Home Features Cameras at Everest, a century apart

Cameras at Everest, a century apart

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Morning at the Rongbuk Monastery. Courtyard and breakfast time inside.

Somewhere in the expanse of the northern side of Everest is a lost camera. A camera that could provide the answer to one of mountaineering’s biggest mysteries. It is a Kodak Vest Pocket camera dating back to around 1920. And it’s still out there somewhere.

An example of an early Kodak Vest Pocket camera. Compact kit in its day, using 127 film (Image Wikipedia Commons).
An example of an early Kodak Vest Pocket camera. Compact kit in its day, using 127 film (Image Wikipedia Commons, originally provided by Berthold Werner).

Many of you would be aware of the attempt by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine to climb Everest via the northeast ridge on the Tibetan side. However, some of you might not be familiar with the back story, so what follows is a very brief summary of one of the great adventures in human history.

Abiding mystery

George Mallory was a noted British climber early in the last century; some say he was the best of his era.

In the early afternoon of 8 June 1924, Mallory and fellow climber Andrew Irvine were last seen from their base camp in Tibet as they were climbing Everest.

At that time they were moving upwards high up on the ridge, quite near the summit. Then cloud enveloped them and they did not return. The question of whether they succeeded in getting to the top of the mountain remains a mystery to this day.

The body of Mallory was found by American climber Conrad Anker in 1999 on the side of Everest. It had lain frozen for 75 years, and it was evident that Mallory had fallen and broken his leg. The hessian rope that had probably connected him to Irvine was broken, possibly snapped in a fall.

The grim discovery only added to the long-pondered question of whether Mallory and Irvine did reach the peak. Three lines of evidence suggest that maybe they did.

Firstly, Mallory carried a photograph of his wife in an inside pocket. He had made it known that if he reached the top he would leave the photograph there. When his body was found his personal papers were still in his pocket, but the photograph was not there.

Secondly, in his pocket were his dark lens snow goggles, suggesting that his fall might have occurred in low light or darkness after a considered removal of the goggles, very late in the day, which would have provided ample time to reach the peak in the afternoon. The fall could, therefore, have occurred as they were descending.

Thirdly, Mallory’s body was found further down the mountain than where they were last seen ascending, again suggesting that their fall occurred later, on descent rather than on the ascent.

What was not present with Mallory’s body was the Kodak Vest Pocket camera that he and Irvine carried on that day. It is now thought that Irvine might have been carrying the camera. There have since been numerous attempts to find Irvine’s body and, hopefully, the associated camera.

If the camera could be found it is hoped that there might be images that could be retrieved to answer the question of whether Mallory and Irvine did indeed reach the summit Everest twenty-nine years before Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing did so in 1953.

Everest North side – Relatively easy now

It is now much easier to visit the north side of Everest than it was for the British expeditions of the 1920s. However, the route is still the same, so it is thought-provoking to stand at historical locations where those early expeditions saw Everest for the first time, nearly a hundred years ago. Very little of the landscape has changed, so one can accurately imagine the view as it was back then.

On our recent trip I was part of a group of nine westerners who spent nine days in China Tibet trekking in a region to the east of Mount Everest (Chomolongma as it is known in Tibet). I’ll leave the trekking adventures for another report, and instead focus here on the north-east ridge and north face of Everest.

The new China Tibet road into the Everest region as seen from the minibus. Only a few years old, it provides a true road trip across the Tibetan plateau.
The new China Tibet road into the Everest region as seen from the minibus. Only a few years old, it provides a true road trip across the Tibetan plateau.

First views from 30km away

Our first views of Everest from the north hit us in the face from 30 kilometres away. There is now an excellent road, only five or six years old, which has replaced the old gravel track leading towards Everest. It climbs via numerous switchbacks to the top of the Pang La mountain pass (5,200 metres) where we were greeted by a massive first sight of the Himalayas, with Everest right there in front of us. The view is so huge and expansive and immediate that there was spontaneous exclamation within our mini bus. The sight really did hit us in the face.

