A History of Mount Everest

History of Mount Everest: Nepalese on Chomo Lonzo Mountain

Combining photographs, films, and artefacts from the expeditions leading up to and including the earliest successful attempt to climb the colossal mountain that the Tibetan people call the ‘Mother Goddess of the World’, this exhibition explores the many facets of Mount Everest.

A History of Mount Everest – The First Expedition

The centennial of the first reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1921 has been celebrated throughout the year to explore the history, resolute characters, unsung heroes – including Tibetan and Nepalese Sherpas – and changing technologies of the initial attempts to climb the tallest mountain on earth. Organised by the Royal Geographical Society with IBG archives (RGS), this travelling exhibition is curated by Wade Davis, the award-winning author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, to commemorate 100 years since the first expedition to Mount Everest in 1921. It explores, in intimate detail, the three Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society expeditions from the 1920s.

Sir Francis Younghusband

Reconnaisance of the Everest region was extremely difficult and dangerous, as Tibet had historically refused entry to foreigners, possible due to Sir Francis Younghusband’s (1863-1942) imperial and exploratory activities, which culminated in his ‘Mission to Lhasa’ and the subsequent 1904 Treaty of Lhasa.

Born in India, Younghusband had a career in the British Army and was later seconded to the Indian Army to become an active participant in The Great Game, which played out over the 19th and early 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. Younghusband’s past experience in scientific observations made him a most suitable candidate to undertake these reconaissance tasks.

In 1903, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, appointed Younghusband as head of the Tibet Frontier Commission and he subsequently led the 1903-04 British expedition to Tibet, whose putative aim was to settle disputes over the Sikkim-Tibet border, but by exceeding instructions from London, the expedition controversially became a de facto invasion of Tibet. Some accounts estimated that more than 5,000 Tibetans were killed during the campaign, while the total number of British casualties was about five. In 1906, he returned to India to become the British Resident in Kashmir before returning to England in 1909.

In 1919, Younghusband was elected President of the Royal Geographical Society, and two years later became chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, which was set up to coordinate the initial 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest. He actively enouraged the climber George Mallory to attempt this first ascent of the mountain and the expedition followed the same initial route as the earlier Tibet Mission undertaken by Younghusband himself.

The 1921 Expedition

The aim of the 1921 expedition was to explore how it might be possible to get to the vicinity of Mount Everest, to reconnoitre possible routes for ascending the mountain, and – if possible – make the first ascent of the highest mountain in the world. At that time Nepal was still closed to foreigners, so any approach had to be from the north, through Tibet. Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury (1881-1963) led the 1921 expedition and George Mallory, who had never before been to the Himalayas, was included in the team. Both became extraordinary photographers. As events were to turn out, Mallory became the de facto lead climber.

As President of the RGS, Younghusband had publicly stated that the expedition was ‘admirably equipped for the acquirement of knowledge. But acquirement of knowledge was not the only object which the expedition had in view. It could not be doubted that the region would possess beauty of exceptional grandeur, so it was hoped that the expedition would discover, describe and reveal to us, by camera and pen, beauty no less valuable than knowledge’.

Early Photography of Mount Everest

Following these criteria, Howard-Bury wrote a book about the expedition, Mount Everest, the Reconnaissance, 1921 and also took many of the spectacular photographs of the journey, including the people, places, and culture of the area. These early photographs are now part of the RGS’s wider collection of over 20,000 Everest images. They are also a critically important source of historical documentation for the Tibetan and Nepali peoples – the Everest archive at the Society holds some of the first photographs of people in the region – as well as being a valuable tool for wider research. Taken by George Mallory, Charles Howard-Bury, Alexander Wollaston and Edward Oliver Wheeler with Abdul Jalil Khan, the photographs were originally intended to complement the purpose of the expedition – to carry out new and more detailed survey work in the region. However, the aesthetic quality of these images – among the first to document  Everest – is remarkable.  The collection also includes some of the finest panoramic photographs of any high mountain region ever taken.

