Enduring Everest

TCD MS 10484/4/4
TCD MS 10484/4/4

In the aftermath of the First World War, many seasoned soldiers turned to a life of adventure, seeking out new adrenalin-fuelled challenges to replace the heroics of the battlefield, or to suppress the memory of its atrocities, or both. The conquest of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, became an attractive objective, and three attempts were made in the early 1920s by British mountaineering teams. These included the Irishmen Charles Howard Bury (the 1921 ‘Reconnaissance’ Expedition) and Richard William George Hingston (1924). Both had served with distinction in the war (Howard Bury in France, Hingston in the Middle East), and their war diaries form part of the Library’s First World War resource, ‘Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails’.

10484/4/11 members of the 1924 expedition, Hingston is standing second from left
10484/4/11 members of the 1924 expedition, Hingston is standing second from left

The 1924 expedition, which Hingston joined as a medical officer and naturalist, is famous for resulting in Everest’s greatest mystery: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine broke off from the group to make a final attempt on the summit on 8 June 1924, and were spotted near to the summit only to then disappear into the cloud cover, never to return. Mallory’s body was only recovered in 1999 at 26,755 ft (8,155 m) – what caused their deaths, or whether they actually made it to the summit remains a matter of conjecture, despite the fact that this attempt was the best documented of its time.

TCD MS 10484/4/1 member of the climbing team with oxygen tanks
TCD MS 10484/4/1 member of the climbing team with oxygen tanks

The official photographer, John Noel, devoted himself to recording a filmed record of the expedition. The result, The Epic of Everest, is one of the most remarkable pieces of documentary film-making of the early 20th century. With Noel preoccupied with filming (as well as the logistical nightmare of transporting bulky equipment up the slopes alongside its own team of mules and porters), the remainder of the group dutifully compiled still photographs with their ‘tourist variety’ cameras. Their published report, The Fight for Everest, details the travails of the Himalayan photographer: the tendency to ‘under-expose in tropical Sikkim and over-expose in arctic Tibet’; the unwelcome effects of the lack of oxygen on development times and their ingenious solution to the problem of drying negatives in sub-zero conditions:

10484/4/15 Everest Base Camp
10484/4/15 Everest Base Camp

‘We threaded as many as 50-60 [negatives] on cotton as soon as they were washed and suspended them in rows in the apex of Noel’s double-walled tent. Then we brought in great glowing trays of smouldering Yak dung and set those on the floor so that the heat might rise and circulate about the films and prevent them from freezing … Noel complained that he had to sleep in the tent; we complained that he was the only man to have a fire in his bedroom.’

TCD MS 10484/4/2
TCD MS 10484/4/2

Given such challenges, it is remarkable that so many enduring images made it back, including those taken by Hingston and now housed in M&ARL. Hingston not only took images of his fellow mountaineers, sherpas, and the region itself, but also birds and insects as part of his work as a naturalist. M&ARL also holds Hingston’s annotated maps of the area, correspondence with colleagues at Camp II, and letters he sent to the Natural History Museum on his return. These include taxonomical lists of the specimens he collected, including a species of Black Attid spider. He discovered this creature living at 22,000 feet – the highest known habitat for any animal.

TCD MS 10473 f 36 recto Hingston's journal for 7 to 10 June 1924 describing the tragic summit attempt
TCD MS 10473 f 36 recto Hingston’s journal for 7-10 June 1924 describing the tragic summit attempt

One of the most emotive items in the collection is the notebook Hingston took with him to record the expedition, TCD MS 10473, which was then worked up into a more legible copy, TCD MS 10474. With echoes of the diary of Scott of the Antarctic, this is both a record-keeping exercise and a personal notebook, with each entry written in pencil commencing with location and height in feet, but betraying little of the extreme conditions. A single page 36 recto, datable to 8 June, describes the final ascent by Mallory and Irvine: ‘eyes glued to the mountain. There is just a chance of Mallory and Irvine getting to the summit’, but finishes sombrely on 10 June, ‘there can be no doubt; the worst has happened.’

A full list of the Hingston papers is available on the M&ARL online catalogue. The Hingston papers were fully digitised in 2010 as part of the EuropeanaTravel project funded under European Commission’s eContentplus programme, and are available via the Library’s Digital Collections site.

Estelle Gittins