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‘The Hunt for Mount Everest’ review: The giant among pygmies

For most climbers and armchair mountaineers, the history of Everest begins with an Indian surveyor named Radhanath Sikdar rushing into the office of the Surveyor General of India around the 1850s, and announcing “Sir, I have found the highest mountain in the world!” Craig Storti in his opening chapter ‘Peak XV’ casts doubts on this story and attributes the discovery of the Everest to Surveyor General Andrew Waugh jointly with John Hennessey and Sikdar.

In 1921, around 70 odd years later, the British launched the first expedition to find the route to the mountain. But, the extraordinary events which took place in between remain largely unknown, other than through some books on Tibet, the Great Game and early Himalayan expeditions.

Audacious mission

In his book, Storti brings it all together and conjures up a racy narrative with larger than life characters that tells this story starting with an audacious mission to Lhasa in 1903 by Sir Francis Younghusband, which in fact unlocked the key for the British to claim Everest as their own mountain.

In 1893, Younghusband and Charles Bruce were walking across the polo grounds in Chitral on the North West Frontier when they conjured up a plan to sneak into Tibet and explore the region around Everest. This plan finally saw the light of day in 1921.

Lord Curzon, who arrived in India in 1899 as Viceroy, was instrumental in sending the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. Curzon remained obsessed with Tibet and was a part of the Great Game between Britain and Russia. He was determined to reach Tibet before the Russians did. In 1904 Younghusband finally entered Lhasa, but not before the British troops had mowed down hapless Tibetans using machine gun fire at a spot called Guru, south of Gyantse.

From 1904 to 1913, Storti chronicles the explorations of Cecil Rawling, John Noel and Alexander Kellas, three of the most important players in the early history of Everest.

Rawling was sent by Younghusband to cross and map 800 miles of Tibet in 1905. Rawling and map maker Charles Ryder, of the Survey of India, crossed a 5000-metre-pass, the Kura La, and were possibly the first Westerners to see Everest “towering up thousands of feet, a glittering pinnacle of snow... a giant amongst pygmies.” The expedition then dropped down to the Tingri plains which would later become the main route to the base of the mountain.

Captain John Noel, a gifted photographer and cinematographer, decided in 1913 without permission of the Lhasa Government to leave Darjeeling and search for Everest. Relying on the maps of Sarat Chandra Das, one of the Pundits, who had been into Tibet in 1887 and 1891, Noel entered Tibet through the Choten Nyima La in north Sikkim but was unfortunately stopped by the Dzongpen of Tinki and his men but not before Noel got a tantalising view of Mount Everest around 40 miles away.

A quiet hero

Alexander Kellas, the reticent Scottish chemist, has always been overshadowed by the likes of Mallory, Bruce and Norton, but Everest historian Walt Unsworth wrote of Kellas that “in terms of [the] Himalayan experience he was the greatest of all.”He undertook eight Himalayan expeditions between 1907 and 1921 and made five first ascents of peaks in north Sikkim including Pauhunri, Kangchenjau and Chomiomo, assisted solely by sherpa porters.

But the most fascinating part of Kellas’s journey was his photographs from the Kharta and Kama valleys east of Everest in 1913 even though there is no official record of his entering Tibet. These photographs were presented in a Royal Geographical Society lecture by John Noel in 1919, which fired the British imagination and set the ball rolling for the first expedition to Everest. Charles Bell, who was British India’s “de-facto ambassador to Tibet”, managed to convince the 13th Dalai Lama to grant permission to the British.

Storti’s fascinating tale comes to a climax with the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921. As George Mallory had said, “It would be necessary in the first place to find the mountain.”

The 1921 expedition did just that leaving Darjeeling on a wet May morning, entering leech-infested and rain-drenched Sikkim, crossing the Jelep La into the cool dry air of the Chumbi valley in Tibet, and travelling north and then west to Khamba Dzong, Tingri and finally up the Rongbuk valley. From this now famous viewpoint, Mallory and Bullock were the first westerners to see that huge uninterrupted view of the north face of Everest. 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.”

In the final chapter, Storti brings to life the oft overlooked role of Oliver Wheeler, the map maker, who discovered the approach to the north col of Everest, 7020 metres, through the East Rongbuk Glacier which was the highest point reached by the expedition.

Immaculately researched and presented, The Hunt for Mount Everest, which was 40 years in the making, fills a valuable gap in the early history of Everest and is recommended reading for all Everest historians and aficionados.

The Hunt for Mount Everest; Craig Storti, John Murray Press/ Hachette, ₹699.

The reviewer is an avid trekker and author of Everest, Reflections on the Solukhumbu.


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