by Joanna Wright
Like many learned societies throughout the world, the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) is home to a large collection of archives that record and chart the life of the institution, its subject, and its members. This Society, since being founded in 1831, has made a conscientious effort to collect maps, books, documents, and photography relating to its history and to geography, and today has amassed a collection of over two million items, which provides an outstanding resource and a valuable research tool.
Amidst this copious mass of material lies a unique collection relating to the world’s highest mountain, the Everest Archive. Since the 1850s, when Everest was first identified as the tallest peak in the world, members of the Society have sought to reach this space, to know this mountain: Here at the Society’s headquarters of Lowther Lodge can be found the traces of that pursuit. In numerous drawers, boxes, files, and containers, lie documents, letters, receipts, charts, drawings, maps, and photo-graphs connected solely with the pursuit of climbing, map-ping, and understanding this mountain. It is a tangible body of evidence for it provides details that bring to life the early stories of Everest in the form of letters and telegrams; lists of the food and equipment taken; diaries and passports; and general paperwork and housekeeping details.
The Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club formed a joint committee in 1920 called the Mount Everest Committee (MEC), which in turn became the Joint Himalayan Committee (1947). The objective of the MEC was twofold: to reach the summit of Everest, and to research its distinctive environment. Between 1921 and 1953, the MEC sent out nine expeditions to research and climb Everest, a mountain which at that time was in one of the most inaccessible places on earth. The North Pole and South Pole had both been reached successfully before any Westerner had laid a foot near Everest’s rocks and glaciers. For a time, Everest was even called the Third Pole, as it had become a defined space in the Victorians’ minds that needed to be won. The Everest Archive is part of the Victorian legacy of Empire. They believed the world could be theirs and to make it so required them to conquer and survey it. The documentation and knowledge of far-flung regions brought back to such learned institutions as the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society were made available to discerning minds and later archived.
When members of these Mount Everest expeditions, as they became known, finally reached the deified space in 1921 they were keen to record their memory of the mountain and of the people who live in its shadow. Everesters used the camera as one of their tools and today the Society holds approximately 20,000 images taken during the nine expeditions, a unique legacy. Today, work is in progress to curate and catalog these images onto one electronic database, which will be available to the public. However, it would be impossible to show all of this material in one publication. The intention of this book is to provide the reader with a unique selection of photographs from the Everest Archive that is informative, arresting, and beautiful.
The excitement and magic of seeing Everest for the first time at close quarters can be felt in the words of George Mallory during the 1921 Mount Everest Expedition:
"Mountain shapes are often fantastic seen through a mist: these were like the wildest creation of a dream … Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain sides and glaciers and arкtes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared."
Mountain areas have not always been considered places of beauty or exaltation, as described by Mallory. They were not places where one went to be motivated or enlightened. They were once terrible places, places our imagination feared, where demons lived. It is really only in the past two centuries that our ideas of mountainous regions have changed from places to be traveled through as quickly as possible to places we want to go to and spend time. So too have the language and art that represent them changed. Notions of the sublime imbue many of the photographic representations of mountains. The developing science of photography was combined with Romantic notions, and numerous photographers went out into the world to record the mountains as “temples of grandeur.” From early photographs by the Bisson Brothers taken in the Alps (1860s), images by Vittorio Sella (1859–1943) of the Caucasus and the Himalayas, through to the iconic pictures of North America by Ansel Adams (1902–1984), mountain landscapes are part of Western ideas of splendor and refuge, spaces for recuperation, places to awaken the soul. The camera has been carried to the highest points to capture these ideas of the sublime and bring them back for us to see and connect with.
In his book The Story of Everest (1927, published in Britain as Through Tibet to Everest), team member and photographer of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions Capt. J. B. Noel (“St. Noel of the Cameras,” as Brig.-Gen. Bruce referred to him) ponders the magnitude of the task of producing images that really show what he describes as the “power and majesty of the mountains.” Noel comments that he needed all his physical strength and artistic ability to produce images that conveyed the reality of Everest to an audience, for “to dabble fatuously in trivialities in face of Everest’s grandeur would be sacrilege.”
It is interesting to note that Noel took some 25,000 cigarettes with him to keep his photographic porters happy while he aimed for the perfect picture.
