Britain’s Long and Fascinating Relationship with Mount Everest

Many people are unaware that it was a British expedition that first climbed Mount Everest, in 1953. Or that this was after no less than eight previous British attempts on the mountain. In this article, I will look at the strange British obsession with the world’s highest mountain.

Even though the first people to climb Mount Everest were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali, these two men would have considered themselves as part of a British team.

Hillary certainly would have regarded himself as a subject of the British empire in those long-ago days. The expedition was led by Colonel John Hunt of the British Army and was organised and financed in London by a Himalayan committee formed by members of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club.

The news of the expedition’s success was announced on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. “All this, and Everest too!” hailed the newspapers.

Does any of this matter?

It matters because it is interesting to examine how and why the inhabitants of a small flat island off the shores of Europe first invented the sport of mountaineering, then decided to climb the world’s highest mountain four and a half thousand miles away. In similar ways, Naga Parbat became a German obsession and K2 fascinated the Italians.

The British in the 19th century were fascinated by exploring their world, measuring its features and naming them. They were also making a map of their empire.

How the British Measured Mount Everest

The Great Trigonometrical Survey was commissioned by the East India Company to survey all their lands in the Indian sub-continent. The survey started in 1802, and at first it was estimated that the survey would take just five years to complete the work. In the end it took more than sixty years, and cost the Company a fortune.

The result was that the British managed to measure Mount Everest with astounding accuracy in 1854. Read more here on How Was Everest Measured? It’s a fascinating story.

Before that moment other mountains had been considered to be the highest in the world. See if you can guess which ones, and read about the mountains previously thought to be the highest, before Everest.

Brian Blessed painting a watercolour on Mount Everest

How The British Named Everest (or re-named it)

But what to call the world’s highest mountain? The first scrawl on the map announcing Mount Everest called it ‘Peak B’, then the next note ‘Peak XV’. After failing to find a local name, and after much head scratching in the end the British chose the name of the former Surveyor-General: Sir George Everest.

It is unlikely that Everest himself ever saw the mountain that bears his name, but Andrew Waugh, Everest’s successor as Surveyor-General in India, wrote: ‘… here is a mountain most probably the highest in the world without any local name that I can discover …’, so he proposed ‘to perpetuate the memory of that illustrious master of geographical research … Everest’.

This went against cartological practice, and it was the start of the long story of the mountain being hijacked for ulterior motives. Everest himself said his name could not be written in either Hindi or Persian, and nor could the local people pronounce it. Nor can we. He pronounced his name Eeev-rest, as in Adam and Eve, while the rest of us all mispronounce it as Ever-rest, as in for ever and ever.

There is a strong argument for it being referred to as its native name, Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of the Earth”. Meanwhile, the British got on with the job of inventing mountaineering.

Did Great Britain Invent Mountaineering?

The British usually get the credit for inventing the sport of alpinism, and this was largely because of the new-found leisure of a certain social class. Britain was an island of coal surrounded by a sea of fish, and was therefore able to fuel her steam engines and feed her workers. She happened for many other reasons to be the first nation to industrialise (it could so easily have been the Romans, who were close to steam power, or the Indians, who had even more resources).

The Industrial Revolution provided many a wealthy man’s son (and a few daughters) with ample time and money to spend on excursions to the Alps while the average Swiss peasant was far too busy scraping a living off the mountainsides to waste time raising his eyes to the summits.

Sir Alfred Wills kicked off the Golden Age of Alpinism with his 1854 ascent of the Wetterhorn (although it wasn’t actually the first ascent, which had been made ten years earlier by a British doctor, Stanhope Templeton Speer with his Swiss guides) (source: wikipedia).

There then followed an explosion of climbing, with most of the major peaks being bagged within ten years. There was a similar period in the Himalayas a century later, when all the 14 peaks over 8,000m (26,247ft) were climbed within 11 years of each other.

The Alpine Club was founded in London in 1857. The members of the Club were predominantly upper-middle-class rather than aristocratic, and they thought of themselves as a caste apart, a Spartan phalanx, tough with muscular virtue, spare with speech, seeking the chill clarity of the mountains just because, as Leslie Stephen, who became the club’s president in 1865, put it, ‘There we can breathe air that has not passed through a million pairs of lungs.’

Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, also gave intellectual credibility to the new sport, writing that it put mountaineers in touch with the sublimest aspects of nature. But he also recalled “with a sense of shame how on one of the loftiest peaks of Switzerland I spent the precious moments on the summit having my trousers mended by my guide, who happened to be a tailor”. (source: swissinfo)

So after mountaineering became a sport, more and more mountains were climbed until The Big One came on the horizon: Mount Everest itself.

