‘Whether these mountains are climbed or not, smaller expeditions are a step in the right direction.’
It’s 1938, the British have thrown everything they’ve got at Everest but they’ve still not reached the summit. War in Europe seems inevitable; the Empire is shrinking. Still reeling from failure in 1936, the British are granted one more permit by the Tibetans, one more chance to climb the mountain. Only limited resources are available, so can a small team be assembled and succeed where larger teams have failed?
H.W. Tilman is the obvious choice to lead a select team made up of some of the greatest British mountaineers history has ever known, including Eric Shipton, Frank Smythe and Noel Odell. Indeed, Tilman favours this lightweight approach. He carries oxygen but doesn’t trust it or think it ethical to use it himself, and refuses to take luxuries on the expedition, although he does regret leaving a case of champagne behind for most of his time on the mountain.
On the mountain, the team is cold, the weather very wintery. It is with amazing fortitude that they establish a camp six at all, thanks in part to a Sherpa going by the family name of Tensing. Tilman carries to the high camp, but exhausted he retreats, leaving Smythe and Shipton to settle in for the night. He records in his diary, ‘Frank and Eric going well—think they may do it.’ But the monsoon is fast approaching …
In Mount Everest 1938, first published in 1948, Tilman writes that it is difficult to give the layman much idea of the actual difficulties of the last 2,000 feet of Everest. He returns to the high camp and, in exceptional style, they try for the ridge, the route to the summit and those immense difficulties of the few remaining feet.
About the Author
Harold William Bill Tilman (1898 1977) was among the greatest adventurers of his time, a pioneering mountaineer and sailor who held exploration above all else. Tilman joined the army at seventeen and was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery during WWI. After the war Tilman left for Africa, establishing himself as a coffee grower. He met Eric Shipton and began their famed mountaineering partnership, traversing Mount Kenya and climbing Kilimanjaro. Turning to the Himalaya, Tilman went on two Mount Everest expeditions, reaching 27,000 feet without oxygen in 1938. In 1936 he made the first ascent of Nanda Devi the highest mountain climbed until 1950. He was the first European to climb in the remote Assam Himalaya, he delved into Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and he explored extensively in Nepal, all the while developing a mountaineering style characterised by its simplicity and emphasis on exploration. It was perhaps logical then that Tilman would eventually buy the pilot cutter Mischief, not with the intention of retiring from travelling, but to access remote mountains. For twenty-two years Tilman sailed Mischief and her successors to Patagonia, where he crossed the vast ice cap, and to Baffin Island to make the first ascent of Mount Raleigh. He made trips to Greenland, Spitsbergen and the South Shetlands, before disappearing in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1977.
Steve Bell started climbing in 1975 at the age of sixteen. He soon became one of Britain's up-and-coming young mountaineers, notching up winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Eiger north faces before he was twenty-one, as well as numerous first ascents of rock climbs in the south-west of England. He spent a season with the British Antarctic Survey and four years as a Royal Marines Officer, before co-founding Himalayan Kingdoms, a trekking and mountaineering company. He pioneered the concept of commercial high-altitude expeditions in the UK and in 1993 became the first Briton to guide clients to the summit of Mount Everest. In 1995 he founded Jagged Globe, which is now one of the world's leading mountaineering companies. With JG he has led expeditions to all of the coveted seven summits, the highest point on all seven continents. He edited the book, Seven Summits (Mitchell Beazley, 2000), which was published in five countries in four languages. In 2004 Bell emigrated to Australia with his wife and three children. Divorced in 2009, he was diagnosed with a chronic back condition the same year. He is a writer, public speaker and entrepreneur, and lives near Melbourne with his wife, artist Rossy Reeves.