Friday, July 20, 2012

The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead, by Ian Morshead

Ian Morshead remembers and reconstructs the life of his father in The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead. It's a bit of a tradition in Britain to write a biography of your well-known relative, and the Everest literature contains a number of such books, including the present volume, David Robertson's George Mallory, Julie Summers' Fearless on Everest (Sandy Irvine), Nicholas Wollaston's My Father, Sandy, Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest, and others. Like Wollaston's book, Morshead's is a poignant tale of a murdered father lost at an early age, though Morshead knew his father long enough to have more than a hazy memory of him. Both of their fathers participated in the 1921 Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition, Wollaston as a naturalist and doctor, Morshead as chief surveyor, but Morshead returned in 1922 to attempt to climb the peak. The beginning and the end of the book are autobiographical, with the author's remembrances of hearing of his father's death and a return to India and Burma many years later to see what he can find of the past, including information about his father's unsolved murder.

Henry Morshead made a number of travels to unsurveyed and remote locations, including Spitsbergen, the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra (with F. M. Bailey), the Garwhal Himalaya, the Northwest Frontier, and he was noted for his hearty constitution and his near imperviousness to discomfort. He wasn't actually an avid mountaineer, even if his climbed high on both Kamet (along with Kellas, see Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest) and Mount Everest, though he often scaled passes and peaks in his role as surveyor. Though Morshead ran the show for the Everest survey, he was only one of a number of surveyors who together mapped a very large amount of uncharted territory and corrected quite a bit of Ryder and Rawling's 1904 survey. In his letters, he alone, perhaps, recognizes the efforts and impact of his Indian survey team. Conversely, I was a bit amazed that he called Wheeler's much-touted photographic method used to survey the massif of Everest "thirty years out-of-date!" It was actually his survey job that prevented Morshead from serving as the transport officer for the 1924 climb.

We gain some fresh insights into Morshead's participation in the 1922 climb of Everest in this book. The author makes sure to point out that his father was only able to put together his kit at the last moment and only using things he was able to pick up in Darjeeling. (If his efforts were at all similar to Earl Denman's 25 years later, as depicted in Alone to Everest, then his kit must have been poor, indeed.) Ian Morshead emphasizes that his father actually ended up borrowing clothes for his summit climb, and that it was most likely a dearth of appropriate clothing rather than his disregard for his health that eventually caused his serious frostbite. Morshead's toughness comes through as he walks quite a bit on the way back from Everest, nearly at a normal gait as they reach Darjeeling, and as he makes light of the loss of parts of his fingers. The Everest chapter is centered on the letters Morshead wrote during the expedition, which find him scheming both about his next family vacation and his next Himalayan adventure with Bailey (perhaps Bhutan, or Lhasa). He is close friends with Jack Hazard, who would participate in the 1924 climb, and coincidentally, Ian Morshead becomes good friends with his Winchester classmate John Mallory, George's son.

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