Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935, by Tony Astill

Of all the early expeditions, the reconnaissance of 1935 is the only one without a book by the expedition members to follow; Tony Astill corrects this with his Mount Everest 1935, published in 2005. Astill was able to, through the climbers heirs and trusts, gain access to all of the expeditions members' diaries and many of their letters to lace together the story of the "forgotten" expedition to Everest. As the Everest Committee secured permission for 1935 and 1936 quite late for a trip in 1935, the members decided to use their surplus funds from 1933 to finance a bare-bones reconnaissance of the mountain to be led by Eric Shipton. Shipton brought five additional climbers (Tilman, Bryant, Kempson, Warren, and Wigram) in addition to a full-time surveyor, Michael Spender, with the object of testing the snow conditions on the mountain during and after the monsoon, searching for other possible routes of ascent besides the North Col, testing out new climbers at altitude, and improving and expanding the survey work of Everest and its environs made by the 1921 party. Shipton had a personal objective of showing that a small and thrifty expedition could make as serious an effort on Everest as the large sieges previously thrown at the mountain.

Astill does a stupendous favor to the history of Everest by pulling all this material into a unified tale. Most of what was available about this trip previous to this book's publication appeared in back issues of climbing journals or in the autobiographies of Shipton and Tenzing Norgay (a late, but fortuitous addition to the Sherpa corps at the ripe age of 19). His thorough use of the seven climbing diaries of the expedition members paints a vivid picture of grand adventure that might have otherwise been an asterisk in the history of climbing the world's highest mountain. If anything, in his thoroughness for the sake of the historian, Astill includes too many details for the casual observer. If you're reading the book for the 26 summit climbs (to high peaks surrounding Everest), you may not want to know Tilman's dinner rations measured to the ounce. Since this book's purpose is to uncover nearly lost history, however, I didn't mind (and at times enjoyed!) many of the small things included in the writing, and was happy to see them there for others to consider. In addition to his written sources, Astill has raided to archives of the Geographical Society to include a wealth of photographs taken on the expedition.

For a book about Mount Everest, the expedition members spend surprisingly little time on its slopes. The begin the expedition with a foray to the Nyonno Ri area to survey a blank on the map, begin their climbing, and wait for their official passport that will expedite their further travels. They make a quick trip up the North Col from the East Rongbuk Glacier during the late monsoon and find the snow above the col deep and unconsolidated. On their descent, they discover that a large section of the ice below the col has avalanched where they thought it should not have, and take it as a sign that they do not understand snow conditions during the monsoon well enough to make further attempts on Everest. That does not stop their climbing or reconnaissance, however, and they climb a wealth of peaks surrounding the mountain, make an attempt on Changtse, and assess ascent routes from the west and south of the mountain (to no avail). They even manage to bag a few peaks during their retreat from the mountain via Kharta. Rations are a consistent trouble (though no one starves) on the expedition as the time of year and the location of their climbs are not conducive to drumming up fresh food. If you're a student of Everest history, I highly recommend this book!


  1. Hello Grant
    I enjoyed reading your review of Everest 1935
    Please include my set for further Everest reading
    best wishes
    Tony Astill

  2. Glad to. Thanks for your comment!

  3. NIce book - will think about getting a copy soon! Tony - does the book include a map as well as description of the 26, 20K summits they did? Mant of them can be seen from North Col, but I wonder which ones? This could make room for some future exploratory climbing in the area