Long before an online search could produce a million hits on Mount Everest in seconds, and a crowd began gathering at its base each climbing season, the mountain was the subject of intrigue for people around the world. There were questions aplenty—was this the highest mountain in the world? If so, how high was it and where exactly was it?
In the 18th century, Chimborazo (6,263m) in the Andes held that distinction. But later attempts at measuring the Himalayan giants made it evident that the highest peak lay somewhere in this range. The honour initially belonged to Nanda Devi (7,848m), in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region, then to Kangchenjunga (8,588m), on the Sikkim border with Nepal. But all that changed with the discovery, around 1850, of Peak XV, today known as Everest.
This was a time of science, research and exploration, with a dash of espionage. By 1921, when the first British expedition approached Everest, it had been established that this was indeed the world’s highest mountain. The thrilling decades leading up to that first climb are what American writer Craig Storti unravels in his new book, The Hunt For Mount Everest.
“These were the years mountaineering matured as an avocation and eventually a profession, with the Himalaya becoming the increasing centre of attention as climbers sought ever-higher peaks,” he tells me. “Everest, of course, was always going to be the ultimate goal, and the English, due to their presence in India and their growing mastery of mountaineering, were uniquely placed to be at the centre of all the action.”
The first authentic account of mountain climbing goes back to 1760. These adventures in the Alps culminated in the ascent of Mont Blanc, 26 years later. But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that alpinism gained momentum, with the British at the heart of these early efforts. They honed their skills on the modest crags in their backyard but dreamt of scaling some of the biggest peaks in the Alps. By the time the golden era of alpinism came to an end, with the ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, English climbers like Edward Whymper and Alfred Wills had done enough to inspire a generation from their homeland.
“It is counter-intuitive that the British became such excellent mountaineers. It probably has to do with their superiority at rock climbing—rocks were all they had—since even in the Himalaya, rock- climbing skills were as important as experience on snow and ice. The latter they acquired in the Alps, since they had none at home,” says Storti.
In India, British surveyor William Lambton established the Great Trigonometrical Survey in 1802. He came up with the idea of mapping the length and breadth of the subcontinent, an exercise that took enterprise and persistence over many decades. Starting at the tip of peninsular India, he laid the foundation of survey work; his successors slowly made their way north, towards the Himalaya.
“The French were among the pioneers of surveying but the British eventually caught up with them by the middle of the 19th century. I think what made the British so good at surveying was the expanding need to map the various pieces of their ever-growing empire, as surveying is key to mapping,” Storti explains.
The mapping effort extended to determining the heights of some of the mountains that towered on the northern reaches of India. A number of contenders emerged time and again but once Peak XV took centre stage, it had surveyors across the country working overtime to tally their calculations.
By the time the Alpine Club, the first mountaineering club, was set up in London in 1857, a revolt had broken out in India. It ended with the British firmly in control. By then, years of meticulous calculations had also helped surveyors arrive at the height of Peak XV, which was soon christened Everest after surveyor George Everest. It had been established as the highest in the world. For the British, the next logical step was to find it and climb it.
The skills and gear were in place. But the sheer size of the mountains and complex terrain of the Himalaya was very different from ranges that had been explored till then. There were, moreover, a number of unknowns, given that both Tibet and Nepal were out of bounds for the climbers. The first step then was to find a way in, a task that needed just the right balance between diplomacy and arm-twisting.
The British were already at the heart of “the Great Game”—a territorial battle to take control of land and define borders between British India and the Russian empire. The struggle that had started out around Central Asia moved towards the east, with Tibet at the heart of the action. In 1903, British officer and explorer Francis Younghusband led the Tibet Frontier Commission to establish a dialogue on border and trade matters. The effort was doomed; the British essentially forced themselves into Tibet, leading to a massacre of defenceless Tibetans. The commission, however, paved the way for future exploration around Everest.
“The conquest of Tibet, one of the last acts of the Great Game, is what led to the British having the greatest influence of any foreign power in the region, hence first claim, as it were, on any mountaineering in the Everest region,” Storti says. Though World War I forced a pause in exploration activity, its end set the stage for the first attempt on the world’s highest mountain. “With respect to Everest itself, the initial motivation in the 1920s was to redeem England’s national honour after the country’s disastrous performance and horrendous loss of life during World War I,” Storti adds.
His book makes it clear why the British called Everest “their mountain”—they essentially discovered it, figured it was the highest in the world and then made multiple attempts to climb it, a fascination that culminated in its first ascent in 1953. Storti provides an intimate portrait of the characters who contributed to this engrossing chapter in the mountain’s history. While a number of books have been written on the different subjects the book touches upon, Storti puts it all together. It is a prequel of sorts to recent books written on this era of Everest climbing, such as Scott Ellsworth’s The World Beneath Their Feet and Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole.
Storti patiently delves into the contributions of a generation of surveyors, starting with Lambton, highlights the derring-do of soldiers of the Raj, such as Younghusband and Cecil Rawling, and the exploits of legendary mountaineers such as Whymper, Alexander Kellas and George Mallory. Along the way, he also makes a few discoveries of his own.
“My personal favourite is Alexander Kellas, the gentle Scottish professor who quietly went about becoming the greatest climber of his generation. He was so much the opposite of the many colourful, larger-than-life personalities that he attracts attention and admiration in contrast. It doesn’t hurt that the story of Kellas culminates in a shocking climax late in the book,” Storti says.
“The fact that I was not aware of—and that almost no one else knew or has ever included in their accounts of the Everest story—is that for 19 years, 1911-30, Kellas held the record for the highest summit ever reached when he climbed Pauhunri. For years that record has been assigned to others but the mistake was corrected in 2011 by Kellas’ biographers, Ian Mitchell and George Rodway, as described in my book,” he says.
Storti’s page-turner is crisp and intriguing, an easy read for anyone who is drawn to Everest.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.