Monday, June 13, 2011

Letters & Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston, edited by Mary Wollaston

I learned about the life of adventure of "Sandy" Wollaston, member of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance, in the Letters and Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston, edited by his wife Mary Wollaston. This collection covers Wollaston's travels that he did not later turn into books, so his East African and 1st New Guinea expedition diaries are absent, however. He writes in a direct style, and his diaries are both frank and entertaining (after his early diaries, which are little more than avian laundry lists). He writes overall few letters for such a world traveler, and he admits that he does not enjoy maintaining contact through letters. The ones that make it into this collection show him to be a bit socially awkward (at least in letters), and he usually only writes when he gets sentimental for home.

His travels are varied and exciting. After a jaunt through Lapland along with a friend following college, Wollaston decides to take up a medical career to facilitate his being invited on exploratory expeditions. Though he ends up hating his career, he spends surprisingly little time at it after graduation from his medical training, traveling the world instead, as planned. Early in his travels, he ends up on a scientific mission for the British Museum to the Ruwenzori mountains, and manages to bag a couple peaks, though he runs into funding difficulties in his attempt upon the highest peak. While he waits, the Duke of the Abruzzi beats him to the prize; Wollaston plays a good sport and gives the Duke all the information he had gathered in his reconnaissance of the mountain. His next two expeditions are to New Guinea in an attempt to reconnoiter and scale the Snow Mountains. The first expedition is a wash after his crew ascends the wrong river to approach the mountains. His second, however, gets him quite close to the summit of Carstensz Pyramid; with an experienced climbing partner, he likely would have made it. He considers this second trip a failure as well, but it seems to have left a lasting and happy impression upon him. The First World War interrupts his attempt to return to New Guinea, and he joins the Naval Medical Service. For the first part of the war, they ship him around the North Atlantic, but later a friend recommends him for service in East Africa. He ends up serving on land with the army, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, and spending a great deal of time at the base of Kilimanjaro, before returning to the Navy. He is offered a fellowship at Cambridge after his service, and soon after beginning his tenure, he heads to Darjeeling for the Everest Reconnaissance.

His diaries give some interesting information about the Reconnaissance expedition. On an expedition that had such medical trouble, it was interesting to read the medical officer's perspective. He was worried about Kellas until the day he died, at which point Kellas began looking and feeling better. Kellas was carried on a litter across Tibet mainly because there was nowhere appropriate to convalesce until the expedition reached Kampa Dzong; Kellas didn't quite make it. After Kellas' death, Wollaston insists that Raeburn turn around immediately, as he has been exhibiting similar symptoms. Through Wollaston's diaries, we get to read about their travel to Sikkim, Raeburn's stay at the Finnish mission, and Wollaston's catching up to the expedition, all of which gets only spartan coverage in the official expedition account (Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921). Additionally, Wollaston writes about his specimen collecting, even in areas where it was officially forbidden, for his role as expedition naturalist. He appears quite uninterested in climbing Everest, based on his writing, and he adds that he does not want to return for the next expedition, although he found much of Tibet to be a beautiful country. After the Everest trip, there is a final account of his trip, along with his wife, to the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia, in which he does more exploration than climbing.

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