Photographic records show that the exploratory British expeditions of 1921 and 1922, as well as the 1924 Mallory/Irvine climbing venture, also came through this pass. So, as well as taking in the majesty of the skyline, it was also sobering to be at the same location with the same view as those great explorers of a hundred years ago.

Life for us was to be easy, only a few more hours by sealed road to get to the foot of Everest. The British expeditions took three days to get across to the mountain.

Views from the Pang La

The two images above show the Himalayas from Pang La Pass. Four of the world’s highest peaks can be seen from this location. The first image shows the central view of Everest with Lhotse on Everest’s shoulder, just to the left

The second image is a wide-angle of a grand vista. Some of the extensive switchbacks of the new road can be seen in the front of the wide-angle shot, 64 on one side and 41 on the other going down 1,000 metres into the adjacent valleys give some hint of how high it is.

Photography just doesn’t convey that depth. Similarly, the wide angle of view suppresses the grandeur of four of the world’s six highest peaks: Everest (8,800m) and Lhotse (8,500m) in the centre, the triangular peak of Makalu (8,500m) s just evident midway on the left-side horizon, and Cho Oyu (8,200m) the highest of the ridge on the right.

Everest Base Camp

Nowadays there is only one way to get to the north side of Everest. It involves travelling the last ten kilometres on an eco-friendly China Tibet electric bus. It’s a quiet trip into the Rongbuk Valley, but still following the same route as was used by the British expeditions of the 1920s.

After arriving in mid-afternoon, it was time for everyone to get cameras out. But first of all it was important to just stand and gape at Everest. From the China Tibet side it is just as impressive as what I had remembered from the Nepalese south side seven years before. It really is a monster mountain and no wonder it has been revered by both Tibetan and Nepalese peoples for generations.

The site of the original British base camp is located by a simple stone marker. Again, meaningful to stand there at the same location as the important expeditions of a hundred years ago.

The view at the base camp location. Everest presents an imposing sight. Only approved climbers are allowed to proceed further towards the mountain, a policy enforced by the Chinese military. We didn’t mind that, it was still a very special place to be where we were, and it ensures that the base of the mountain isn’t overrun by hordes of tourists.
The view at the base camp location. Everest presents an imposing sight. Only approved climbers are allowed to proceed further towards the mountain, a policy enforced by the Chinese military. We didn’t mind that, it was still a very special place to be where we were, and it ensures that the base of the mountain isn’t overrun by hordes of tourists.

Overnight at the Monastery

The monastery at the end of the road towards Everest is variously known as the Rongbuk or Rongphu Monastery, the highest in the world. It was at that location in 1924 that the British expedition established their base camp. The head Lama at that time led prayers for the expedition, but he also warned that disaster would befall them. How right he was.

During the Cultural Revolution of the Maoist era, most of the monastery was destroyed. However, it is now being faithfully rebuilt and houses some 50 monks and nuns.

Morning at the Rongbuk Monastery. Courtyard and breakfast time inside.
Morning at the Rongbuk Monastery. Courtyard and breakfast time inside.

Most tourists just spend a few hours in the middle of the day at the original base camp location. They get bussed in, then bussed out to their accommodations at a lower altitude. We didn’t.

For us. it was an overnight stay in the guest house associated with the monastery. It is truly basic accommodation, effectively just a room with a bed, a bowl of water outside the door of the room, and Tibetan style open toilets about 50 very cold metres outside from the rooms. It was indeed very, very basic, yet quite memorable. There is a small dining room within the complex, with two small windows sporting fine Everest views if the weather outside is foul or too cold.

Tough sleeping

The overnight was particularly tough for at least four people in our group. Due to a change of plans we had spent much of the previous week at about 4,000 metres elevation, and for that night at the Rongbuk monastery we had come up to 5,200 metres in one day.

