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By Natasha McEnroe on

The tools, tech and people behind climbing Everest

This year marks the centenary of the 1922 Everest expedition and Science Museum Keeper of Medicine, Natasha McEnroe, explores the kit used on the expedition, the innovations in techology the trek inspired and the lesser-known story of the people in Tibet who were a key part of this landmark attempt, as part of our Open for All blog series.

To climb to the peak of Mount Everest was the last high-profile, international challenge – who would be the first to reach the highest summit in the world? The British had failed to be first to the North and South poles and were eager to beat all competitors to Everest – and a reconnaissance climb in 1921 and unsuccessful attempts on the summit in 1922 and 1924 made headlines across the world.

Despite the headlines, the records show a distinct lack of information about the many people who played a key role in these expeditions but whose contribution has not been recognised.

A British-backed expedition, the European team relied on hiring people in Tibet to organise routes through the country and other work essential to the success of the project. These people, who include Tibetans, Sherpas and Bhotiya, for the most part have remained nameless in the written and visual recordings on this expedition.  

The Everest climb of 1922 is an important one as it was the first time that climbers used oxygen to allow their bodies to operate in high altitudes.

The history of this expedition also demonstrates scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of the human body and the manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Can historic objects held in the Science Museum’s collections help us to reconsider this landmark expedition?  

Empty oxygen cylinder made for the 1922 Everest Expedition

A member of the 1922 expedition to the summit of Everest was George Finch, who taught chemistry at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College.

Finch worked with the British Oxygen Company in constructing the cylinders to be used on the climb, which weighed over 13 kilos and could not be made any lighter – which raised the question of whether the effort of carrying such heavy apparatus was worth the benefits of breathing oxygen at high altitudes.

The apparatus also involved masks over faces or held between teeth, another aspect that was unpopular, as were the regular technical drills that Finch insisted on.

He later stated, ‘By the time we reached Base Camp, I found myself almost alone in my faith in oxygen.’ But by using oxygen on the 1922 climb, Finch and a small team climbed higher than anyone before – 8,320 m above sea level. Some of Finch’s design features are still used today in modern oxygen tanks.  

“Tabloid” medicine chest, empty, used on 1924 Mount Everest Expedition, made and patented by Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., London, 1887-1924.

Another essential piece of equipment were medical supplies. Sir Henry Wellcome, pharmaceutical millionaire and obsessive collector, sent his Tabloid medicine chest with every high-profile trip, including the Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924.

The Tibetan members of the team might have carried doctor’s bags like this one, also from Sir Henry Wellcome’s historic collection, now held at the Science Museum’s collection – it contains small tools used for medicine needs, and over 50 bags of different treatment.  

Leather and cloth medicine bag with drawstring, containing 50 small leather bags full of medicine, plus 4 instruments, Tibetan.

In addition to the pursuit of fame and financial reward, some motivation from the British team might be seen in their immediate histories.

In the First World War, George Finch had worked on explosives in Salonica, whilst Howard Somervell, as a medical student, has served as a surgeon in a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme.

Men used to extended periods of time in high stress situations perhaps found it hard to adjust to life in peacetime, seeking out dangerous activities with high stakes.

Somervell, in addition to being a surgeon, was also a skilled amateur artist and perhaps used his art as a way of processing wartime trauma. This watercolour held in the Science Museum’s art collections, shows Pumori, a lower mountain near Everest, as seen from the Rongbuk glacier.  

Painting – “Pumori from the Rongbuk Glacier” / by Dr T. Howard Somervell, made in 1924, on the Everest expedition of that year, and exhibited in the Science Museum in 1978 in the Exhibition marking the 25th Anniversary of the Climbing of Everest.

The men who were from communities near Everest – usually described as “porters” in the memoirs of the British – would have had a very different view of the expedition and one that will take further research to uncover.

Although skilled at climbing and essential to any successful ascent, the Tibetan people viewed the mountain as a spiritual place rather than for its potential to achieve glory. The pay and other expenses given to local facilitators is recorded in the accounts of the expedition, and the photographic and film record shows some of them using the oxygen equipment.

There was also clearly a hierarchy within the local people, with more experienced climbers and those with knowledge of English appearing more in the written and photographic records, and these are the people who are named.  

The best record of the 1922 climb of Everest is the film Epic of Everest, showing footage of the climb, the team and the local populations created by mountaineer and filmmaker John Noel, using a cinecamera now held by the Science Museum Group.

Noel’s portrayal of the Tibetan people would now be considered offensive and cliched, and even at the time, his lack of sensitivity to cultural differences contributed to a later breakdown of relationships between Tibet and Britain.  

Film buffs might be interested to compare Epic of Everest with a Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, showing the extraordinary climbs of Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal Purja and his team in 2019.

35mm ciné camera with canvas case, film cassette by Newman Sinclair used by Captain John Noel on the 1922 Everest expedition with Ross one and a half inch special cine express f/35 lens.

 As with the use of scientific advances such as oxygen, and the possible motivation of the British team, much of Epic of Everest is not as it first appears.

The role of the local intermediaries is largely obscured by Noel in this film, and in particular, a tragedy that occurred is not included in the footage.

Following an avalanche, seven of the local people taking part in the climb lay dead – and unlike the death of George Mallory two years later, they did not make front page news. Their names were Thankay, Sangay, Temba, Lhakpa, Pasang Nangya, Pema and Norbu.  

The needs and prerequisites of the 1922 expedition to Everest drove ahead scientific innovation especially in lightweight design of climbing materials, clothing, film equipment and knowledge of the body in physical extremes. This impacted in turn on the fields of medicine, aviation, cinema and even space travel.

It is this innovation that is captured and evidenced by collections such as those held at the Science Museum. The limits of such collections is that areas that were not considered important at the time, which includes the contribution of non-British people, are not reflected in the material culture.