Ascending the World’s Tallest Mountain: The View from America’s Historical Newspapers and the World Newspaper Archive
Ascents of Everest are now so numerous they often don’t make the news anymore, unless there is a devastating loss of life, a brawl among Sherpas and climbers or a race between octogenarians to become the mountain’s oldest successful climber. Yet from early attempts in the 1920s until the triumphant expedition in 1953, attempts at Everest were widely covered. The exotic nature of the quest meant that newspapers could combine graphics and photography in the layout of their pages, as will be seen in the articles below.
Everest was named after a former British colonial official, though the mountain had local names, including the Tibetan Chomolunga. Since both Nepal and Tibet had closed their borders to foreigners, the British didn’t know the native names. They did know it was the tallest mountain in the Himalayas, from surveying it from afar, and the tallest in the world. They also knew that only a highly organized team could conquer it. In fact, before the first attempt in the 1920s, there was actually an expedition to survey the area and plan a later attempt at the summit.
These first two excerpts come from the World Newspaper Archive: South Asian Newspapers; the rest are from America’s Historical Newspapers.
From The Leader of Allahabad, India, on 15 January 1921:
The forthcoming attempt to scale Mount Everest, the approaches of which are still unknown to Europeans, was announced at a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society by the President, Sir Francis Younghusband, who stated that the political obstacles had been removed and that the Indian Government had been given permission to send an exploring expedition which the Society and the Alpine Club would organize. He said that the expedition would be a great adventure. Apart from risks and hardships there was the unknown factor of human capacity wanted to stand the great exertion at the height. He declared that the summit of Mount Everest would never be reached unless all approaches were first explored most carefully. A reconnaissance party would go to India in 1921 and the climbing party would go to Tibet in 1922.
Here’s how The Leader explained the problem on 18 April 1921:
To reach the most inaccessible places on the earth has always been a problem that has appealed to the imagination. Many unsuccessful attempts were made to penetrate the wastes of snow and ice that surround the North and South Poles. Much preliminary knowledge had to be gained, methods of attack devised, and well-organized expeditions sent, before the efforts were finally crowned with success. To ascend the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, will be no easy matter. It may be that several unsuccessful expeditions will return from the mountain, but each will bring back fresh information. To climb to 29,000 ft, will need all the pluck and endurance that any human being possesses, but though the difficulties may be very great, they are not insuperable: the ascent is not impossible, writes Prof. J.N. Collie, president of the Alpine Club, in the Times.
George Mallory, an early climber of Everest, when asked why he wanted to climb the world’s tallest mountain, reputedly replied “Because it’s there.” Where the “there” actually was, was in fact a long way from anywhere else. All the early expeditions had to get there on foot. And they had to carry their gear. And their food and drink. And their lodgings. There were 350 porters on the trip with Edmund Hillary in 1953. That’s a lot of food and drink. In fact, they carried thousands of pounds of equipment.
The 1921 expedition did find the route to Everest, and did discover a possible route to the top. When they returned in 1922, the chance for victory existed, but the expedition, though it set records for ascents, failed to reach the summit. In the lead-up to the 1924 expedition, the Oregonian printed three articles about the 1922 climb. The first and third were written by George Mallory; the second was written by George Finch, Mallory’s fellow climber and rival.
In the first article, on 2 March 1924, Mallory writes of the view from the highest point on his first climb. He was over 26,000 feet up.
The view was necessarily restricted when Everest itself hid so much country. But it was a pleasure to look westward across the broad north face and down it toward the Rongbuk glacier; it was satisfactory to notice that the north peak, which, though perceptibly below us, had still held, so to speak, a place in our circle when we started in the morning, this same Changste had now become a contemptible fellow beneath our notice.
We saw his black plebeian head rising from the mists, mists that filled all the valleys, so there was nothing in all the world as we looked from northeast to northwest but the great twins Gyachung Kang and Cho Uyo; and even these, though they regarded us still from a station of equality, were actually inferior.
This expedition pioneered the use of oxygen on Everest. Finch was the climber with the most experience with the breathing apparatus. He kept the equipment in repair. Finch and two others, Geoffrey Bruce and the Sherpa Tejhir, were spending the night in a tent when a storm came up. They had to struggle to keep their tent from collapsing. Finch writes on 9 March 1924:
That night began critically. We were exhausted by our previous experiences and through lack of sufficient food. Tejhir’s grin had lost some of its expanse. On the face of Geoffrey Bruce, courageously cheerful as ever, was a strained, drawn expression that I did not like. Provoked, perhaps, by my labors outside the tent, a dead, numbing cold was creeping up my limbs—a thing I had only once before felt and to the seriousness of which I was fully alive.
Something had to be done.
Like an inspiration came the thought of trying the effect of oxygen. We hauled an apparatus and cylinders into the tent, and, giving it the air of a joke, we took doses all round. Tejhir took his medicine reluctantly, but with relief I saw his face brighten up. The effect on Bruce was visible in his rapid change of expression. A few minutes after the first deep breath I felt the tingling sensation of returning life and warmth to my limbs...
