Himalayan secrets…

The tale of two Cameras

It all started a long time ago, some 150 million years as experts opine, when the Southern world was one continent, that is, when the mass comprising India, Africa, Australia & South Africa was one land mass named Pangea. This mass later split into India, Africa, South America & Antarctica. Perhaps that was when our affinity towards the northern hemisphere started, and since some 60 million years ago, the Indian mass started to move rapidly across the equator @ 6”per annum, eventually closing up the ocean between them named Tethys. And then the masses collided. Post collision, the momentum continues to push the Indian mass, even now. The Indian plate then slid under the Tibetan plateau some 25 million years ago, and though the movement slowed, it continues in slow motion. The light fragments or minerals like quartz from the surface or the scum as they term it started to rise up forming the mountain range we know today as the Himalayas. The Everest Mountain started to go up and up and is close to 5 ½ miles or 29,030’ in height today. The height continues to increase @ an inch per year. As the Indian plate moved into Tibet, Nepal became smaller and smaller, and the Himalayas started to stoop over India. Today, if you were to spend some time on the mountain and dig, you will actually find fossils from the ancient Tethys ocean easily, strange isn’t it? And well, if you did not guess it already, the tip of Mt Everest is marine limestone, and that warm floor is now exposed to subzero temperatures at times, as low as 100°F below zero...

All the work of angry goddess Chomguluna, said the Nepali populace. But others from afar like the Swiss, the English and others more local like the Nepalese, the Chinese and Indians continue to scale the top of this young mountain. Every year a new record is set, for every year the Everest is taller by an inch. Many lose their lives, and the mountain is a literal graveyard with many hundred dead bodies amidst lots of trash. Today we will talk about two of the brave climbers who attempted it and two who retuned back after scaling the top of this rock …

Many years back, I had some rudimentary training on mountaineering. Our teacher in school taking us through the ropes, no actually, up the rocks was one Mr Pandey, our Hindi teacher. I still remember the basics of getting footholds, being close to the rock face, the art of belaying and the correct methods of hammering in crampons. We trained well and I was actually selected to go to the HMI or Himalayan mountaineering institute camp that autumn. But well, it was not to be, they had either a big avalanche or unseasonal snowfall that year and everything got cancelled. It was a pity, and I never got to meet the great Tenzing Norgay who was the then HMI principal at Darjeeling.

One of the subjects we studied in school was the John Hunt expedition and how Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay scaled Everest, beating many odds. After a while the story was forgotten, till I picked up on Hillary the other day and wrote about it. Then I read the book ‘Paths of Glory’ on the Mallory-Irvine attempt, by Jeffrey Archer.

The first team that got really close to scaling Everest was the Mallory- Irvine expedition (there were others in the team, but the final attempt involved only these two and the reasons why Mallory chose Irvine has never been properly explained). The year was June 1924. Mallory was the climber, Irvine was the handy man, having been involved with many an invention and modification and they were using the North Col route. The decision was to climb with oxygen and Irvine was adept with those contraptions that Mallory originally despised. He was also the camera maintenance person of the team. As they climbed, nearing the summit, Noel Odell, the support man saw them on the precarious second step (or perhaps the third) of the northeast ridge close to the summit (just 800 ft or some 3 hours away). Did they go beyond that point? Did one or both reach the summit? The questions have never been answered. The second step is a 15’ ledge that is particularly difficult to clamber and today there is an aluminum ladder in place for people climbing to it, but in those days one had to climb on another’s shoulder to get there, easier said than done in a state of extreme and deathly exhaustion, with the heavy oxygen cylinders and kit bags in tow.

As you saw, Mallory and Irvine never returned. Irvine’s ice axe was found near the first step, in 1933,. In 1991 an oxygen cylinder belonging to them was discovered near the 1st step. In 1999, Mallory’s body was found 200ft below the first step. His waist was encircled with the remnants of his climbing rope, and he had a serious rope jerk injury as well as a puncture wound in his forehead, signifying a fall while roped to Irvine and perhaps impalement on his axe. Mallory had planned to place a picture of his wife’s on the summit, which was not found in his pocket. His goggles were in his pocket signifying that he was descending at night and died during the descent, and this would have been so only if he had reached the summit late in the evening (otherwise they would have descended late afternoon). Irvine’s body has never been found, so also the two cameras the team carried. The cameras they carried were Kodak’s VPK vest pocket versions. It is clear from the accounts of more recent Chinese climbers that the body of Irvine is still around. A search is currently on for the cameras and Irvine’s body, to figure out if they indeed reached the top. Many call all this myth making, but then who knows? Perhaps there is evidence in the camera, perhaps not, as to whether Mallory and/or Irvine were the first on the summit.

