Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921, by Lieut.-Col. Charles Howard-Bury, part 1

It a bit strange to be well into my Everest reading project and only now to be reading the beginning of the story, Charles Howard-Bury's Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921. Though I was already quite familiar with the narrative of this book thanks to my previous reading, I enjoyed getting all the extra detail absent from the paraphrased versions found in books such as Shipton's Men Against Everest, or Wibberly's The Epics of Everest. Since this is an intrinsic work to the history of Everest and it has such a broad sweep, I'll be breaking it up into two posts. Additionally, since there are so many good paraphrases of this book available in print and online, I'm going to stick to my own impressions rather than recount the plot in this post.

Howard-Bury actually only authors part of this book, giving a broad account of the expedition from his perspective as expedition leader and relating a bit of the geography of the Tibetan lands the expedition traverses. His account reads in a similar fashion to Theodore Roosevelt's trip to Africa, and he spends a good deal of time talking about the animals he shoots. I realize that I have a biased modern opinion, but after a while it began to grate on me when he talked almost daily about how the wildlife had no fear of humans and then how big the horns were of whatever he shot. It honestly didn't occur to me until he mentioned that one of the animals was served for dinner than he was using a gun rather than a camera! I realize it was more likely the influx of the Chinese rather than the British that eventually led to many of these species becoming endangered, but the attitude is largely the same. It makes me a little sad to realize what great efforts Galen Rowell went through to get photographs of some of the same species while on assignment for National Geographic when compared to Howard-Bury's minimal effort of only 70 years previous. I was vindicated later when (nearly back to India) Howard-Bury receives a letter from Charles Bell, the political agent in Sikkim who secured permission for their trek from the Dalai Lama, requesting that they stop the shooting in deference to the views of the religious leadership of Tibet. I recall that the 1924 expedition had a stipulation in their passport that they not kill animals in the area of the mountain; now I understand why. In addition to the game available, Howard-Bury writes much about the flora of area. I feel a little inadequate when he speaks of many of plants he saw. Whereas I can recall the name of most trees in my local forest, Howard-Bury recites the names of flowers, shrubs, trees, and mosses, sometimes even giving the Latin taxonomy of plants in an unfamiliar land. He seems particularly interested in flowers, and he also has a thing for large trees.

He speaks of their travels, and he clues the reader in on the difficulties of travel in Tibet, especially getting reliable directions, fording rivers, and the hassle of hiring new transport every couple days. The expedition receives warm welcomes most places they travel through, the hospitality including large meals and gifts of vegetables, eggs, and livestock. They cross a large area of land unknown to them except through basic maps made from the surveying of Indian pundits, and he is careful to mention passes, rivers, and compass directions often in his narrative. Howard-Bury seems unusually uninterested in the object of their reconnaissance, and he makes only short references to the mountain. His job is to make sure the expedition runs smoothly, and after the party's arrival near Everest, he makes excursions to check on each of the parties and to reconnoiter a second base of operations east of Everest. Considering the varied responsibilities of the crew, it was good for the expedition to have Howard-Bury's relatively hands-off style of leadership, so that each of the members could focus on their own projects, including climbing, surveying, geology, and biology. Next post, I'll cover the narratives of these projects, including George Mallory's sizing up of his mountain.

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