Attack on Everest by Hugh Ruttledge, New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1935, 339 pages.
Hugh Ruttledge’s Attack on Everest is an account of the 1933 British expedition to Mt. Everest, only the fourth ever expedition to the world’s tallest mountain. Those knowledgeable about the history of climbing will realize that this books precedes by two decades the first successful ascent of the Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Naturally then, Attack on Everest, tells of an expedition which ultimately did not succeed in conquering the mountain.
The 1933 expedition benefitted from the knowledge gained of previous expeditions. The British had mounted a reconnaissance expedition in 1921 and had attempted the peak in 1922 and again in 1924.
The expeditions previous to 1933 were deadly. While the 1922 expedition ended with the deaths of seven porters in an avalanche, the 1924 expedition famously took the lives of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their summit attempt. Even the reconnaissance in 1921 saw the death of Alexander Kellas who died of a heart attack in Tibet on his way to the expedition.
Ruttledge,who was himself the leader of the 1933 expedition, details the preparations made for the expedition. He notes a variety of tents used including a “good bell-tent made by the Muir Mills of Cawnpore” designed to hold fourteen men but used by twenty-one Sherpas lying in like sardines. Ruttledge notes, “the Sherpa likes company and warmth and despises ventilation.” (p. 52) Of boots he tells us that a Mr. Lawrie of Burnley “devised a boot having a sole of two thicknesses of stout leather, with an intervening layer of asbestos sheeting.” (p. 53) They also brought “a light bridge ladder made by the McGruer Hollow Spar Company of Gosport” for crossing over crevasses but never found use for them despite the ladder being “a most ingenious contrivance.” (p. 56-57) They brought 4,000 ft of specialty rope, and for oxygen “a highly efficient apparatus” that weighed “only 12 3/4 lbs.” (p. 58) For food, a “high-altitude ration was put together.” It included “a liberal provision of Truda’s toffee, Kendal mint, maple sugar, tinned and preserved fruits, jams, tinned cafe au last, Ovaltine, cocoa, Bourn-vita, Messrs. Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits and Brand’s essences.” (p. 60) Ruttledge also notes that “Inventors were much stimulated by the preparations. One gentlemen offers to lay a system of gas piping up the mountain for the delivery of oxygen at the high camps.” (p. 62-63)
As a boxing fan, I appreciated Ruttledge’s reference to “Signor Carnera,” (p. 74) — that is the world heavyweight champion at the time, Primo Carnera, a 6 ft 6 in giant from Italy.
Getting to the base of Everest was itself quite the challenge in those years. Among the events that transpired on that journey was that one of the members of the expedition was bitten by a Tibetan Mastiff, one of the largest breeds of dog in the world. (p. 110)
Once on Everest the expedition began their piece by piece move higher and higher up the mountain establishing a series of camps along the way. Though each man had his share of hardships on the trek, perhaps George Wood-Johnson had it the worst. He, who had been previously bitten by the Tibetan Mastiff, later had a gastric ulcer.
Further up the mountain, Ruttledge recollects,
“The party would off in single file up the rocks of the north arete, leaving me to solitary contemplation of one of the most magnificent views it has ever been my luck to see. I remember the long shadows cast by the rising sun as the men moved over the snow of the Col, and the still, dark savagery of the western side, which the light had not yet reached. Above towered the gigantic north face of Mount Everest, the very embodiment of silent strength.” (p. 167)
At over 25,000 ft one hiker, Dr. Raymond Greene, found the remains of a camp from 1922 and in it an oxygen cylinder, still full and still functional. Ruttledge notes, “He sat down and tried it for a half a minute. The result was remarkable; everything around seemed to brighten; a lost sense of color returned; for the moment he felt strong, and was able to resume the climb.” (p. 170)
As the expedition proceeded, the weather, especially the wind, worsened.
Wyn Harris found an ice axe stamped with the name of its maker—Willisch of Tasch in the Zermatt Valley—presumably belonging to George Mallory or Andrew Irvine from nine years prior, at a location “250 yards east of the first step.” (p. 195) Likely not wanting to carry any extra weight, they left the axe where they found it and proceeded upwards. Ruttledge later concludes “if our theory as to the scene of the accident is correct, Mallory and Irvine fell on the descent.”! Ruttledge quotes from Odell in The Fight for Everest, 1924 showing that Mallory and Irvine were roped together. And so one might think they would have died together in a fall. But when Mallory’s body was found in 1999 the search never found Irvine (nor his camera which might have proved their summit). And so the mystery remains unsolved.
In “the first assault” the party of Wyn Harris and Wager made it to 28,100 ft. before turning back after calculating they did not have sufficient time to safely summit.
The “second assault” was made by Smythe and Shipton. Camping at 27,400, Shipton was prevented from going much further due to stomach troubles, by Smythe “reached about the same place as Wyn Harris and Wager.” (p. 221) Time again proved to be the greatest obstacle and he returned to camp. Smythe did conclude however “In all probability the summit can be reached by an acclimatized man without oxygen, but the odds against him are great.” (p. 223)
With the weather turning bad, and the monsoons expected to extend through the summer, the expedition was forced to discontinue its climb.
Though the 1933 expedition did not succeed in reaching the summit of Everest, there were other measures of success. They had reached an higher altitude than any human being in history and they had gotten there without supplementary oxygen, a feat which was only bested in 1979 by Reinhold Messner who made the peak entirely without the use of oxygen tanks.
Attack on Everest is an adventuresome read and a good primary source for the history of climbing the world’s tallest mountain.