The Kodak VPK autograph series of cameras were made in great numbers between 1915-26 and were reasonably affordable back then, costing $7.50-$10.00.One could write on the back of the film with a pen attached to the camera. Today the camera in question lies frozen at some 26000’, perhaps holding in its frozen innards the mysteries of that climb…

Now we get to the successful climbers Hillary & Tenzing. A myth states that Tenzing Norgay was not really born in Nepal around 1914 as a Sherpa, but had been born Namgyal Wangdi, a Tibetan Khamba in a yak herder’s hut on the east side of Everest, the mountain his people called Chomolungma. But after disease killed his parents' yaks, Tenzing's family were left destitute. In desperation, Tenzing was essentially mortgaged by his father as an indentured servant to a Sherpa family in the village of Thame, across the border in Nepal. Tenzing never forgot the humiliation, and he strived to make a name for himself, refusing to become a monk. Between 1935-53 he had already made 6 attempts with others on the slopes of the Himalayas. By 1952 he was already a regular climber, a sirdar managing other Sherpa’s and not just a porter Sherpa. A good climber, he had already reached a record height of 28,000’ with Swiss Raymond Lambert, just 1029 feet below the summit. In May 1953, Tenzing joined the Hunt expedition. This time the ascent was planned through the South Col as the Chinese had already closed the Tibet side that led to the North Col route.

The South Col Route was taken by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for the ascent and is still the route used most frequently. It goes through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and Western Cwm up the Lhotse Face and past the South Col and Hillary Step to the summit.

The North Ridge Route is the second-most popular route. It's a more difficult climb technically and requires a longer descent at high altitude than the Southern Route, though it avoids the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall.

Edmund Hillary kept bees for a living and was also experienced with various expeditions by then. In 1951 he had been on an aerial reconnaissance of Everest. He almost pulled out of the climb when he found that his pal Shipton had been replaced by Col Hunt. But he remained and found himself paired with Tensing for the climb up the Mt Everest. Interestingly Tenzing was to become his savior, rescuing him during a fall down a crevice. Edmund Hillary was to make history with tensing and record it for posterity in his camera, also a Kodak, but this one was made in Germany.

Avid adventurer John Goddard recounts the interesting background relating to this camera purchase, which will have a bearing on this narrative.

Ed was to meet up with the expedition in India, but discovered not long before he sailed that there was no official provision for photography by the high teams, so was tasked with getting his own camera to cover this. He wasn't knowledgeable as a photographer, so went along to a camera store for advice on what was suitable for a climber's camera. They sold him the pre-war Retina. I believe the store in question was Town Hall Cameras, near the top end of Queen Street, Auckland. Ed had the Retina instruction booklet, a film and spare time on the sea voyage to teach himself how to use the camera. Because the early Retinas, in common with many leaf-shutter 35mm cameras, had no body release, it also had no interlock between the film wind and the shutter release. The film release lever had to be moved after each shot to allow you to wind on, then you re-cocked the shutter. Ed hadn't got into a routine with this sequence during the expedition, and said he scored quite a few blank frames on eachfilm. Inadvertent double exposures could have been equally likely, I suppose, but he hadn't mentioned them. The Retina was a type 118, in very nice condition, and had travelled very well and carefully for a climber's camera.

Hilary and Tenzing set out on 28 May to the summit after the other team had oxygen equipment issues close to the summit and aborted. After an issue related to Hillary’s frozen boots which wasted much remaining time in having to thaw them, he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent wearing 30-pound packs. The crucial move of the last part of the ascent was the 40-foot (12 m) rock face later named the "Hillary Step". Hillary saw a means to wedge his way up a crack in the face between the rock wall and the ice and Tenzing followed. They reached Everest's 29,029 ft (8,848 m) summit, the highest point on Earth, at 11:30 a.m. As Hillary put it, "A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top."

They spent only about fifteen minutes at the summit. Hillary took the famous photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe, but as they said, since Tenzing had never used a camera, Hillary's ascent went unrecorded. However, according to Tenzing's autobiography 'Man of Everest' when Tenzing offered to take Hillary's photograph Hillary declined - "I motioned to Hillary that I would now take his picture. But for some reason he shook his head; he did not want it". Afterwards, Tenzing was met with great adulation in India and Nepal. Hillary and Hunt were knighted by Queen Elizabeth, while Tenzing received the George Medal from the British Government for his efforts.

So as we know, Tenzing and Hillary were the first people to conclusively set their feet on the summit of Mount Everest, but journalists being what they are, were persistently repeating the question which of the two men had the right to the glory of being the first one, and who was merely the second, or the follower. Colonel Hunt, the expedition leader, declared, "They reached it together, as a team."

