Thursday, May 10, 2012

Through Tibet to Everest, by Capt. John Noel

Capt. John Noel writes a thoroughly enjoyable account of his adventures on and around Mount Everest in Through Tibet to Everest. The book is a stark contrast to the tedious official-speak found in the official accounts of Howard-Bury (Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921), Bruce (The Assault on Mount Everest 1922), and Norton (The Fight for Everest 1924), and is easily the most enjoyable account of the early climbs for the casual reader. (Though the story lacks the drama of Younghusband's The Epic of Mount Everest, Noel easily makes up for it in wit and ephemera.) Like Younghusband, Noel covers all three early expeditions (He participated in two.), but he also includes information on his further adventures in Tibet, including his 1913 surreptitious dash towards Everest, and his staying behind in Tibet in 1924 to spend time in Gyantse.

Noel's experience as cinematographer gives him a unique perspective on the expeditions. Though he played protagonist in his 1913 adventure, disguised as a Indian Muslim traveler, in which he turns back 40 miles from his goal after a gun fight with the dzongpen's henchman, his job on later trips allowed him to sit back and watch the expeditions without the entanglements of participation. He missed out on the 1921 climb, but had a front-row seat for 1922 and 1924. Of course, on the 1924 expedition, he had a huge financial stake (as his movie business bank rolled the climb) in a successful climb. Based on his writing, however, I think he built the company and sold shares to get himself back to Tibet for another adventure, rather than his thinking it was a wise investment. He talks about his own foibles in addition to writing about the climbs, including his troubles developing film onsite and his vigils at his "aerie" that provided good, but chilly views of the North Col and Northeast Ridge. Also, Noel seems to have a pretty good respect for the people of Tibet, and he shares a lot of cultural details.

It's hard to believe Noel missed the 1921 expedition, as perhaps only Prof. Kellas was more keen to reach the mountain than he. If anyone truly had inescapable professional obligations, it must have been Noel. (There is some controversy about Bruce's non-participation. See Davis' Into the Silence.) Like Kellas, he was among the members slated to participate in Col. Rawling's proposed 1916 expedition that disappeared with the declaration of war. Among the early Everesters, Noel has the highest regard for Kellas, and they would dream up ways of approaching Everest in Kellas' chemistry lab. (For more information in Kellas, see Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest.) Kellas and Noel's relationship comes through in the Appendices, both with Noel's recommendations for a more efficient oxygen system and for his recommendation that man conquer Everest with science. Many of his recommendations are prescient, such as his demands for a rope hand line up the ice faces, wireless communications, a prep-team (read: Sherpas) who stock the mountain versus a climbing team, modern cooking equipment, a better diet, the establishment of yak transport to the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier. You'd think he dropped in on one of Russell Brice's Himex expeditions! The only thing left for Brice to do is to install metal huts at 25,000 feet. Noel's recommendation of dropping an airplane passenger onto the summit by dropping a rope is perhaps a little less doable.

It's clear that Noel loves his subject. He writes with a sense of amazement about the things he witnesses both on the climbs and throughout Tibet. The book has a number of photographs taken by the author. For a more in-depth portfolio, see his Everest Pioneer, collected by Sandra Noel. Noel writes a refreshing book. I hope you like it!

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, which can be found here.

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