Photography always has been an important component of Mount Everest expeditions. Even today it would be hard to imagine an expedition without a camera. Since the birth of photography, explorers have understood the “added value” of imagery and how it is a useful device in constructing the visual narrative to their tales of adventure and exploration.
The expeditions to Everest were no exception. From the first Everest expedition onward, cameras and the paraphernalia required were part of the equipment factored into the logistics of climbing the mountain. For the porters it was certainly a heavy load, from cameras to lenses, glass-plate negatives, tripods, and chemicals. These early expeditions took all that was needed both to expose and to develop pictures on the mountain; they also encountered technical difficulties with the apparatus. Lt.-Col. Howard Bury was “gassed” by fumes from the fixing agent used to develop negatives, and lost his voice for several days. George Mallory put the negative plates back to front in the camera he was operating and writes about his frustration on discovering his mistake: “It was a depressing evening. I thought of the many wonderful occasions when I had caught the mountain as I thought just at the right moment, its moments of most lovely splendor—of all those moments that would never return and of the record of all we had seen which neither ourselves nor perhaps anyone else would ever see again.”
Mallory and Guy Bullock reconnoitered high to take these pictures. Both soon learned that the most effective way to climb was to listen to their breathing and to consciously breathe hard. With every step, the in-breath and the out-breath was thought through. Almost meditatively they listened to their breathing to reach these lofty elevations. On looking at images of Everest one can almost hear the arduous breaths of the photographer behind every photograph.
Mallory famously disappeared with Andrew Irvine near the summit of Everest in 1924. Whether they did or did not reach the summit is still being questioned today. Several expeditions in recent years have hunted for the elusive camera and film anticipating they would hold some proof of what happened to the pair. The photographic record is seen as tangible evidence; there is still the faint hope of seeing through the lens of the camera the image last seen by Mallory’s eyes.
Though images have been lost, some forever, we do have the legacy of those that remain. These photographs were taken by a disparate group of men from naturalists to climbers, doctors of medicine to army generals, and there are fascinating differences in how each saw and recorded his time on or near the mountain. Often it is the small but significant detail that leaps out at us, for instance, in the image of “Everest from a camp at 20,000 feet” taken by A. F. R. Wollaston. Everest sits majestic in the background, with a small, inconsequential camp in the foreground. To the left sits a lone chair set out at a short distance from the camp. Lt.-Col. Howard Bury wrote of how he and the others sat and watched the extraordinary sight of Everest from this camp for some time, transfixed by the mountain and the “plume of smoke” created by wind-blown snow at the summit. The small detail of the chair captures the imagination and allows viewers to escape into the image, to take the seat themselves, to hear and see Everest.
These early images of Everest are quite astonishing in their ability to transport the viewer to another time and place.
They are also important as historical documents for the Tibetan and Nepali peoples. Everest, located on the border of Tibet and Nepal, was inaccessible from Nepal before World War II, as this hidden Himalayan kingdom did not allow access to Western visitors. Tibet, under the spiritual and temporal leadership of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama, was more amenable. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Dalai Lama gave access to the North Face of Everest, which required journeying through Sikkim and Tibet. Climbing Everest gave members an opportunity to see a previously “blank space on the map” and to meet the
people who inhabited it. Maps of Everest today are compiled from the early survey work carried out on these expeditions. Team members first learned about the landscape that surrounds Everest by talking with the local Tibetans. Everesters commented that initially their questions regarding distances received responses that did not make sense when plotted onto the map they were compiling. It soon transpired that distance was measured in cups of tea, with three cups of tea equaling approximately 5 miles. Having once made this translation, team members found it easier to calculate their journeys.
The Everest Archive holds some of the first photographs of the people in this region of Tibet. Even at the time the photographs were taken, members of the expedition realized the importance of photography in their relationships and encounters with Tibetans. Howard Bury wrote:
"…and here I photographed a group of several monks. They had never seen a camera or photographs before, but they had heard that such a thing was possible and were very much interested in it. Before leaving we went in to see the Head Lama who had lived over sixty-six years in this monastery. He was looked upon as being extremely holy … After much persuasion the other monks induced him to come outside and have his photograph taken, telling him he was an old man, and that his time on earth was short, and they would like to have a picture to remember him by … The fame of this photograph spread throughout the country and in places hundreds of miles away I was asked for photographs of the Old Abbot."