In an interview with Joshua Hammer Sir Edmund had reminisced about how Norgay had saved his life by quickly checking his fall into a bottomless Everest crevasse. "Tenzing and I were a team," said Hillary, "and it was teamwork which got us up Everest." Norgay on the other hand enthralled Hammar with the oft-told story of his final ascent up Everest with Hillary, but he declined, as always, to reveal the secret that has intrigued the world for all these years: Who really got up there first? "It was partnership—Ed and I, we together from start to finish," Tenzing insisted, flashing his bashful smile. "This is one question that can never be answered."

Since then the question has been asked so many times, Hillary alluded to his being the first, much later and Tenzing concurred in a later biography. He said: "If it is a discredit to me that I was a step behind Hillary, then I must live with that discredit. But I do not think it was that."

Well, both of them are gone now, nobody to corroborate the other or wish to, so why not take a second look at the camera and the photo session with a second hand Kodak Retina (118 second type, released during the late 30's, and about 9,000 were sold) with an uncoated Carl Zeiss Jenna Tessar lens. Goddard opines - Ed had to remove two of 3 gloves from his right hand to operate the camera on the summit - he had an inner silk glove which enabled controls to be manipulated. On May 2003 the National Geographic magazine published the frames taken by Hillary during the climbing with Tenzing, most frames are B&W (due to wrong exposure settings) despite they were Kodachrome, but the photo with Tenzing on the summit is in color.

In Hillary’s book, he says the following – I waved Tenzing up to me. A few more whacks of the ice axe, a few more weary steps and we were on the summit of Everest….I took the camera out of my windproof and clumsily opened it with my thickly gloved hands. I clipped on the lens hood and the ultra violet filter and then shuffled down the ridge a little so that I could get the summit into my viewfinder. Tensing had been waiting patiently and now at my request, he unfurled the flags around the ice axe and standing at the summit held them above his head. The thought drifted through my mind that this would be a good photograph if it came out at all. I didn’t worry about getting Tenzing to take a photograph of me, as far as I knew, he had never taken a photograph before and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how.

He then talks of taking photographs in every direction, placing a cross given by Hunt (Tenzing’s 1953 biography states that Hillary actually left a cloth cat and not a cross) at the summit, while Tenzing placed his chocolates there and they started the descent after 15 minutes after Hillary picked up a handful of stones as souvenirs.

Following the ascent Tenzing felt that Hillary had made several disparaging remarks about him and his contribution to the climb. In 'Man of Everest', Tenzing says "Hillary is my friend. He is a fine climber and a fine man, and I am proud to have gone with him to the top of Everest. But I do feel that in his story of our final climb he is not quite fair to me: through he indicates that when things went well it was his doing, and when things went badly it was mine. For this is simply not true."

After Tenzing’s success he was awarded the George Medal, but not a knighthood. Tenzing died of a bronchial condition in Darjeeling, India, in 1986. His memories weren't always comfortable. It is said that towards the end of his life, Tenzing had struggled with loneliness and alcoholism and had a difficult phase with his last wife. However, Hillary and Tenzing remained friends throughout their lives. Tensing was to say that the Rs 2,000 insurance and the prospect of pension for life kept him climbing, and leaves some tidbits of the expedition. Interestingly he had done away with the kukri much before the climb, he had a Swiss army knife and wore Lambert’s red scarf for luck, for he was always worried that Lambert’s ghost was up there near the summit. He was also worried in those days that the burra sahebs would carry off the goddess to Britain or that a yeti would devour him, and then it is interesting that luke warm nimbu pani – lime juice that kept the two hydrated during the climb, not fancy Gatorade or some other energy drink.

But the mystery will always remain – Who reached the summit first? What actually happened as they came down Everest?

To understand that you must realize that India had just been granted independence and Hunt as well as the British establishment wanted to clearly have a British subject be the first atop the summit. My take is that if Hillary was the first, Tenzing would not have bothered about refuting it for Hillary was a sahib to him. Even if Tenzing was bothered, nobody would care for his take too much in the west as he was not strictly speaking, an Indian or a British subject. So why did they say that both reached the summit (almost) together? Was it so that Tenzing was the first and Hillary did not want false credit or liked any falsehoods propagated about him being the first? Was it because of anticipated violent crowd reprisal in Nepal & in India? Or was it because the only proof, the picture taken by Hillary showed Tenzing atop the mountain and that there was only one picture taken because Tenzing was the first? We have seen that clicking a button was not rocket science and it would not have taken Tenzing hours to learn how to click a picture. Provided Hillary had cocked the camera, all Tenzing had to do was aim and push down the plunger to release the shutter. Yes, he should be still during that time, but Hillary could have easily taken the risk with a few pictures, correct? I am also sure he had ample rolls of film. Surprises me also that a photo at Everest was not important for Hillary, but time to walk down and pick stones as souvenirs was!! But then again, it was as recorded, a gentleman’s agreement between them that they will share the laurels.

