1921: The first reconnaissance expedition to Everest and it’s Irish-born leader

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1921: The first reconnaissance expedition to Everest and it’s Irish-born leader

Everest reconnaissance expedition

In the spring of 1921, the first-ever mountaineering expedition focussed on Mount Everest was launched from London. One hundred years ago this year, the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition left England with the purpose of reconnoitring Mount Everest, to explore the approach to the mountain from the north through Tibet, and to examine potential climbing routes to the highest summit on Earth. It was the first of nine expeditions mounted by the British before they finally claimed the first ascent of the peak in 1953.

The team of surveyors, scientists and climbers left Britain as Ireland’s War of Independence raged between nationalist forces intent on autonomy from London and Crown forces intent on preventing that independence. The expedition team made up of several men with direct experience of the Great War that ended just two and a half years earlier was led by one Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury (1881-1963), a British military officer who had earned distinction at the front-lines of the battle by the Somme river in northern France where, in just 20 weeks a million men lost their lives. He was then aged forty and as he left Britain at the head of a highly political expedition, he was returning to a corner of the world he had  come to know from deployment as a younger man.

Charles Howard-Bury (standing second from left above) was born in a big house in the Kings County of Ireland then wholly embedded in the entity called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Charleville Castle in what is today County Offaly in Ireland’s midlands was the ancestral home of his Anglo-Irish colonial family; born in Ireland but British by culture and allegiance and staunchly unionist, raised in a politically conservative household dedicated to maintaining British rule in Ireland.

Early schooling and conditioning for this young aristocrat and his peers was powerfully British – and like the sons of the tea planter in Sri Lanka or India, those of the ex-pat traders of the East India Company or the upper ranks of the imperial civil service or military stationed throughout the empire, Howard-Bury was finished as they liked to call it at schools on their mainland or mother country. In his case he had been privately educated in Ireland as a child before moving to the prestigious Eton secondary college located west of London and then to the nearby Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, after which he was posted to India. As a young man growing up at the heart of imperial Britain he developed a keen interest in natural history that remained a constant in his life as a soldier and politician, explorer, hunter, botanist, horse-racing enthusiast and mountaineer. While posted in India during his early twenties he developed a keen interest in exploring exotic lands, their peoples and cultures with a particular interest and flair for languages and while there, he made his first, secret foray into Tibet in 1905.

Background to the expedition

In 1865 the tip of a peak identified initially as; Peak B and later as; Peak VX by surveyors of the British Survey of India was determined to be the tallest point on the surface of the Earth – and in honour of his predecessor, the director of that survey proposed it be named in honour of Welshman, Sir George Everest. Everest himself thought it was a daft idea, never having seen the thing and thought in any case that it must surely have a local name. But, from the outfit who renamed ancient landscapes across the globe, giving us; Williamstowns, Jamestowns, Queens and Kingstowns as they went – there was little regard in imperial circles for any name the Tibetans might have bestowed on this towering giant in their midst.

To the inhabitants of the high desert plateau that is Tibet, this of course was Chomolungma; The Mother Goddess of the Earth – while to the south in closed Nepal, the Sherpa people who would remain hidden from the Western world for nearly another century knew this gigantic peak as Sagarmatha; the forehead in the sky. And so, poor George, something of a curmudgeon by all accounts had to live with his noble family name being taken in vain marking a point on the map, a hideous pile of rocks and ice!

Above: George Everest

Wider societal post-War order change

At the latter end of the second decade of the 20th century, while Britain and its allies recovered from winning the bloodiest war the world had ever known that would retrospectively be seen to have heralded the downfall of the Empire, powerful societal changes were afoot. For Britain, the huge social and economic costs proved too much and the country and its economy was being surpassed in the global pecking-order, notably by the US – and the ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ was holed below the water-line.

Throughout the United Kingdom, as well as the slaughter of its working classes, The Great War shattered much of that narrow bandwidth of its upper landed class, wiping out many of the young male heirs of old titles and estates, the finest of its White Anglo Saxon Protestant sires nurtured in the loyalist big houses of Mother England and her dominions – only to lose their life-blood into the dirt in the trenches of the Somme and the other hideous slaughter fields. Many returned of course (and as Boris Johnson might say; ‘got stuck in’) however, it was to a different country, depleted and cracked – and yearning for some good old imperial jollies, something to lighten the spirit. The wider period of industrialisation, a rising middle class, trade unions, suffragettes seeking rights for women, the appearance of socialist thinking rising up against the status quo, peasant and tenant revolts against the landed class, revolutionary and other movements bent of bringing about change to the old, stratified order added to a head of steam that would yield seismic change.

Above: Dublin 1916

The fuse lit in Dublin on Easter Monday morning 1916 that would force the greatest empire on Earth to cast off its closest colony after nearly 800 years would prove a powerful inspiration to other subjected peoples across the globe and lead to insurrections aimed at toppling old orders and establishing self-rule of one sort or another. In giant Russia a year later, Lenin said that; “the problem with the Irish was that they rose too soon” but a powerful force had been unleashed, throughout Africa and across the sub-continent of India where just a quarter of a century after Howard-Bury strode through India, the Raj fell and India gained independence.

Above: Peary, Amundsen and Scott

Before the Great War, it was Antarctica that dominated discussions among exploratory types. The American Robert Peary had reached the North Pole in 1912 but the giant white continent at the bottom of the world lay unknown and in what is now termed the Golden Age of Polar Exploration, upper crust Brits powered by their love of King and their Empire, a thirst for adventure and gallantry, ego and the muscle-power provided by their skivvies from the working classes of the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland raced to plant a Union Jack on the South Pole. It was the beginning of something of a national obsession with Antarctica and the incredible stories of that time and the characters involved are well known today. Stuff of high drama, tragedy and triumph that has seared into popular imagination.