Every time I fell asleep and lapsed into relaxed breathing I woke about five or ten minutes later with my tissues telling me to breathe deeply to get more oxygen into my system. It’s horrible to wake that way so, after a few attempts, I simply resolved to stay awake all night and catch as much oxygen as my lungs could provide.

It was ok to spend the night awake, the guest house bed was warm, but it seemed like an eternity and it was great to see the first light of dawn. Then it was time to get out and catch the early morning light on the mountain.

Looking down from the monastery to the rectangular guesthouse
Looking down from the monastery to the rectangular guesthouse
Looking up towards the monastery from the guesthouse. Heavy duty tents in the centre courtyard are for overflow accommodation as needed.
Looking up towards the monastery from the guesthouse. Heavy duty tents in the centre courtyard are for overflow accommodation as needed.
Trek colleague Tony quietly reading in the late afternoon light in the guesthouse. Every bed provides two substantial quilt blankets, really useful up there on a cold night in a basic room with no heating.
Trek colleague Tony quietly reading in the late afternoon light in the guesthouse. Every bed provides two substantial quilt blankets, really useful up there on a cold night in a basic room with no heating. His commentary about the room was, “plenty of warm blankets but it could do with a bit more oxygen”.

Everest evening and morning

One of the big advantages of staying at the monastery is the ability to simply walk outside and see the imposing northwest face of Everest at any time of day. Again, it was great to wonder what Mallory and Irvine thought as they considered their upcoming climb at this same location so many years ago.

As would be expected, the mountain shows different colours and light at different times during the day, but special were the warm colours high up as the sun set, then the colder whites and blue hues of the early morning.

Above and below: Two images of the progressive sunset on Everest
Above and below: Two images of the progressive sunset on Everest
Sunrise. Photos were taken overlooking the Rombuk Monastery in the foreground
Sunrise. Photos were taken overlooking the Rombuk Monastery in the foreground

Colour or mono

Different locations provide slightly varied perspectives. I especially like the “look” of an image captured by trek colleague Graeme Ebsary on his small-sensor Lumix pocket camera. His colour image was taken from a point a little further back from where I was photographing during the mid-afternoon. His perspective especially shows the insignificance of the people compared with the grandeur of the mountain.

And I particularly like this image of his when converted to black and white. It has a different feel and harks back to the early expedition days when monochrome would have been all that was available.

Everest and the Rongbuk Valley taken from a slightly different viewpoint. Trek traveller Graeme’s image, both in colour and desaturated and tweaked to black and white.
Everest and the Rongbuk Valley taken from a slightly different viewpoint. Trek traveller Graeme’s image, both in colour and desaturated and tweaked to black and white.

Cameras at Everest

All but four of the images presented above were taken with my little Fuji X20. It now represents eight-year-old technology with its 12MP image capture on a 2/3 sensor, but it is my go-to camera when there is a chance of getting caught in an extreme location of dust, dirt, rain, sleet or snow.

Regarding other cameras, I mentioned above one of my favourite images taken by Graeme’s 16MP Lumix SZ1 with its 1/2.3 sensor. Separately, the image looking down on the guest house was from fellow traveller David Allen’s 16MP Sony NEX 5n with its APS-C sensor.

All good cameras, all images that I like, suggesting to me that you just need good glass in front, and that sensor size isn’t so important.

The lead-in picture of the Kodak Vest Pocket camera was downloaded from WikiMedia. It is by far the most important camera in this writeup, and it will be a sensation if the example lost at Everest is found one day.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely photos once again Wayne. I have a hazy memory that Kodak engineers were being lined up to advise on what should be done if the VPK of Mallory or Irvine was ever found. It would have been likely that the film inside would have been frozen hard and the gelatine side might have shattered easily even if the paper backing had survived. The other difficulty would have been to avoid moisture forming in which case the chemicals on the film could have reacted before processing in a lab was possible. I imagine that Kodak engineers are still on ‘stand by’ in some part of the world in case the camera ever turns up.