The Abominable Snowman

Howard-Bury was also responsible for one of the most well-known legends of the mountains … he had found many large footprints at high altitude on the mountain, which he later attributed to a metch kangmi (filthy snowman).  It was at this time that Henry Newman of The Statesman in Calcutta (now Kolkata) obtained descriptions from the expedition’s porters on their return to Darjeeling. The mountaineer Bill Tilman has claimed that Newman mistranslated metch kangmi as ‘abominable snowman’, hence the phrase linked to this mythical animal came into existence after the 1921 expedition.

Other famous Himalayan legends also have their origins in the region. The Nepali village of Pangboche is quite close to the base of Mount Everest and is now a stopping point on the most heavily used route for climbers and trekkers on their way to Everest Base Camp and is considered to be a holy place. According to legend, Lama Sangwa Dorjee, who brought Buddhism to the region in the 17th century, flew over the Himalayas and landed on a rock at Pangboche, leaving his footprints in the stone and founding several monasteries there. The monastery at Pangboche is the oldest monastery attributed to either Lama Sangwa Dorjee or one of his incarnations. It is also famous for being the home of a fragmentary mummified hand that is said to have come from a Yeti. The yeti are well-known characters amongst high-Himalaya population. The Pangboche hand was treated as a ritual object that was connected to the luck and safety of the monastery. Other monasteries in the region also have yeti relics which served similar purposes, for example, a yeti skullcap housed at the Khumjung monastery.

Sherpa Culture

Sherpas are probably the best- known group of this high-Himalaya population that first settled in the Khumbu Region near Everest around the 1530s. The first monasteries were built around 100 years later, first in Pangboche and immediately after in Thame and Rimijung (Gumela). Living in close proximity to the world’s highest mountains, the Sherpas traditionally treated the Himalayas as sacred – building Buddhist monasteries at their base, placing prayer flags on the slopes, and establishing sanctuaries for the wildlife of the valleys. Gods and demons were believed to live in the high peaks, and the Yeti was said to roam the lower slopes. For these reasons, the Sherpas traditionally did not climb the mountains and kept to their traditions of farming. However, this would drastically change in the 20th century with the advent of climbers flocking to the high peaks of the Himalayas and the constant demand for porters and guides.

The Sherpas seem to have long been adherents of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, ‘the ancient translation school’, the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which extends back to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet during the 8th century. While the Nyingmapas are united by a common history and much shared doctrine, theirs is for the most part a heterogeneous and even somewhat anarchic sect: each regional tradition adheres to the rites revealed by a given Nyingmapa visionary; with the passage of the centuries hundreds of such visionaries have appeared in Tibet. Sherpa Buddhism adopted its modern form when, shortly before 1850, a number of Sherpa village priests travelled to Tibet to study with the great Trakar Choki Wangchuk, a figure well-known from the Tibetan historical and biographical literature of the period. Choki Wangchuk instructed them in a number of ritual and meditational cycles which have remained popular throughout the villages of Solu-Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland whose northern boundaries are marked by Mount Everest.

Sherpas also played a part in the 1921 British expeditions onwards. With the the introduction of oxygen in 1922, it seemed a promising addition to the climber’s tools. Sadly, this was stopped when two fatal later expeditions put all efforts to climb Everest on ice once again. As things improved, the advent of radio in 1933 made communication on the mountain possible for the first time.

The 1953 Expedition and the History of Mount Everest

However, in the history of Mount Everest, it was not until 1953 that Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary would crest the mountain’s final summit to see the entire world in panorama. Much of the credit for how life in Khumbu has improved is owed to Hillary, universally respected until his death in 2008 for his efforts to build schools and health clinics and raise living standards. While interest in climbing Everest grew over the decades after the first ascent, it was not until the 1990s that the pressing economic motives of commercial guiding on Everest began to eclipse the amateur impetus of traditional mountaineering – and a change of spirit totally engulfed the mountain – Mother Goddess of the World.

This exhibition exploring the history of Mount Everest opens 12 February to 28 August, 2022, Bowers Museum, California, bowers.org. A collectors’ edition, Everest From Reconnaissance to Summit, 1921 to 1953, edited by Peter Gillman, has been published by the Folio Society to mark the occasion, £199.