What Digital Archives Reveal About the History of Everest

June 11, 2019 Claire O'Neill

Warning: objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

An ironic concurrence—our ongoing digitization project of the Royal Geographical Society’s (with the IBG) archives and the recent headlines following a particularly fatal climbing season on Mount Everest—reminds us just how inextricably linked history is with current events.

In the process of preparing for the fourth collection to launch on the Wiley Digital Archives platform this fall, we’ve encountered incredible original evidence from several historic Everest expeditions throughout the last two centuries of the Royal Geographical Society’s (with the IBG) fellowship; evidence that feels eerily prescient of what’s happening on the world’s highest mountain right now. 

The Traffic

Jam Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, with a summit at 29,029 feet above sea level. Just about anyone today can get a permit to climb Mount Everest no matter their level of experience, but this season has had an unusually high death toll.

This handout photo taken on May 22, 2019 and released by climber Nirmal Purja’s Project Possible expedition. Photo: AFP

Recent reports recounting one of the deadliest climbing seasons ever for Mount Everest are highlighting a surge of inexperienced climbers attempting to reach the summit, causing delays, overcrowding, and putting climbers at risk of altitude sickness, hypothermia, loss of energy and lack of oxygen.

In an article by NBC News, Everest guide Jangbu Sherpa explained, “They don’t train very hard. They underestimate Everest. There are lots of climbers who just want to check the box so that they can say they’ve been to the top of the world.”

But today’s adventure-seekers are hardly the first to underestimate the feat.

“We are about to walk off the map…”

Original expedition notes, correspondence and photographs from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (with the IBG) (RGS-IBG) illustrate the perilous history of attempts to conquer the world’s tallest mountain.

In 1921, the first British expedition was organized and financed by the newly formed Mount Everest Committee, with the goal of mapping and reconnaissance to discover whether a route to the summit could be found. George Mallory assumed responsibility for mapping a possible route to the summit for the first time, and he experienced five months of difficult, strenuous work climbing around the base of the mountain.

“We are about to walk off the map,” Mallory wrote to his wife, before eventually discovering the hidden East Rongbuk Glacier and its route to the base of the North Col. He became the first person to set foot on the mountain, but was unable to pursue the summit due to weather conditions until he returned three years later in 1924.

Determined to reach the peak on his subsequent trip, Mallory returned to Everest with his partner Andrew Irvine, but the two climbers were never seen again after being spotted at the base of the final pyramid. Other expedition members Howard Somervell and Edward Norton made a brave attempt at the climb, but both had to abandon the trek due to medical issues and exhaustion.

Summoning Spiritual Help

Perhaps one of the most notable attempts was that of Maurice Wilson, a well-known British eccentric who was determined to tackle the summit by himself and didn’t let anyone stand in the way of his expedition. Similar to many inexperienced climbers today, Wilson was not an accomplished climber, nor did he possess any of the necessary equipment. He simply stated that he’d reach the summit with spiritual help.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, he did not reach the summit, and his body was discovered a year later by another British expedition. It is said that he was found wrapped in a tent.

The Ninth Expedition, and the First Success

In 1953, the ninth expedition to Mount Everest began, organized and paid for by the Joint Himalayan Committee. Two climbing teams were formed to attempt the summit, with Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon serving as the first pair to set off. While they were successful in reaching the South summit, they were unable to complete their trek due to problems with their equipment.

Full length portrait of Hillary and Tensing. Nepal. March 1953. Photographer: Alfred Gregory. RGS collection.

Two days later, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the second pair to take a turn, and with the aid of standard oxygen equipment, they reached the summit on May 29, 1953. Edmund Hillary, credited as the first man to actually step foot on the summit of Mount Everest, was awarded a knighthood for his achievement.

Thirty-two years after the first expedition was organized, the first two men stepped foot on the summit of Mount Everest, and thousands more have joined their ranks since.

However, as both the death toll of this year’s climbing season and the accounts of the first expeditions found in the archives of the RGS-IBG clarify, it takes more than a permit to reach the peak of Mount Everest, no matter the year.

As Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves…Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”

The Ongoing Effort to Bring History to Light

The primary evidence of the Everest expeditions represents the importance of digitizing archive collections from celebrated societies like the RGS-IBG. But the task is not easy.

Digitizing the archives of the RGS-IBG has been no small feat, with seven staff members (two paper conservators, four project assistants and a project manager) on site who have already amassed over 350 hours of practical conservation (as opposed to assessment) and have completed over 650,000 scans to date.

Image Source: Christos Fotelis

And they aren’t just scanning manuscripts.

This archive houses a range of unique materials, from maps, atlases and field notes to diaries, photographs, drawings, and research papers. As the digitization process continues, additional materials including astronomical observations, cartographical data, essays, bibles, menus, and other ephemera will be added to the collection.

The Royal Geographical Society (with the IBG) Collection will be available on the Wiley Digital Archives platform in August.

To learn more about the Everest expeditions and other stories like this, visit The Wiley Digital Archives RGS-IBG page.

About the Author

Claire O'Neill

Library Services, Wiley //

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