    William

    • Thank you William, for your added informed insights, both here and below. I’ve only seen the cursory comments by optomists on the ‘net suggesting that if the camera can be found then there is a likelihood that images could be recovered, no matter how compromised by the years and the environment, Your detailed thoughts are a valued addition to the story.

  2. thanks, a very interesting read. Although an uncomfortable night for you it would seem to have given you a real experience of the problems of living, or at least staying, at altitude for those of us who live much lower down. An experience that I am sure you will never forget and that is before the great opportunities it gave you to photograph both the monks living accomodation and of course ‘the mountain’. It’s also interesting to see Everest from a side I don’t think I have seen photos of before – well not recent one anyway.

    • Interesting comment Paul. You are correct that the stay at the mountain is about more than the mountain alone. It is also about the Monastery and the past. It was onky 24 hours there for us, but it was a special 24 hours. Indelible memories of a Boy’s Own adventure of history and mystery.

  3. I have always been fascinated by the Mallory story, and where he ended up. I was glad that one of the two has been found, I am sure in the coming years the other will be found too. It would be nice for the camera to be found, and for us to discover that they did make it, and a bonus if we get to see the images all of these years later.

    As usual Wayne, an excellent account and images. I am looking forward to seeing what else you managed to capture while out there.

    • Gday Dave. If you or others are interested to pursue the Mallory story further just Google “Youtube Everest George Mallory”. There is an excellent BBC program in there titled “Lost on Everest: The search for Mallory and Irvine” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quj0FEt3U-U
      It is just over 1 hour long, but it is engrossing.
      (Ignore the short Youtube segments, they aren’t as good as what the BBC put together).

      • Cheers Wayne 🥰

        I will watch this evening if I am back home in time from watching British cycling event in Rochester Kent.

  4. Very enjoyable read, love the pics. I wonder about the camera if some casual bucket list climber or just tourist climber would they know what it represents if they stumbled onto it? How many climbers do that route a year?

    • Hi John. It won’t be found by a bucket list climber or tourist climber. The North Face is very dangerous and is only attempted by very few very experienced climbers. A few years ago I spoke to a Sydney climber who was part of an Australian expedition searching for Irvine’s body in 2012. He says that there are many bodies out there on the North Face , and that it is a macabre place. Like many other attempts, they didn’t find Irvine, but on one fine day in May 2012 they went for the top and successfully summitted.

  5. Superbly written article, great pictures of a side of Everest, and indeed the world, that we rarely see. The pictures of the monastery, inside and out, are fascinating. This is a trip I likely will never be able to make, as the Chinese don’t like Canadians much these days, so very thankful that you’ve provided us with this account.

    • Don’t discount the possibility that you could do the trip Richard. In our group there were 5 Australians, 1 New Zealander, 2 Americans and 1 Englishman. And you don’t need to do any trekking (even tho we did).
      Just google search “World Expeditions High Road to Lhasa”for the highest road trip in the world, Lhasa to Kathmandu including the overnight at the Monastery and base camp. Anyone can do this trip if they are able to walk 500metres and climb stairs in monasteries. Two of our group were in their seventies and a number of us in our sixties. A great addition to any bucket list. (and be assured that I am not associated with World Expeditions in any way other than as a very satisfied client).

  6. One more hazy memory has come back to me. I believe that when Kodak engineers were being lined up, in case the camera of Mallory or Irvine turned up, they had to be trained as regards the chemical and other properties of early Kodak films which were very slow by comparison with modern films. I have used a VPK on a few occasions and, following the original instructions, it would seem that it was designed for film speeds equivalent to about 5 or 10 ISO. ISO or ASA did not exist as concepts at that time, course. I used modern ISO 100 film (127 format), but I really had to guess exposures using a hand held meter. The earlier VPKs lack any kind of ‘f stop’, and just have descriptions of weather or distances on the aperture scale and there are two speeds for handheld photography, 1/25th and 1/50th.

