The Blurb On The Back:
The height of Mount Everest was first measured in 1850, but the closest any westerner got to Everest during the next 71 years, until 1921, was 40 miles. The Hunt For Mount Everest tells the story of the 71-year quest to find the world’s highest mountain. It’s a tale of high drama, of larger-than-life-characters – George Everest, Francis Younghusband, George Mallory, Lord Curzon, Edward Whymper – and a first quiet heroes – Alexander Kelly’s, the 13th Dalia Lama, and Charles Bell.
A story that traverses the Alps, the Himalayas, Nepal and Tibet, the British Empire (especially British India and the Raj), the Anglo-Russian rivalry known as The Great Game, the disastrous First Afghan War, and the phenomenal Survey of India – it is far bigger than simply the tallest mountain in the world. Encountering spies, war, political intrigues, and hundreds of mules, camels, bullocks, yaks, and two zebrules, Craig Storti uncovers the fascinating and still largely overlooked saga of all that led up to that moment in late June of 1921 when two English climbers, George Mallory and Guy Bullock, became the first westerners – and almost certainly the first human beings – to set foot on Mount Everest and thereby claimed the last remaining major prize in the history of exploration.
With 2021 bringing the 100th anniversary of that year, most Everest chronicles have dealt with the climbing history of the mountain, with all that happened after 1921. The Hunt For Mount Everest is the seldom-told story of all that happened before.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Craig Storti is a consultant and trainer in inter-cultural communications. This engrossing book deals with the discovery (by Westerners) of Mount Everest, tracking the efforts made to identify where it was and its height up until the first expedition to scale it in 1921 and taking in Britain’s imperialist interests in India and the wider region (including its rivalry with Russia) and the emergence of mountaineering as a sport.
I picked up this book because I’d previously read one of Storti’s books on inter-cultural working and found him to be a clear communicator who writes sensitively so was interested to see what he would do with this subject. In addition, although mountaineering is absolutely not my thing at all, I remember the news coverage in 1999 when George Mallory’s body was found on Everest following his attempt to scale the mountain in 1924 and how it reignited the debate on whether he and his climbing partner Irvine (whose body has, at the time of this review, still not been recovered) managed to reach the peak. I hadn’t realised, however, that the first ever expedition to Everest had only occurred in 1921 (and had included Mallory as part of the team), so wanted to know more about the topic.
The one thing I do need to note before getting into the meat of this review is that I read a review copy without the final maps, illustrations and photographs, which is a real shame because I think it would have added a lot to my enjoyment of it. That said, Storti is a fluid enough writer that I didn’t need those illustrations etc to follow and enjoy the book.
The book opens in 1904, when Colonel Francis Younghusband, accompanied by two junior officers, entered the Tibetan camp to try and force a meeting with the Tibetan leaders to resolve border and trade issues with British-occupied India. Younghusband also wanted to force the Tibetans to allow a British expedition to map Everest, which had been “discovered” a little over 50 years earlier. The chapter ends with the failure of Younghusband’s gambit and foreshadowing the Colonel’s next – and bloody – steps, before the book then jumps back to 1850 and the discovery by James Nicholson that the so-called Peak XV in the Himalayas was the world’s highest mountain.
Storti does a really good job of setting out the process of identifying the height of what became Everest, including making mention of the Indian “computors” like Radanath Sickdhar who checked and verified Nicholson’s measurements. He gives potted biographies of each of the main players in the “discovery” of the mountain, which I found really fascinating because it gives you a good idea of who they were and what drove them. This is particularly interesting in his examination of the naming of Everest after George Everest (a former head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey and the the former boss of Andrew Waugh, who chose Everest’s name in honour of him), which sparked controversy given that mountains were usually given the local names used for them – Waugh’s argument being that it could not be ascertained whether there was a local name (something that later proved to be inaccurate).
The naming controversy (which rumbled on for years) also draws in the geopolitical tensions of the region at the time and Storti does a fairly decent job of explaining the difficulties posed by the decision of Nepal and Tibet not to entertain visitors from Britain and instead cut themselves off. Storti ties this in to the wider topic of British interests in India and the surrounding region, including its rivalry with Russia and the so-called Great Game that took place between the two as they sought to exert control over neighbouring countries like Afghanistan. This explains why Britain was so concerned about Nepal and – in particular Tibet – because of their proximity to India and the possibility that they were getting too friendly with the Russians, who could use it as a base for attack or interference.
