Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, by Brig. Gen. Charles G. Bruce, part 1

The Assault on Mount Everest 1922  is a chronicle of the first climbing attempt upon Mount Everest, written by the expedition leader, Brig. Gen. Charles G. Bruce. I'm very excited to be reading from a first edition of the work, borrowed from a public library. Though I'm happy that the book has since been reprinted many times, and many more people have access to the work, I find something extraordinarily aesthetically pleasing in reading about a 90-year-old expedition from a 90-year-old book. Like Ruttledge's Everest 1933, I'll be breaking this up into two posts to go into a little more detail and to give it some of the attention it is due.

As in Ruttledge's work, Sir Francis Younghusband provides an introduction. This introduction is considerably more concrete in its objectives, and the author introduces the expedition members and talks about the role played by the Everest Committee of the Royal Geographic Society in the planning and execution of the expedition.

Gen. Bruce follows with the details of the trek. It seemed strange to me that 100 pages into the book, his narrative has taken us to Everest and back, and the party has dispersed and gone home before anyone gets to write about the actual climbing that took place. I wonder if this work, even if sold to general audiences, was intended to serve as much as an extended report to members of the Geographical Society as it was a full-length narrative. I regret, now that I'm halfway through them, that I've read these early accounts out of order, for in many ways they are a generative set. Having a decent familiarity with the early history has helped me through the early books' climbing references, but my limited study does not help nearly as much when these early works reference the earlier treks to and from the mountain. For example, when Ruttledge discusses that the 1933 expedition is helped en route by "Father William," so named by the 1922 trek, I was a loss until I have now read the 1922 account. Perhaps one day, these early books will be important enough to history to have annotated versions. I was amused to hear about the Rongbuk head lama's telling Bruce that he was a reincarnation of an important lama and Bruce's response that the old lama must not have done a very good job if he came back as a Britisher.

After giving details of the trek in, Bruce provides a quick narration of the climb from his perspective at Base Camp, including the establishment of camps, the two high climbs, and the third tragic attempt. I had read in Isserman & Weaver's Fallen Giants that Bruce spent time in Kathmandu as a political representative, which explains why on the return trek he received a letter of condolence from the Maharajah of Nepal (who, amazingly, was a member of the Royal Geographical Society). The Maharajah sent his sympathies both to Bruce and to the families of the seven men who died in the avalanche on their third attempt. Additionally, he states that their deaths reinforce the Nepali belief that anyone who attempts to climb "The King of Heights" is inviting the wrath of the god and goddess Shiva and Parvati. I get the feeling that his message also insinuates that the Maharajah, personally, sees nothing wrong with climbing Mount Everest, even from Nepal, but that if anything went wrong in his country, such as a famine or outbreak of smallpox, after such an expedition, he might find himself culpable if he overrode his political council and gave permission to such an affair. This would make considerably more sense to me than the only reason for an expedition not being able to travel in Nepal being a "closed door" policy agreed upon by India and Nepal.

On the way back to Darjeeling, the expedition members take a couple weeks to do some exploring before they are expected back. Most notably, Captain Noel and John Morris take a trip into the Arun Gorge to see how the river manages to descend so far in so little space. Additionally, Captain Noel stays behind as the party leaves Tibet, both to get more photos of Tibetan folk life and to develop the pictures he has already taken before descending to the warm and moist lower elevations of Sikkim. Both of these adventures get more space in Captain Noel's The Story of Everest, his book on his eleven-year relationship with the mountain. I am amused that I feel like I learned more about Morris's experience on Everest from the present book than from his personal memoirs, Hired to Kill. Also on the way back, Bruce finds it necessary to punish one of the porters who spent several days so inebriated that he could not do his job by giving him a 100-pound load on a relatively strenuous day's trek. I found this particularly amusing, because only a couple pages earlier, Bruce discusses the amazing work done by teenage girl who carried a 160-pound load on a slightly shorter trip! The punished man also found his situation funny, and spent the day in good spirits.

I was very happy to read that Gen. Bruce considered the expedition a resounding success. Though the climbers did not reach the summit, they camped at a higher elevation than anyone else had previously climbed, and then continued climbing the next day, so that each of the first two assault parties attained a new record altitude. He also mentions that the two most important things to improve for the next attempt should be lighter and more windproof clothing and a better oxygen apparatus.

And now for the awkward moment in the book! The following chapter, by George Mallory, tells of the first attempt by the party to climb Mount Everest. It seemed to me that he has trouble introducing his narrative, but once he gets into the actual climbing, the prose becomes more direct and interesting. In his introduction, he even manages to rattle on for one-and-a-half pages in a single sentence! If he could pull that off in a breath, he should have no trouble with Everest! Mallory, Somervell, and a porter work ahead of the others to reconnoiter a route to the North Col. After searching the base of the Col as well as passages to the South of it, they choose a path on the northern side up a snow slope that should provide reasonable going for laden porters. This time, when Mallory reaches the Col, instead of storm clouds, a beautiful Himalayan panorama greets him. Their route found, it's time to return lower to gather the climbers and get climbing!

The conclusion to this report can be found here.


  1. Correct title for Captain George (Ingle Finch - not just Finch)

    Captain Ingle Finch along with Captain Geoffrey Bruce - cousin to expedition leader Charles, climbed to the highest point on Everest in 1922.

  2. I haven't been able to find any information that suggests that Ingle is anything other than a middle name for George Ingle Finch. His Father was Charles Edward Finch, and his mother Laura Black. In the modern English edition of Finch's "The Struggle for Everest" the editor George Rodway refers to him often as "George Finch" in the introduction. Also, George Ingle Finch's climbing contemporaries often refer to him merely as "Finch." If you have information about about why Ingle is part of his title, please share. I'd love to read about it. I hope it's as interesting as why George Mallory is technically George Leigh Leigh-Mallory!

    1. I mean...George Herbert Leigh Leigh-Mallory...