Vintage map and compass

Why Britain’s Mountaineers Were The First to Climb Mount Everest

The British Empire was driven by bloody-minded individuals with a sense of mission, such as Livingstone, Napier and Burton, and one such was Francis Younghusband, the man mostly responsible for the first attempts to climb Mount Everest.

He was a small, heavily moustached man, who was almost the personification of Empire. He had become the youngest member of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1890 received the RGS Patron’s Medal for a great journey through Manchuria, undertaken when he was only 23.

While on leave from his regiment, he pioneered a route between India and Kashgar, prime Great Game territory. This was the term for the struggle between the Russian and British Empires for control over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia.

Later, as a captain, Younghusband was ordered to survey part of the Hunza valley, where he bumped into his Russian counterpart, Captain Gromchevsy, who was surveying possible invasion routes. After dinner they swilled brandy and vodka, and compared their soldiers. They also discussed the possible outcome of a Russian invasion. After this friendly sparring, straight out of a buddy movie, they rode off in opposite directions.

The threat from Russia was therefore very real, and there was an obvious psychological advantage in gaining the high ground- literally- between the two great empires. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, clearly wanted the highest point of the Himalayas climbed, writing that:

“As I sat daily in my room, and saw that range of snowy battlements uplifted against the sky, that huge palisade shutting off India from the rest of the world, I felt it should be the business of Englishmen, if of anybody, to reach the summit.”

In this context it can be seen that the climbing of Mount Everest was more of a political decision than a ‘wild dream’. In its way it was the British Empire’s moon-shot, with similar political motivation to the United States’ moon-shot of the 1960s. Crucially, it would plant the British flag on the northern bounds of India.

British and Indian flags over a world map

The problem was that the Tibetans didn’t want to talk to the British and pursued a policy of splendid isolation, keeping foreigners at an arm’s length. Myths arose about this forbidden land, and the desire to explore it grew.

Younghusband was by then Political Officer in Chitral, and the idea of climbing Everest fermented within his mind, particularly as he knew that he could count on the support of the establishment. In the meanwhile Curzon became more anxious about Russian influence in Tibet and decided to do something about it.

His chance came when a small group of Tibetans crossed the border and stole some Nepali yaks. This incursion was the excuse for the infamous Diplomatic Mission to Lhasa of 1904, led by Younghusband, who, on his way to Lhasa, saw the mountain at last:

“Mount Everest for its size is a singularly shy and retiring mountain. It hides itself away behind other mountains. On the north side, in Tibet … it does indeed stand up proudly and lone, a true monarch among mountains. But it stands in a very sparsely inhabited part of Tibet, and very few people ever go to Tibet.”

Younghusband certainly did go to Tibet, and in some style. He was leading a force of British soldiers carrying Maxim machine guns and cannon. A force of 2,000 Tibetans attempted to resist at Gyantse with matchlock muskets, spears and swords. Their lamas assured them the British bullets would not harm them, but when the smoke cleared over 600 of their number had died. By the time the British reached Lhasa the casualties were between 2,000 and 3,000 Tibetans killed, compared with only 202 British soldiers (source: wikipedia).

This would be unacceptable today, but as L. P. Hartley wrote in the first line of The Go-Between : “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This is a point misunderstood by many historical revisionists. In absolute terms though the 1904 invasion of Tibet was deeply regrettable

As a result, though Britain gained privileged access to the closed country of Tibet, and eventually set up telegraph poles all the way to Lhasa. Trading could begin, although some were sad that one of the last veiled mysteries of geography had been ripped aside so brutally.The way was surely now clear for the British to conduct a reconnaissance of the mountain, but it took until 1921 for that to happen.

In 1912 Captain Scott had been beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian polar explorer Amundsen, who pipped him to the post by employing more effective dog-teams, keeping his attempt secret and treating his expedition as a race. The British public was crestfallen, and newspapers started to clamour that Something Had To Be Done.

Edward Whymper had referred to Mount Everest as the Third Pole, and this term now gained currency. British pride had to be assuaged, and the ascent of Everest would do as well as anything else.

After some delay caused by the First World War, permission to reconnoitre the mountain was reluctantly granted by Tibet’s Dalai Lama. In 1921 the first British expedition set off to explore the terrain. With them was a young teacher called George Mallory.

There followed seven further British expeditions to Mount Everest, expeditions that lead to the mysterious deaths of George Mallory and his young companion Sandy Irvine, the loss of other lives, and several failed attempts to within a couple of hundred metres of the summit.

Eventually, after much expenditure of sweat, treasure, and lives, Edmund Hillary finally stepped up on to the summit at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, pulling Tenzing Norgay up behind him. His first words?

“Well, we knocked the bastard off.”

(Source: The Guardian)

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.