Every year people travel from all over the world to see, and sometimes to climb, the highest mountain in the world, while countless others are inspired by the tales of heroism and endurance, triumph and disaster attached to it. None perhaps have fired the public imagination more than the pioneering expeditions of the 1920s. What did happen to Mallory and Irvine when they disappeared into the clouds on 8 June 1924? Not even the discovery of Mallory’s body high on Everest in 1999 has resolved the mystery.
With the passing of the years, the achievements of the early expeditions have come more clearly into view, along with the remarkable individuals who participated in them. Who were these men who look out from the black-and-white photographs, a motley crew in ill-assorted garments who look for all the world like a convention of vagabonds? As well as some of the finest climbers of their generation, they included explorers and adventurers, surveyors and cartographers, geologists and naturalists, medics and painters, photographers and film-makers.
Standing literally head and shoulders over the others in some of the group photographs was Edward (‘Teddy’) Norton. In 1922, accompanied by George Mallory and Howard Somervell, he reached a record height of 26,985 ft without supplementary oxygen. Two years later, he pressed on alone after Somervell had been forced to give up and reached a height of 28,126 ft, a world altitude record without oxygen, unbroken for 54 years. He was also the leader of the 1924 expedition, and had the responsibility of calling off the search for Mallory and Irvine as the weather closed in, to prevent further loss of life. The qualities of leadership which he showed throughout the 1924 expedition have led to him being regarded as one of the greatest of all Everest expedition leaders.
Edward Norton was my grandfather, though sadly I never knew him, as he died before I was born. From time to time the family is asked if it has any of his Everest clothes or equipment. Unfortunately not. As a professional soldier, he spent the subsequent years moving between England and India, ending with a spell as Acting Governor of Hong Kong during the Second World War. None of his Everest kit survived the repeated moves. But he did keep a small collection of documents from the Everest expeditions, including diaries, letters and sketchbooks.
The diaries and letters provide a first-hand account of the joys and hardships of expedition life across the Tibetan plateau as well as on the mountain itself. Somehow, in the midst of all the demands of the expeditions, he also found time to make over a hundred watercolours and pencil drawings. An accomplished amateur artist, he produced many striking landscapes, as well as sketches of the animals, birds and flowers encountered en route. Pictures of local people are accompanied by witty, affectionate caricatures of the other expedition members. From his sketchbooks, the lost world of pre-war Tibet, which we are accustomed to view through the lens of black-and-white photography, emerges in vivid colour.
All of this material has been carefully preserved by the family, who have decided that the time has come to make it available to a wider public. These previously unpublished texts and sketches will not solve the mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s fate – though the controversy regarding the recently-auctioned ice-axe which Mallory is said to have used during his 1922 summit attempt with my grandfather is addressed! They do provide new information on the attempts on the mountain itself, and they give a more rounded picture of the remarkable early Everest expeditions as a whole, expeditions which have earned an enduring place in the annals of human exploration.
By Christopher Norton