A decade after publishing the epic story of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, the award-winning author and documentarian Mick Conefrey has circled back to tell the nearly-forgotten tale of the first attempt to climb the world's highest peak in his new book: Everest 1922.
“People are very focused on [George] Mallory and [Andrew] Irvine and what happened in 1924,” Conefrey told ExpedReview. “But the first-ever expedition in 1922 has been neglected because the only question that anybody's interested in is whether Mallory and Irvine got to the top.”
“I thought, well, actually what about the first expedition, and I tried to compare it to how things have changed 100 years on,” he added. “In lots of ways, it's kind of a forgotten expedition.”
Using a wide range of primary materials, including memos written by the Royal Geographical Society and Mount Everest Committee, personal diaries and letters from those involved, Conefrey carefully pieces together the story of the expedition and everything going on behind the scenes to make it all possible.
In the 1920s, expeditions to the Himalayas were extremely rare. At the time, Nepal was a closed society and did not allow access to any Western foreigners. Tibet was also a closed country and only allowed British adventurers to cross the borders due to an alliance between London and Lhasa.
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“But it wasn't easy to get into Tibet,” Conefrey said. “Tibet wasn't part of the British Empire, and there had to be lots of negotiations behind the scenes with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government to get them to agree to it.”
However, in 1921, the first British expedition in Tibet took place to try and find a way to access Mount Everest. After exploring several possible routes, Mallory identified one via the North Col that he thought would be easiest.
The following year, the British returned to Tibet and set about climbing Everest via the North Col. The expedition was the first attempt to climb Mount Everest and set the world record for climbing height on the second attempt at 8,326 metres (27,320 feet).
(In 1924, Mallory returned to Everest and attempted to summit the peak using the Northeast Ridge Route that is still used today.)
Overall, the 1922 expedition made two initial attempts – the first without oxygen and the second with oxygen – before trying a third time, which ended with an avalanche that killed seven porters.
“It was the biggest disaster in Himalayan history until the late 1930s, but it’s been forgotten,” Conefrey said. “Until 1996, I don't think there'd been anything as serious as that on Everest.”
While the tragedy of the avalanche certainly adds a poignant climax to the story, Everest 1922 is a character-driven narrative.
Conefrey said the book is “about what happens when you put people under pressure and mountains are a very pressurized environment, which brings out the best or the worst in people.”
As with any story where the reader knows the ending, the key is to take them along the journey to see how Mallory and the rest of the men on the expedition were selected and made it as far as they did.
“That sense of it being a national drama, not just a personal drama, makes it more interesting,” Conefrey said. “There's the big politics in terms of the British trying to negotiate with the Tibetans. And then there's the small politics, which is what goes on within the Royal Geographical Society as they select members of the team.”
“What's interesting about this particular story – this particular era – is there's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, as well as on the actual mountain, which doesn't happen as much with a modern story,” he added.
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While there are many differences between modern ascents of Mount Everest and the 1922 expedition, Conefrey said there were some stark similarities to what Mallory and company did and thought 100 years ago and what climbers go through today.
Among the most striking was the debate surrounding whether climbers should use bottled oxygen to climb Everest or whether that was antithetical to the spirit of mountaineering.
“George Finch, the scientist, became the apologist for oxygen on the team, even though he didn't really want to be that, and it wasn't particularly his idea,” Conefrey said. “And the kind of arguments, which are still current arguments regarding is it right to use oxygen? Is it cheating? They all started in 1922.”
Conefrey added that how some climbers choose to approach the mountain nowadays, opting for a quick alpine ascent instead of a longer mountaineering expedition, was also championed in 1922.
“What you see in the Himalayas in the 1950s and the 60s was very big expeditions, doing things in a very gradual sort of way,” he said. “Then, in the 1970s and 80s, the top climbers changed tactics. Instead of doing these massive expeditions, they did what they call alpine-style climbing.”
“In a funny way, that was what they were almost doing in the 1920s as well because they didn't know what to expect, and so they underestimated it,” Conefrey added. “They always underestimated Everest.”
“They did think they could get from the north col to the top with two camps or maybe three, whereas by the 1950s, people said, no, you have to have five,” he continued. “They would camp every 1,000 feet (300 metres), gradually laying siege to the mountain. In a sort of strange way, climbers in the 20s were more modern.”
Finally, some of the same mistakes that the expedition made in 1922 are still repeated by modern Himalayan climbers.
Before the third attempt, one of the expedition doctors advised Mallory and the rest of the team against trying to climb the mountain again, but two other doctors disagreed. Given the indecisiveness of the medical advice, it was hard for anyone to say no.
“The kind of same forces that compel people now to push boundaries were going on in 1922,” Conefrey said. “You want to get to the summit. If somebody says you can have another go, often it's easy for your better judgment to be clouded.”
Everest 1922 is available from April 7 at most booksellers and is available for pre-order in select locations.