Tibetans embraced photography and were happy to oblige team members by posing for them. These images have contributed to how we see Tibet and Tibetans even today—as a place and a people set outside time. In the early 1950s the Chinese closed the door of Tibet to the West, preventing any further attempts on Everest from the North Face for many years. A new route would have to be found. Using photographs from the 1920s and 1930s and aerial images taken during a covert flight by RAF Flight Lieutenant Neame in 1947, new information about the south side of Everest was gleaned—the face that lay inside Nepal’s border.
As Tibet closed, Nepal slowly opened its border and gave access to a steadily increasing number of Western climbers and visitors, to what has in our minds come to be a “Shangri-La.” Today, images abound of Nepal’s architecture of Buddhist sites, the fertile paddy steps, and the magnificent Himalayan peaks.
Until the 1950s, it was a remote country and very little of it had been photographed. The last two Mount Everest Expeditions sent by the Joint Himalayan Committee were given unprecedented access, and the images from the Everest Archive show areas such as the Solu Khumbu before the advent of mass tourism. Thus the Everest Archive is an important record for the Tibetan and Nepali peoples; how they see these images and use them is yet to be seen.
By the turn of the twentieth century there were various ways of producing color photographs, such as the Autochrome process and Paget plates. These processes were not used on Everest, possibly because of the technical difficulties involved. The predominance of black-and-white images in the Everest Archive is obvious; it was a proven method of producing images. Captain Noel, however, was not satisfied and wanted to show the Tibetan landscape and its people in color to the audiences to which he lectured. During his time in Tibet, Noel laboriously collected information about the colors he encountered using watercolors and an American color chart, and on his return he meticulously hand-colored his lecture set of lantern slides.
Noel entranced many audiences with his lantern-slide lecture, the materials of which have been carefully preserved since his death by his daughter Sandra Noel. A number of these hand-colored images are published here for the first time along with the first color transparencies taken during the 1930s by Everest expedition members Frank Smythe and Charles Warren. These rare color images bring Everest to life and provide a new perspective.
From the 1950s color photography was beginning to be used widely by the general public, and Alfred Gregory, official photographer of the 1953 expedition, used it extensively and encouraged other team members to do so as well. The most striking difference between the color images and the black-and-white is to be seen in the color blue. At high altitude the sky becomes a pulsatingly electric blue and the images transmit this stimulating light back to the viewer.
The most famous image of Everest is that taken by Sir Edmund Hillary of Tenzing Norgay on the summit
at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953; it sums up more than 30 years of tenacious endeavor to reach this pinnacle. It also provides clues to understanding how Everest has become a byword for success and achievement. Edmund Hillary wrote of that moment:
“I had carried my camera, loaded with colour film, inside my shirt to keep it warm, so I now produced it and got Tenzing to pose for me on the top, waving his ice-axe on which was a string of flags—British, Nepalese, United Nations, and Indian. Then I turned my attention to the great stretch of country lying below us.”
There is no picture of Hillary on the summit, a fact often unknown to picture researchers. Tenzing did not know how to use a camera and, as Hillary pointed out, it was not the moment to teach him! Importantly, however, Hillary also took a panorama from the summit of the view below, almost as proof that they had reached the summit. Indeed it would have been easy to forge an image of a member of the team, zipped in a feathered jacket and goggled up on what looks to be a compact pinnacle of snow with the indigo-blue void behind. But to simulate a complete view from the roof of the world would have been impossible. These images allow us to gaze across the Himalayas—snaking glaciers, outcrops of bare rock, pure white snow, and billowing clouds—a vast magnitude of space taken from a tiny but highly significant point of the earth’s surface that had finally been reached.
If they had not had a camera with them, would we have believed that they had reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world? This is an important question to ask as it allows us to reflect on the other images from the Everest Archive. These images provide a platform to understanding how the Western gaze on Everest has developed and been redefined again and again, creating a place in which we have invested our hopes and fears. Since few of us have been to the Himalayas, the only way we have come to feel connected to the Everest story is through the images that we have seen published in books, magazines, and on television. For the majority of us, photography is a way of traveling to see the highest mountain in the world.
It is important to think of the Everest Archive as a group of fragments. No archive of documents, however well collected and organized, can paint the whole picture. What this archive provides is a gateway to glimpsing the people who have become part of the story of the mountain; it allows us to make connections and to understand the world they inhabited, to which we are all in some way inextricably linked.
© 2003 Joanna Wright, Royal Geographical Society