    William

    • Thanks again William for further comment. I did actually once own a Kodak Vest Pocket Camera which was given to me by my father when he was in the antiques business. It gathered dust for a decade and then I sold it (just like I sold my X Vario. We all make mistakes).

  7. Thanks Wayne for this fascinating article. The three points about the discovery of Mallory’s body were new to me; that about his wife’s photograph was particularly telling. It’s a fact that most mountain accidents occur on the descent. Perhaps one day I’ll make it to the monastery myself, by staying overnight one can start to appreciate the spirit of the place. I agree about small sensors and lens quality; in good light the results can be very impressive as I know from using my Lumix FZ200. My ‘takeaway’ from this was the benefit of having a good zoom lens up there.

    • Thanks Kevin. The Youtube that I mentioned to Dave above tells the story in more and better detail. Well worth the hour viewing if you are interested.
      Separately, your idea of using your FZ200 is excellent. There’s no work trekking or extended carrying it on the High Road to Lhasa road trip. If I had known that about that part of our trip and if you had suggested it prior (?) I could have taken my FZ1000 🙂 It could have provided some special images differentiated from the standard tourist shots.

      • I have just finished watching a YouTube video about an expedition that found Mallory’s body and started another narrated by John Ridgeway. He pointed out that Mallory was a vicar’s son from Mobberley in Cheshire. An interesting follow on from Mike’s article about Ilford Film which is now made in the same village.

  8. Gripping account and pictures mingling present and past. If the implications for our planet were not so serious, one could hope that melting ice might one day give us back Irvine and the camera.

  9. Absolutely correct John. One hypothesis is that Irvine did indeed fall down into the Rongbuk Glacier at the bottom of the North Face, and that his body will naturally reveal at the front of the glacier in about 50 years from now.

  10. Thanks for a most interesting post and beautiful images. I particularly like the ones of taken from the Pang La Pass and base camp.

    They prompted me to dig out my DVD of ‘The Epic of Everest’, it’s the original 1924 expedition film shot by Capt. John Noel and restored by the BFI some years ago. Comparing some of the screens to your images not a lot has changed in 95 years.

  11. Thank you David. You are quite correct that little has changed on the Tibetan plateau into Everest. The road is better now, but the rest looks the same as many of the early images and film footage. Much of it can be found on a YouTube, including a wonderful interview with Capt. Noel in his advanced years providing his perspective on the 1924 expedition in which he was such an important and integral participant.

  12. Thanks for the words and the grand photographs. The last two of the ant-like figures in that colossal landscape are awesome in the true sense of the word. Years ago I saw the film by George Lowe and Tom Stobart of the 1953 Everest expedition; while my memory of the images has faded a little, the sound of rasping breathing has stayed with me.

  13. I’m glad you liked the article Frederick. It was enjoyable putting it together after the event. And yes I too really like trek colleague Graeme’s photograph with the ant-like humans overpowered by the mountain, especially in black and white.
    We didn’t have any raspy breathing on this road trip. But conscious deep breathing sure was good.

  14. I managed to watch the YouTube uploaded old programme, it was genuinely fascinating. And I am probably in the same camp as half the climbers in the film that Mallory probably did conquer this mountain, at the expense of his life. I was also surprised they went up there with no real plan of what to do if they found him or Irvine.

    I must confess that I am of the thinking they should be fewer permits granted for the climbing season on Everest, as the place is a dumping ground for rubbish and those that never came back.

    • Hello again Dave.
      If you use your search engine citing “China Everest cleanup” you will find that China is now doing exactly as you suggest I.e. decreasing the number of permits and mandating cleanup of the north side of Everest.
      It was pertinent that we weren’t permitted to go closer than the original base camp towards the north face of the mountain. Not a problem, it is still a magnificent site from a near distance.

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