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The First Expedition to Everest Wasn’t Sure Where the Mountain Was

Mount Everest was identified as the world's tallest mountain in the 1850s. A new book asks why it took nearly 70 years for any known explorers to visit the mountain?

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My book, The Hunt for Mount Everest, answers a simple question: What took so long?

Everest was known to be the highest point on earth as early as 1853. And mountaineering celebrated its “Golden Age”—in the Alps, at least—in the mid-1860s. So why did it take nearly 70s years, until 1921, before any known explorers tried to climb it?

In brief, the pre-history of Everest is the story of the Great Game, the 75-year rivalry between Russia and England for control of Central Asia which culminated with the disastrous British invasion of Tibet in 1904, an event sparked by rumors of Russians in Lhasa. Tibet was simply too close to India, Britain’s prize possession, for the British to tolerate Russian influence in the country—real or imaginary. (To their embarrassment, the British did not find any Russians there, though they did find three Russian-made rifles.) Only seventeen years after the invasion did the Tibetan government, then wholly independent from China, finally grant Britain permission to send an expedition to Everest… assuming, of course, that the Brits could find it.

The Hunt ends with the thrilling story of the 1921 expedition, led by Lt. Colonel Charles Howard-Bury and featuring the soon-to-be-celebrity George Mallory and the brilliant and all-but-forgotten Scottish chemist Alexander Kellas.

When the party—consisting of nine Brits and untold numbers of porters, guides, and mules—departed from Darjeeling, in the Himalayan foothills, in April 1921, they weren’t even sure that Everest was where it was rumored to be. No known explorer had yet been within 40 miles of the mountain.

—Craig Storti

This excerpt from The Hunt For Mount Everest by Craig Storti describes the 1921 British Everest Expedition’s arduous approach to Everest. At the time, Nepal was closed to British visitors, so the expedition approached through Sikkim, a state in northeastern India, and thence into Tibet.

For the first two weeks, making their way north across Sikkim, they struggled mightily with the elements, their mood alternating between exhaustion and exhilaration. The elements in question, all magnified by the monsoon, were threefold: the heat, the rain, and, because of the rain, the worst element of all—the mud. As for the heat, the Teesta Valley was the epitome of a teeming tropical rainforest, brutally humid and oppressive, the canopy so thick the men never saw the sun or the sky when they were down by the river. Both Howard-Bury and Wheeler commented on how the stunning butterflies the valley was famous for “made us forget the fact that we were dripping with perspiration from every pore”. They would have stripped off much of their clothing but for the threat of mosquitoes and leeches.

The rain was to be expected, but it was almost nonstop, often more than an inch in a single day. The men got used to being drenched and looked forward to the late afternoons when they could at last get under cover in the bungalows. At night the downpours often continued. “[T]his land of marvellous scenery has a terrible drawback in weather,” an earlier British traveller along the Teesta observed.

The traveller has really to undergo great hardships. The mist and rain are provoking beyond the power of description. He has to march in the wet, to unpack his tent in the wet, to lie down to sleep in the wet, to pack up again in the wet; and for hours and sometimes for days together he lives in the wet….! It will be seen, therefore, that Sikkim rejoices in a climate which, though extremely favorable for vegetation, is particularly rigorous as regards mankind.

Men can still walk when they’re sweating and they can walk when they’re drenched, but when the trail becomes mud, walking turns into tumbling, falling, and sliding. In some places the Lhasa route was covered in smooth stones precisely to prevent mudslides, but in other places it was just dirt, which the monsoon torrents turned into rivers of mud in minutes. “The best description I can give of the spot at the time we passed,” Douglas Freshfield wrote of his passage through the Teesta Valley a few years before the 1921 expedition, “would be a moving hillside. The whole surface of the mountain was more or less in motion; mud was slipping and sliding in streams, along which rocks rumbled and tumbled at intervals in an extremely disagreeable and somewhat hazardous manner….”

The 1921 Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition team members. Taken at 17,300 advanced base camp. The expedition’s ninth member, Alexander Kellas, died of heart failure during the approach. (Public domain)

Another challenge were the famous Teesta leeches at the lower altitudes, which no traveller who ever walked along the banks of that river ever failed to mention. The surveyor Wheeler called them “nasty little brutes about the thickness of a match and three-quarters of an inch long, they sit on the stones in the thousands and wave at you as you pass and crawl through the boot-lace eyelets of the unwary.” The renowned botanist Dr. Joseph Hooker encountered “legion[s] of leeches” on his trip through the valley. “[T]he bite of these blood-suckers gives no pain, but is followed by considerable effusion of blood. They puncture through thick worsted stockings, and even trousers, and, when full, roll in the form of a little soft ball into the bottom of the shoe….”  For his part, Howard-Bury was more worried about the threat to the mules. The leeches sat on “most of the stones and blades of grass beside the path …waiting for their meal of blood and clung on to any mule or human being that passed by. The mules suffered severely and drops of blood on the stones became frequent from the bleeding wounds.”

