallory, a Charterhouse schoolteacher, and Guy Bullock, a consular officer. There were two surveyors, Oliver Wheeler and Henry Morshead, both experienced mountaineers. Alexander Heron was the geologist. The ninth member was Sandy Wollaston, a doctor, naturalist and entomologist.
Their first goal was “to find the mountain”, as Mallory put it.
The team left Darjeeling on a wet May morning, travelling through Sikkim’s leech-infested and rain-drenched forests and across the Jelep La to the cool and dry confines of the Chumbi valley in Tibet. They then moved north towards Phari, being greeted by azure blue skies and a tremendous view of the Chomolhari across the Tibetan plateau, before swinging west to Khamba Dzong, Tingri and then south to Rongbuk.
The Chumbi valley was on the main trade route to Lhasa and there were dak bungalows at one-day halts which were used by the expedition. At Yatung, the wife of the British Trade agent David Macdonald offered them a four-course dinner, washed down with whisky and crème de menthe. But such delights were few and far between. The food on the journey was terrible and the expedition members, far from well. Kellas was weak after his three expeditions in Sikkim, while Raeburn, Wheeler and Wollaston were suffering from stomach- related ailments.
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Mallory climbed a slope leading to the fortress of Khamba Dzong and saw Everest for the first time. He described it as “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world” and promptly fell under its spell. In a letter to his wife Ruth, he wrote “... this is a thrilling business altogether…. I can’t tell you how it possesses me and what a prospect it is. And the beauty of it all.” Khamba Dzong marked the end of the first phase of the expedition, which had covered 260 miles in 20 days from Darjeeling.
But misfortune struck again. Raeburn had been ill since leaving Darjeeling. Having lost Kellas, Howard-Bury did not want to risk another climber and Raeburn was sent back to Lachen in Sikkim to recuperate at a mission run by Moravian nuns. With two experienced climbers gone, the entire effort would now rest on the shoulders of Mallory and Bullock, neither of whom had been to the Himalaya before.
On 18 June, Mallory and Bullock crested a high pass, the Pang La, 17,000ft. From this, one of the most celebrated viewpoints in Tibet, they had a view of four 8,000m peaks in a single panorama—Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. The expedition reached Tingri on 19 June, soon realising they might have left Darjeeling a month too late and were racing against the monsoon. To optimise the time available, Howard-Bury decided to send out three teams simultaneously. Mallory and Bullock would head south to the Rongbuk glacier below the huge north face of Everest, Morshead and his surveyors would map the region east of Everest and Wheeler and Heron would head to the western reaches of Everest.
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In a letter to the British climber and poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Mallory wrote, “We are just about to walk off the map.” Mallory and Bullock left Tingri on the 23rd with a team of 16 sherpas and 15 loaded yaks. Despite having to ford the raging Dzakar Chu and Rongbuk Chu rivers and goad the yaks to swim across, they reached Rongbuk monastery, dwarfed by Everest’s north face. In Mallory’s words, “The highest of the world’s great mountains… has to make but a single gesture of its magnificence to be lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.”
Mallory and Bullock spent the next three weeks trying to find the route to the North Col, up the Rongbuk glacier that Mallory had realised was the key to the upper reaches of Everest. However, his efforts were in vain and the duo finally reached a col now known as the Nup La, which overlooks the Western Cwm of Everest on the Nepal side. Looking at the Western Cwm and the Khumbu Icefall, Mallory wrote that he had never seen a glacier “so terribly steep and broken”. He concluded that this was not the way to the summit of Everest. Little could he have known that it is precisely across this “terribly steep and broken” route that Everest would be climbed 32 years later.
Unable to find the route to the North Col, Mallory and Bullock moved east of Everest to explore the Kharta and Kama valleys. But the North Col still bothered Mallory. Luckily, the expedition’s map maker, Oliver Wheeler, had the answer. Wheeler had spent more than a month, mostly alone, on the glaciers between 18,000-22,000ft, mapping and photographing the region around Everest, often in miserable, damp and snowy weather. On 9 August, Wheeler had sent a sketch map of the East Rongbuk glacier to Howard-Bury that Mallory had missed. This showed a direct route up to the base of the North Col, a much easier approach than the one from Kharta. Though Wheeler is largely forgotten today, this crucial map meant he was certainly the hero of the 1921 expedition.
Finally, on 24 September 1921, over four months after the expedition had left Darjeeling, Mallory, Bullock and Wheeler reached the North Col, at a height of 23,031ft, at 11.30am. Gale force winds were blowing across the Col and fresh powder snow in unbroken spindrift was being swept across the huge north face of Everest. Mallory decided that going further was not possible in such conditions.
The climbing party was now more than exhausted and retreat seemed to be the best option. And so ended the 1921 expedition.
Despite being overshadowed by the later Everest expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, the importance of the Reconnaissance of 1921 cannot be underestimated. Wheeler and Morshead mapped 12,000 sq. miles of unexplored territory in Tibet and around Everest. The final maps prepared by Wheeler at the Survey of India in Dehradun and sent to the Everest committee in London would be the base for all future expeditions. Further, despite the loss of two experienced climbers, first-timers Mallory and Bullock rose to the occasion, climbing to the North Col with determination and grit, paving the way for all subsequent attempts on Everest.
A hundred years later, Everest has sadly been reduced to a tourist mountain, with fixed ropes from the base camp to the summit. Wealthy clients are willing to pay anything between $30,000-80,000 (around ₹22-59 lakh) to be guided to the top. One can but marvel at the exploits of the first generation of Everest climbers, who, between 1921-24, reached within a thousand feet of the summit clad in Donegal tweed jackets, woollen scarves, Shetland pullovers and hob-nailed boots.
Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.