Kodak has stopped making film cameras and is close to bankruptcy. All the climbers we talked about, are dead, Tibet continues to rise up with the Himalayas while the Indian plate burrows into Tibet and the Himalayas slouches over India as Nepal becomes thinner by the day.

Today the only steps that I climb are the few at the gym, an occasional steep staircase or the small hillocks while trekking on Saturdays. But my thoughts and imaginations continue to scale mountains, dive deep under the oceans and fly many miles into space, when not traversing the centuries that we left behind. That will be a constant.

So who reached the summit first? You decide….


High Adventure- By Edmund Hillary
Fallen Giants: By Maurice Isserman, Stewart Weaver
Confetti of Empire: The Conquest of Everest in Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand – Peter Hansen

“ It has been a long road ... From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals, who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax. Tenzing Norgay ”

Some notes from Peter Hansen’s analysis of the chaos after the descent to the land of the living

It was a strange situation. Who were these three people at center stage? John Hunt was of Welsh origin, Indian born, from Calcutta. Tensing was from Tibet, brought up as a Sherpa, living in Indian Darjeeling for many years, now free of the empire. Ed Hillary was a New Zealander, a British colony, but a white and very much a commonwealth citizen. The American magazine Life recorded Tenzing saying in his own broken English: "For me Indian Nepali same. I am Nepali but I think I also Indian. We should all be same-Hillary, myself, Indian, Nepali, everybody." John Hunt declared on arrival in Calcutta, after the events "I feel as if I have come back home." Hunt had been born in India and served in the Indian police near Calcutta in the 1930s. Most press coverage and public events in India, however, celebrated Tenzing as an Indian citizen.

As Hansen puts it - In the period that followed, the "conquest" of Everest became a symbol of nationalism in Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand. Since each of these nation-states claimed the ascent as their own. The expedition's return to Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand was profoundly influenced by the process of state building in the wake of empire. Britain competed with Nepal, India, and New Zealand to claim credit for the ascent since each of these nation states had recently become independent.

In Kathmandu, a "Tenzing Ballad" was sung in the streets, and placards showed Tenzing hauling a recumbent Hillary the last fifteen feet to the top. After Indian newspapers reported "Tenzing was First Man to Set Foot on Everest," Hunt said in an interview that Hillary had been first on the rope. While Hunt praised Tenzing's role in the ascent, he added that Tenzing was "a good climber within the limits of his experience." Tenzing reacted angrily to Hunt's comments, asking: "Is there any living man who has been on Everest seven times in a total of eleven expeditions?" Hunt soon apologized, and Hillary and Tenzing issued a joint statement that "we reached the summit almost together." The heavily edited official statement that they reached the summit "almost together," for example, suggests that the climbers and British officials who drafted it agreed with the underlying assumption that only one person could be first.

Nehru's relationship with Tenzing was interesting. "Since I had hardly any clothes of my own," Tenzing recalled, "he opened his closets and began giving me his. He gave me coats, trousers, shirts, everything-because we are the same size they all fitted perfectly." At later public events, Tenzing stood literally draped in Nehru's own jacket as a symbol of the secular Indian citizen.

But in the end, the three lived through the thick political mire left by the departing British and the political chaos created by the new incumbents. After all, they had braved the more challenging Mother Nature in the five and a half mile climb up to the summit.

Pics - various on the net - thanks to the uploaders...


Happy Kitten said…
But my thoughts and imaginations continue to scale mountains, dive deep under the oceans and fly many miles into space, when not traversing the centuries that we left behind.

and thanks to this, we get to read many interesting titbits from history..

one day the camera shall be found and the mystery solved..
Maddy said…
thanks HK,
glad you found it interesting..
though not many agree that looking backward is interesting...
i do, i guess it does after a stage..not in your youth though..
Rajat Pillai said…
I had read 'Paths of Glory', but your level of detailing of the cameras used and other details are mind blowing. I am a software project manager and author of a historical fiction book. Home town is Trivandrum (Loved your blogs on Calicut & Kerala History ). Sir, nice to know that there is someone out there doing this kind of stuff. Looking forward to read more such blogs.
Maddy said…
Thanks Rajat..
was a pleasure hearing from you and glad you liked what you read. plenty more on the way and of course I look forward to reading your book as well..
Rajat Pillai said…
Thanks ! Do add me on Facebook. People with similar interest should always stay in touch.
Maddy said…
thanks rajat..
i am one of the few on this planet not on facebook, never found the time to start an a/c...but you have my mail i.d in the profile..

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