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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 Lum
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.
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.