However, the establishment-funded and much hyped expedition led by Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition aimed claiming the southernmost point on Earth and giving Britain a much needed good-news story that ‘stirred the heart of every Englishman’  was shattered when it was discovered that his gallant if somewhat bizarre effort was pipped to the post by a mere month or so. This time, the victor was the Norwegian Roald Amundsen who somewhat nonchalantly sledded to the furthest point on Earth using techniques and reindeer skin clothing he’d copied from the Inuit. His was a journey made with little or no drama while close by, the British doggedly attempted the same, with out of place techniques that saw men slogging like beasts pulling hideous sleds and dressed as if for cold days in London, all leading to harrowing experiences that were bent into narratives of epic failure.

Above: Crean, The Endurance, Shackleton

Scott was accompanied by one Tom Crean from Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula here in County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. Though he later proved he was anything but typical, Crean’s lowly upbringing as the son of a poor Irish Catholic farmer, a tenant of a British imperial landlord of the region was like many of his polar companions, escaping the drudgery of indenture on a tiny hill farm in Ireland or from a life working like their fathers and uncles in the coal mines and steel mills of northern England or the slate quarries of North Wales in providing these imperial expeditions with men of lower classes. Crean would go on to travel of course with another Irish-born imperial explorer Ernest Shackleton who would later pursue his obsession at claiming for his King the first traverse of the southern continent. His most notable journey is that we know as the incredible story of the 1914-‘16 Endurance Expedition, a story of spectacular failure again – but also one of the most incredible survival stories ever told.

All of this by way of saying that after The Great War had left a weakened Empire, there was a yearning for a badly needed good old adventure story where heroes returned home with the prize for a change, a new narrative for teachers to feed into the hearts of wide-eyed school-children, a counterweight to the discomfort of acknowledging pretenders like Peary and Amundsen! And so, planting the Union Jack on what they termed the Third Pole, the highest point on Earth, that peak they had discovered and named, just had to be.

Soon after the guns of the First World War fell silent, a dedicated imperial effort fell to this task. Fired up by a tiring but residual pride, a new obsession was fuelled that would run for more than three decades, stalling for the duration of the Second World War before resuming again and winning the ultimate prize in 1953. In this period that began with the Howard-Bury ’21 trip, Britain would mount a remarkable nine  expeditions to Mount Everest.

The focus on the Himalayas and in particular, on securing a British first-ascent of the highest peak on Earth led to the formation of Mount Everest Committee to oversee and fund efforts. It was a structure established jointly by the reputable Royal Geographic Society (founded in 1830) and the Alpine Club (founded in 1857). With high-ranking personages from both, with deep ties to the military of the Empire and it’s government, the Committee would bear the hallmarks of a military operation and be resourced as needed to ensure success. Nothing would be spared.

Above: The Alpine Club, 1857

And so, in 1921 the first ever Everest-focussed expedition was launched in London with the purpose of reconnoitring how best the base of this giant might be reached. And if it were possible to get close enough, it would examine potential climbing routes to its summit. It was all unknown territory and as the lead and star climber, George Mallory said on leaving London; “we were walking off the map”. The highly organised affair led by Howard-Bury but overseen by the Mount Everest Committee brought together a team dedicated to filling in this blank on the map and as well as mountaineers, the team consisted of surveyors, geologists, chemists, doctors and other scientists, all pursuing their specialist fields of interest but combining for the common goal.

The route to Tibet

On crossing the English Channel in April 1921, the expedition travelled overland down through France to the Mediterranean before boating over to the British Middle East and travelling overland then again to the Arabian Gulf from where they sailed to the west coast of India. Traversing west to east across the sub-continent to the hill town of Darjeeling in the far northeast and into what is today Sikkim, the expedition then skirted the eastern border of Nepal beneath the giant bulk of the third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga through the Tista Valley that lies between Nepal and Bhutan before crossing the Jelep La pass and onto the Tibetan Plateau.

Hundreds of miles of high arid ground then lay ahead but in late June 1921, Howard-Bury’s team were the first to reach the Rongbuk Glacier on the northern, Tibetan side of Everest. Gruelling explorations of valleys beyond this followed to see how the base of this giant could be reached and the ascending of smaller local peaks seeking to get views of the lower sections of possible climbing routes followed – all stuff we can access today from our phones sitting at our tables. It was an incredible effort and the reconnaissance reported back to London in preparation for ensuing efforts. (The journey was recorded in a book by Charles Howard Bury; Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921)

Above: Mallory & Irvine

In the next three years, the Howard-Bury led trip was followed up by 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition, the first expedition with the pointed purpose of ascending the peak and then perhaps the most famous of all expeditions to the mountain until that of 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top; the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition that saw climbers Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappear high on the mountain.

Charles Howard Bury died in Ireland in 1963 at his home in Mullingar, County Westmeath at the age of 80. Despite his strong unionist background and interests and connections that led him to pursue various avenues of public life in England, he resided at his Belvedere estate in County Westmeath in what following on from the War of Independence became the Irish Free State in 1922, and the Republic of Ireland in 1949. Despite the largely negative view of colonial landlordism in Irish history, as lord of his manor in an independent Ireland, Bury was well respected in his locality where he entertained and quietly aided local charities. Though written into the history of Himalayan exploration and other annals of British imperial history, the colourful life of Howard-Bury was and remains largely unknown in Ireland beyond local and mountaineering historians. He died without issue and bequeathed his home to a friend who later sold it to Westmeath County Council. Belvedere House and Gardens are open to the public; www.belvedere-house.ie


Con Moriarty.

Gap of Dunloe, Killarney, County Kerry, January 2021


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