We connected up the apparatus in such a way that we could breathe a small quantity of oxygen throughout the night. The result was marvelous. We slept well and warmly.
The expedition ended badly. Mallory led another climber and fourteen Sherpas up the slope on a final attempt at the summit. Roped together, they triggered an avalanche, with fatal results. As Mallory put in the Oregonian of 16 March 1924:
We were startled by an ominous sound, sharp, arresting, violent, and yet somewhat soft like an explosion of untamped gunpowder. I had never before on a mountainside heard such a sound; but all of us, I imagine, knew instinctively what it meant, as though we had been accustomed to hear it every day of our lives.
In a moment I observed the surface of the snow broken and puckered where it had been even for a few yards to the right of me. I took two steps convulsively in this direction with some quick thought of getting nearer to the edge of the danger that threatened us...
And then I began to move slowly downwards, inevitably carried on the whole moving surface by a force I was utterly powerless to resist. Somehow I managed to turn out from the slope so as to avoid be pushed headlong and backwards down it. For a second or two I seemed hardly to be in danger as I went quietly sliding down with the snow. Then the rope at my waist tightened and held me back. A wave of snow came over me and I was buried. I supposed that the matter was settled.
However, I called to mind experiences related by other parties; and it had been suggested that the best chance of escape in this situation lay in swimming. I thrust out my arms above my head and actually went through some sort of motions of swimming on my back.
He emerged to find that seven Sherpas he commanded had died. That was the final attempt in 1922.
The British returned in 1924. Again, it was a large expedition coming from the North. Again, Mallory was one of the climbers. Finch, however, was not. Mallory climbed with A.C. Irvine on the party’s final attempt. They climbed toward the summit and were never seen again. As the Dallas Morning News of 6/21/1924 put it:
The dreaded monsoon came upon the expedition at a moment when success was apparently about to be attained.
Under terrible weather conditions the explorers continued their struggle until George Leigh-Mallory and AC. Irvine died during the final dash….
Mount Everest, almost the last fastness [sic] of the world unconquered by man, has won again.
The natives of Tibet and the Sherpas might have believed that Mallory and Irvine perished because they were seeking to intrude on sacred ground. Oregonian editors used the headline, “Hurled to Death By The Killer God” on the following article, which features an interesting mix of graphics and photography.
The Seattle Times of 3 August 1924 published its reasons why men hadn’t yet made it to the top of the world under the headline, “Earth’s Last Great Mystery Still Baffles Science – Why All Mankind’s Best Courage and Skill Are Unable to Conquer the Blizzard-Swept Peak of Mount Everest, the Very Top of the World.” They seemed to be taking it personally.
There matters stood. Yes, there were a few expeditions in the 1930s. The Seattle Times headlined a preview story, “Another Try at Unconquered Everest” on 22 January 1933.
On 26 June 1938 the Oregonian published a page of photos of the mountain and climbers from yet another failed Everest expedition. But the world was heading to war. Crisis was succeeding crisis as Hitler attempted to expand his reach. He was now claiming parts of Czechoslovakia.
In fact, 29 May 2013 is the 60th anniversary of the successful ascent of Mt. Everest by a British team of mountaineers. Although by the early 1950s Tibet was closed, Nepal was allowing teams from other countries, including France and Switzerland, to attempt ascent. The French team would include Maurice Herzog, who had scaled Annapurna for the first time in 1950. British climbers knew that 1953 might be their last attempt to be first.
As the Plain Dealer of Cleveland stated on 23 May 1953:
It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that this latest assault on Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, should come when Britain is preparing to crown Queen Elizabeth II and usher in what every Briton fondly hopes will be a great new, adventurous Elizabethan age. Today there are no more Spanish Mains to roam, no unexplored continents and islands to subdue and colonize. Only Mount Everest, the unconquerable, remains to be conquered, and what better a beginning to the second Elizabethan era than to plant the Union Jack on the 29,002-foot peak of the mountain that, just “because it is there,″ has been a never-failing challenge to adventurous men.
The Springfield Republican on 31 May 1953 reported the British team's progress under the headline, “Climbers in Final Attack on Everest.” It said there was a window of good weather to do this before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but that there was a monsoon coming up from the Bay of Bengal.
And then the reports came in. The summit was achieved by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tensing Norgay. The news made it to London in time to be released on the day of the coronation. As the Oregonian of 6/2/1953 described it:
Word of the spectacular achievement reached the outside world after a native runner had rushed from the base camp on the Khumbu ice glacier to a wilderness radio post with the news.
The Dallas Morning News of the same day put it this way:
A British expedition has climbed hitherto unscaled Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, planting the Union Jack on the icy peak as a coronation “gift” for Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace announced Monday night.
The 30-year struggle to reach the top was over.
For further reading (and great photos) see Everest: Summit of Achievement (The Royal Geographic Society, 2003). For an in-depth look at the expeditions of the early 1920s, see Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Random House, 2011).
For more information about the searchable historical newspapers available from Readex, please see the World Newspaper Archive and/or America’s Historical Newspapers, or contact email@example.com.