Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Prelude to Everest, by Mitchell & Rodway

Ian Mitchell and George Rodway write the first book-length biography of Alexander Kellas in their Prelude to Everest. During my Everest reading, I often thought that this revolutionary figure deserved more attention, and I had hoped to one day write this book myself. I'm glad, however, that these two fine researchers saved me a lot of digging and present Alexander Kellas in the fullest sense currently possible. The authors managed to pull together a biography of a man who did his climbing a hundred years ago, kept no journal, wrote of his climbs only sporadically, often got dates mixed up, and published little of what he did write. Kellas, however, is credited with the most advanced study of high-altitude physiology of his time, "discovering" the usefulness of Sherpa climbers, climbing the highest mountain on record at the time, working out the best route to Everest, and climbing more Himalayan peaks that any other mountaineer of his day (without guides, or even other Europeans along for the climb, to boot!).

In addition to uncovering the often mysterious story of Kellas, Mitchell and Rodway add some important information to the story of Mount Everest. In the book, they include a draft proposal by Kellas for Col. Rawling's intended 1915 reconnaissance of Everest that failed to materialize due to the outbreak of the war. The personnel of this dreamed-of expedition includes several members of later Everest climbs, including Wollaston as medical officer, Morshead as surveyor, Noel as transport officer, and Kellas as a climber. I find it fascinating that this planned expedition gets no mention in Wollaston's diaries (Letters & Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston) or in Noel's autobiography (Through Tibet to Everest). Mitchell and Rodway piece together what information exists about Kellas' pre-Everest 1921 travels and reassess the circumstances that led to his death, coming to a surprising conclusion. Also, they include in an appendix a paper presented to the Alpine Club by Kellas in 1920 about the possibilities of climbing Mount Everest that focuses on the physiological difficulties of climbing the mountain, giving a highly-detailed scientific explanation of why he thinks it is just possible for an extremely fit person to climb it without supplementary oxygen (if the mountaineering difficulties are not great) and for someone breathing supplemental oxygen to climb it if the upper reaches are difficult. While Michael Ward had tipped his hat to Kellas in his medical / geographical history of Everest (Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration), Mitchell and Rodway, by publishing this essay, prove that Kellas was well ahead of his time, even predicting the rate of ascent Messner and Habeler would climb the last 1000 feet of the mountain. It's a shame Kellas was such a solitary person! I hope you'll read this book and discover anew this fascinating individual almost lost to history.

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