‘Hunt the lion, climb the peak, No one guesses you are weak.’ – WH Auden
On the 8th or 9th of June 1924, on their final approach to Mount Everest’s summit, the tiny, gabardine-clad figures of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared forever into a bank of clouds. On hearing the news, the ministers of Tibet had had enough. Permission to access Everest would never be granted again, they wrote to the British Undersecretary in Gangtok. Should His Excellency hear that the members of the Everest Committee, the body responsible for putting together expeditions, were preparing a new petition, he should, ‘please, kindly stop them.’
George Mallory was eulogised as a near ethereal being, a tragic and beautiful boy destined for the martyrdom that eluded him in the trenches of the Great War. Though Mallory’s legend would continue to grow, by the 1930s a more muscular mountaineering paragon was sought, one in which manhood, national vigour, and summit seeking became inextricably linked. While the expeditions of the 1920s were pitched as scientific pursuits, including botanists and geologists in their ranks, those of the 1930s largely limited themselves to climbers. With Everest inaccessible, English contenders turned their attention to other summits over 8,000 metres.
The men who now aspired to the highest Himalayan peaks were no longer Luftmenschen, men with their heads in the clouds and perhaps a death wish in their hearts, but Ubermenschen – thrusters. Climbing was no longer a search for the sublime but a means to assert the power of a nation over the power of nature to raise an obstacle beyond its reach. Germany led the way in this attitude, but England duly followed suit, albeit in the less bombastic register befitting an Empire that had prevailed in the Great War.
This was perhaps why the 1932 report of an American plane flying in the vicinity of Everest in the Madras Weekly so incensed Arthur Hinks, the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. The upstart Yanks had already been the first to fly over the poles but the idea of them anywhere near Everest was unacceptable. To curb America’s presumption, Hinks proposed that henceforth Germany’s mountaineering permit applications take precedence over any American ones.
He also pressed for permission from Nepal for a British flight and that Tibet be approached once more. Word came back: Nothing had changed. He persisted. If delicate reference were made to the still-missing bodies of Mallory and Irvine, might the Dalai Lama reconsider? A long silence followed.
Then, suddenly, not long after Nepal granted permission for an Everest flight, the wind shifted, the clouds opened, and the long hoped for vision of the mountaintop appeared.
‘Almost every nation on the face of the Earth is desirous of ascending the high mountains in the world,’ the Dalai Lama’s letter began. ‘[T]he British are also very anxious to ascend Mount Everest,’ he continued, before adding, undiplomatically: ‘They have tried twice, but so far they have failed.’ As the expected conquest of Everest was pitched as a means of overawing a restive India, another failure risked unmanning the Empire, rendering the King Emperor naked. But Hinks was certain the stars were now aligned. A meeting of the nearly moribund Mount Everest Committee was hastily assembled.
John Auden, the elder brother of the poet WH Auden, was immersed in a study of Himalayan tectonics when the new expedition was announced. Ever since he’d heard Mallory give a lecture about Everest at school, this had been his dream. He had hoped his work for the Geological Survey of India would secure him a spot. But when Bill Wager arrived in Calcutta in March 1933, Auden learned he hadn’t made the first cut. Not only did Wager, whom he had known at Cambridge, know nothing of Himalayan stratigraphy but it was his first trip to India. When Auden asked if there would be a geological survey, Wager replied with an unmistakable swagger that the talk was all about taking the summit. Apart from the RGS’s insistence that all Everest aspirants be Englishmen, Auden had wondered how the rest were chosen.
From the dozen assembled in London, three two-man parties would be picked. During the long trek from Darjeeling every climber was heavily scrutinised by the expedition leader, a retired district officer named Hugh Ruttledge. Eying their competition warily, each contestant did their best to appear hale and hearty. The final cut was announced at Base Camp. To console those who hadn’t made it, Ruttledge pointed out that if altitude sickness or, god forbid, accident took someone out, they might be called upon. Eric Shipton, a puckish 25-year-old assigned to the lead party, thought this tactless. It was typical of the war generation’s thinking to have an excess of young men on hand to throw at the battlements, while staying well to the rear themselves.
But for his triumphant summiting of Kamet, the highest peak ever climbed, Shipton’s climbing partner, Frank Smythe, might never have been considered. From an obscure public school Smythe went neither into the military, university, nor colonial service. Bill Wager, however, fit Hinks’ manly template to a T: a first-rate English public school, membership in the Cambridge Mountaineering Club, geological adventures in the Arctic, and a thruster’s keen hunger for the top.
Ruttledge had devised a strategy that divided the route to Everest’s summit into three stages. For the final stage, which included the siege of the summit, the chosen six carefully husbanded their energies, curling up in their sleeping bags and fanatically checking their basal pulses. Shipton joked that they would soon be getting bedsores. As they set off from Base Camp, however, Bill Wager was left behind. He had just made the third team and was keen to prove he was of the same stamp as the rest, but a case of the hill trots had waylaid him.
‘The mountain is not a slag heap as I had heard,’ Wager wrote from Base Camp on Expedition stationery, rubbing yet more salt in John Auden’s wounds. After trashing Ruttledge’s leadership, he went on to note that Auden shared one of Ruttledge’s mannerisms. It wasn’t anything deplorable, he said, just some tic he’d had ever since he’d known him. This was Wager’s idea of fun. He knew Auden would worry himself endlessly over what this tic was. He would eventually catch up with the rest at the final camp before the summit. He got as far as anyone did that year, but not far enough.
The Dalai Lama would ascribe the failure of the 1933 expedition to the rage of the mountain’s guardian deities. Bill Wager would blame the overly cautious Ruttledge. But Eric Shipton felt the entire vision of the expedition was suspect. The trip across the Tibetan plateau had involved thousands of pack animals. There was a contingent of signal corps officers, armed guards, and 72 porters to ferry supplies to and from the high camps. These supplies famously included tins of herring, smoked salmon, lobster, crab, salmon, asparagus, caviar, and foie gras. Dozens of cases had been left behind, a colossal waste of money and of the porters who brought them there. Did every climber require a tent and personal servant? It was a measure of how untethered the entire project of the expedition, much like the empire itself, had become from the reality on the ground.
Meanwhile the Air Commodore who piloted the successful flight over Everest that April was comparing his triumph to Alexander’s conquest of India. He quoted Napoleon’s ‘he who holds India, holds the world’ to underscore the tortured conceit that Everest, a mountain that wasn’t even in India, was a proxy for Great Britain’s global dominion. He didn’t hesitate to declare the failure of the mountaineers’ expedition ‘a splendid achievement,’ as if the magnetic field surrounding Mount Everest could bend a logic that prevailed elsewhere.
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