Unfortunately (and for perhaps obvious reasons) there isn’t a lot in here about the Tibetan view of things such that while Storti does a good job of showing British colonial attitudes at their very worst, I wished that he’d managed to include some kind of insider view to indicate what their leadership thought of British interests beyond the primary source accounts from people like Younghusband who acknowledges their desire to preserve their religion and way of life but also remained suspicious of double-dealing. I will say though that Storti resists the temptation of depicting Tibet as a utopian nation, making sure to include the accounts of Tibetans who were worried about being executed if they co-operated with Westerners and, in a section detailing the friendship between the 13th Dalai Lama and Charles Bell, a member of the British Civil Service in India who ended up serving as Britain’s de facto ambassador to Tibet, he indicates that the Dalai Lama was not necessarily a strong leader.
Speaking as a Brit you get sadly accustomed to reading about how awful our Colonial forefathers were and Storti has to reference those Colonial attitudes in this book because it was part and parcel of the story. I was, however, shocked by the section that picks up on Younghusband’s forays into Tibet, which are pretty horrifying in terms of the violence meted out. I didn’t study Colonial history at school and although I had a good idea of what the British did in India and in the African colonies, I hadn’t come across its behaviour in Tibet before. What’s all the more appalling is that what cost Younghusband his job in India wasn’t so much the fact that he killed Tibetans as the fact that he imposed terms on Tibet over and above what he’d been instructed to do by the British government and even then his behaviour wasn’t enough to get him cancelled properly because he still pops up in the story as President of the Royal Geographic Society, which co-sponsors the 1921 expedition.
The book also provides a brief history of how mountaineering became a popular Western past-time as climbers worked to scale the various peaks in the Alps. I enjoyed these sections again because of the way Storti combines accounts of the various personalities with the technology and attitudes of the time, especially the various rivalries at play. This also sets up the final section of the book as Storti describes the formation of the Alpine Club, which worked with the Royal Geographical Society on the 1921 expedition.
Storti has clearly done a lot of research on the 1921 expedition, providing a lot of information on its individual members, their relationship with each other, the relationship with the committees back in Britain that funded them and the facts of their expedition. As you might expect, there’s a lot of focus on Mallory here but Storti also gives a lot of page time to the other expedition members, particularly Alexander Kellas, a Scots climber and chemist who worked closely with the Sherpas (and unusually for the time, treated them as friends and colleagues) and spent a lot of time exploring the Himalayas and working on climbing with the assistance of oxygen and the effect of high altitude on climbers. Kellas tends to get forgotten in history – mainly because he wasn’t someone who did a lot of writing or publicising with regard to his achievements (something that Storti acknowledges) – but his work clearly paved the way for the first and subsequent expeditions and Storti makes a convincing argument that had he not tragically died of a heart attack on the first expedition, Mallory and Bullock may have stood a better chance of actually managing to climb the peak.
If I had a criticism of the book then it’s that Storti relies on the device of starting a chapter at a particular point and then going back and explaining what lead up to it. For me the effect of that was that at times it felt that the story was jumping around too much such that by the time I got back to that initial point it took a moment for me to work out where I was. I will add that I do understand why Storti takes that approach because there’s a lot of interconnecting elements at play and at times it’s needed to make sense of what’s going on – but at other times I would have much rather just had a linear path drawing those strands together rather than a needle scratch jump back.
Criticism aside, I did find this a genuinely engrossing read. Storti certainly gets across the fascination that Everest held for those who came across it and the beauty and threat of the place. At the same time, he adds a new dimension to those interested in British history and – particularly – its interests in India and the surrounding region while also giving a good introduction to the origins of mountaineering asa sport and the men who helped to make it popular. All in all, I thought this was a fitting and equal-handed tribute in the centenary of that first Western expedition to Everest and I definitely think it’s a book that’s worth a few hours of your time.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.