Serrated by numerous east-west ridges, the terrain of Sikkim was yet another challenge. Most days saw a descent of two or three thousand feet, sometimes even more, often followed by an ascent of equal length. “[W]e had a very wet and trying march to Rongli,” Howard-Bury wrote of their third day out. “The distance was only 12 miles, but this included a very steep descent of over 3,000 feet to the bottom of a steamy valley, followed by a climb of 3,000 feet across an intervening ridge, and then down another 2,000 feet to the…bungalow”.

The terse entries in Guy Bullock’s diary tell the story:

20 May: Arrived Kalimpong (4,100 feet) crossed Teesta bridge (710 feet). Rained heavily during morning.

21 May: Gradual rise to 9,400 and descent to 4,800 at Pedong.

Sunday 22nd: Pedong to Ari. Steep descent down rough paved road from Pedong and equally steep to Ari which is two or 3,000 feet below the pass. Left 8:25, bottom of valley 9:45. Reached top of pass, walking alone, in two hours steady pace, 3,000 ft.

Tuesday 24th: Ari to Padamchen 6,500 feet. Pleasant descent to Rongli. From there follow valley to Padamchen. Steep ascent last 2,000 feet after crossing stream.

Wed. 25th: To Gnatong (12,000) 9 miles walked. Steep climb about 4,000 feet.

Thursday 26th. Gnatong to Kupup, 5 miles, 12,000 ft. Very stormy night of rain.

Taxing and trying as they were, the heat, the rain, the leeches, and the rollercoaster terrain were all anticipated and not new for most of the team members, except Mallory and Bullock who had no experience of the tropics. What was not anticipated and potentially more serious was the complete and almost immediate breakdown of the entire cohort of government mules. Simply said, lowland mules used to the relatively flat plains of India were completely unsuited to the elevation, the heat, and the steep climbs and precipitous descents of Sikkim, and they began to suffer from the first day. In some places the slopes were said to be as steep as the sides of a house. “When you put 160 pounds (or more) on a mule’s back,” Mallory wrote, “and ask him to go, he doesn’t like it.” On the sixth day Howard-Bury ordered all the mule sent back to Darjeeling. After Sedongchen (day 6) the expedition used a combination of Tibetan mules, ponies, bullocks, taks, zohs (hybrid yak and cow), and donkeys, depending on what was locally available.

Kharta, Tibet. A map showing many approaches taken by the 1921 reconnaissance expedition. (public domain)

If exhaustion and frustration was one major theme of these first few days, exhilaration was the other, owing almost exclusively to a single factor: the spectacular flora of the Sikkimese valleys and hillsides. At the lowest elevations, along the banks of the Teesta, the men marched through the impossibly lush tropical rainforests with 200 kinds of ferns and where “every inch of soil is fought over by flowering weeds and shrubs…and every forked bough or hollow trunk is seized on by parasitical ferns and orchids.” Here the trail was so overgrown it was often hard to make out, a plush carpet of moss, creepers, pothos, pepper vines, primulas, caladiums, kolacasias, convolvulus (morning glory), and begonias growing out of every rock. Overhead was a towering canopy of rainforest trees: palms, pandanus, stands of bamboo, banana trees, sal trees, terminalia, giant tree ferns, orange trees.

“The magnificent forests of Sikkim are righty famous,” one chronicler writes.

Arborescent ferns grow literally to the stature of trees, and the trees themselves rise to a height of 150 feet [46m]. Some of them are smooth-trunked, others are covered in thick, fleece-like masses of white [flowers]. Pepper plants and tropical creepers twine together and sprawl from branch to branch, curl themselves into tangled skeins and then reach out again, coil here and there around festoons of blossom or hang down to the ground like long ropes. So dense is the foliage that it forms a sort of natural crypt, within which everything is shrouded in a semi-darkness made still more eerie by a mist which makes solid objects appear to recede and blurs every outline, while general humidity turns the entire forest into a soggy, dripping mass of reeking vegetation.

And there were the orchids, everywhere, over 450 varieties—most from the Coelogene, Dendrobium, and Cymbidium families—mauve, white, yellow, pink, scarlet, some on the forest floor but most spilling out of forks in the trees, dangling from the climbing vines, creepers and trailing mosses, or poking out from beneath the maiden ferns, many with sprays of blossoms a foot and a half long. There were also purple irises, white roses, scarlet hibiscus, and Himalayan blue poppies. “It has been the day for flowers,” Mallory wrote Ruth on the 24th, “so much beyond words to describe that it…makes me weep to think I convey nothing to you, or almost nothing.”

Panoramas of Everest taken during the 1921 expedition.

Craig Storti is the author of 11 books. His travel articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times, and his book Why Travel Matters has just been released in paperback. He is the founder and director of Communicating Across Cultures, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm.