Walking in Mallory’s Footsteps

Trekking in Tibet and the 1921 British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition

Part 1: The Third Pole

 So, a couple blogs ago I described how, for my second legitimate climbing experience, I bit off a lot more than what might seem reasonable for a well-balanced person. Some explanation is required because there were reasons for why I was eager to jump at this opportunity.  I blame the reading I had been doing for several years about the early Everest expeditions.

It will take a series of additional blogs to lay this out.  For me this is really important because I learned an awful lot in the 5 weeks I was on this trip and it has continued to influence me to this day.  But it all begins with the Third Pole.

The Third Pole

 In the great age of exploration in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the British lost out on a number of important firsts.   And, from what I can tell, it drove them pretty much crazy, in a collective, cultural sort of way.  Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1906.  Then, in 1909, Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson arrived first at the North Pole (although this has been considered a controversial claim).  Finally, in 1911, Roald Amundsen again beat the British, arriving first at the South Pole, this time nosing out the British Robert Scott by a mere month.  Scott arrived at the pole, saw evidence that he had been beaten by Amundsen and perished before he could arrive safely back at base – completing the disaster for Britain.   What remained to rescue the British reputation for exploration?  In many eyes, only being first to the “Third Pole”, the summit of the tallest mountain on earth, would suffice.  This meant Mt. Everest. 



I had been reading a lot about the late 19th century geopolitical situation, focused on the intrigue in India and the Russian, Chinese, and British maneuvering in that part of the world.  I was doing this reading because, to some degree, this led to the British figuring out where the Third Pole actually was (it was important to establish incontrovertibly where the Third Pole actually was before attempting to climb it).  Everest was “discovered” as a consequence of the British Great Trigonometrical Survey which took some 69 years to complete.  The trip I signed up for offered something unique.  What really captured my imagination was the route – unlike the British who started from Darjeeling in 1921, we’d begin in Kathmandu, fly to Lhasa and then drive overland to Shigatse before picking up the trail of the British at Shegar Dzong, then follow them to Tingri before hiking in to Everest Base Camp and then ascend to Advanced Base Camp on the Tibetan side of Everest.  From there we would cross the East Rongbuk Glacier, ascend to the Lhakpa La (La is Tibetan for a mountain pass) at around 22,500 ft before a summit attempt on Lhakpa Ri (Ri being Tibetan for Mountain) and then a trek out into the Kama and Kharta Valleys, over the Shao La or Langma La to the town of Yulba and then to the town of Kharta.  I realized that I could re-experience, if not the entirety of the 1921 British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, then certainly some of its most pivotal moments.  I’d be doing it out of order from how the British proceeded in 1921 but I’d still be following their path.  To me, this was tremendously exciting and caused me to overlook a number of things I’ve mentioned previously (like minimal backpacking experience, no prior trips to altitudes above 10,000 ft and very little in the way of actual mountaineering skills).

 British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition

August 18, 1921

 “We have found out the way”

(George Mallory reporting on his observations from Lhakpa La)

 In George Mallory’s mind the British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition was in serious trouble.  They had left Darjeeling, India on May 18th, 3 months previously, and had literally “walked off the map” into an uncharted and unforgiving land.  By early June the monsoon season had begun with daily snow or rain showers, depending on the altitude.  Mallory’s group had worked their way around Everest, through unknown territory and at consistently high altitude searching for a way to get to the top of Everest that did not look suicidal.  They had found nothing.  Now he stood at the top of Lhakpa La, a 22,000+ ft mountain pass.  This moment was, without a doubt, the critical event of the Reconnaissance Expedition.  From Lhakpa La, Mallory looked down and saw, across a valley, the North Col of Everest – and what looked like a climbable route from there to the summit!  Mallory had found the key that he thought would unlock Everest.  This discovery defined his fate.  Consumed by his passion to summit Everest, he would make one unsuccessful attempt on this trip, getting to the top of the North Col, and then would come back in 1922 and finally in 1924 to make two serious attempts to get to the top.  Both attempts would end in failure.  The failure in 1924 was complete – Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, famously disappeared on a final push to the summit somewhere on Everest’s Northeast Ridge, leaving behind an unsolved mystery that has captivated many since then – did they get to the top before perishing?

 So, there you have it.  This is why I couldn’t say no after finding out about this trip.  After years of reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on about the early Everest expeditions, including the official report authored by the leader of the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition, I had the opportunity to actually see it/experience it first hand.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and refused to postpone.

(to be continued)


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