Two weeks ago I wrote a post criticizing the modern commercial ethos of Himalayan climbing. As I continue to dig deeper into the history of Himalayan climbing (guided by the excellent book Fallen Giants), I am beginning to realize what diverse motives brought western climbers into the Himalayas and Karakorum. Nineteenth century climbers, like Arctic explorers, saw climbing in romantic and nationalistic terms, but they also viewed it in other ways as well.
The story of Sir Francis Younghusband, British Army officer, shows the importance of empire in the exploration of these regions. In addition to adding to the West’s geographical knowledge of these distant ranges, Younghusband spent his days outmanovering the Russians and trying to occupy Tibet. Yet Younghusband was, as modern climbers go, rather atypical. He did not seek to summit peaks as much as to survey and move through ranges. As much as he was an agent of empire, he was also deeply affected by the mystical traditions of India and Tibet.
So too was Aleister Crowley, whose role in the failed K2 expedition of 1902 has been eclipsed by his reputation as “The Great Beast 666,” and “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Crowley’s love of mountains was life-long and also an opportunity for spiritual reflection.
Alfred Mummery, on the other hand, saw mountains as the testing grounds for technical climbing and technological advancement. Mummery, inventor of the Mummery tent, first attempted to climb Nanga Parbat in 1895 and died in the attempt. It seems that Mummery viewed mountains tactically, rather than strategically, and thus, as Steward Weaver tells it, failed to see the Himalayas in their proper scale. For Mummery, the Himalayas were an overgrown version of the Alps.
Still others, such as Alexander Kellas, were “traversers” climbing up one side of the mountain and down the other – an enormously difficult and dangerous thing to do on 8000 meter peaks. Kellas spent his time on the mountain trying to figure out the physiology of altitude sickness, leading to new ideas about mountain acclimatization. One wonders what Kellas would have observed from the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest expeditions in the early 1920s. He died before reaching Everest base camp in 1921.
Readers who find these stories interesting should check out Bill Buxton’s excellent online mountain bibliography.