An early history of the 8000m peaks: the Sherpa contribution

This is the second in a short series of posts about the early history of the 8000m peaks. In the first post I introduced three memorable characters. In this, the second post, I look at the Sherpa contribution.

The Himalayan Tigers

The surge in Himalayan expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s created a need to provide reliable staff and supplies, and a handful of notable Himalayan explorers set up the Himalayan Club in 1927. The club was based in Simla in the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi, and it had local branches all over British India.

Its purpose was to assist Himalayan exploration by providing expertise and logistics to climbers and explorers of all nationalities. One of the products of this was a list of reliable Sherpas from Darjeeling who had provided their services to previous expeditions.

The Scottish mountaineering doctor Alexander Kellas was the first person to recognise Sherpas' great ability at high altitude
The Scottish mountaineering doctor Alexander Kellas was the first person to recognise Sherpas’ great ability at high altitude

The first man to notice the Sherpas’ incredible ability in the mountains was a Scottish chemist and climber called Alexander Kellas. Kellas made eight expeditions to the Himalayas between 1909 and 1921. He completed many first ascents of peaks over 6000m, and made the first ascent of 7128m Pauhunri in 1911 with two unknown Sherpas. At the time it was the highest mountain that had ever been climbed.

Kellas shunned elaborate large-scale expeditions, and carried out most of his exploration on his own with just a handful of Sherpas in support. He must have had some amazing stories, but unfortunately he wrote very little about his mountaineering achievements. He did write more about science though. He made many observations on the effects of altitude on the human body, and was known as the world’s leading authority on high-altitude physiology.

Sadly he is best remembered for his contribution to George Mallory’s 1921 Everest reconnaissance expedition. He had just arrived from another expedition to climb Kabru in Sikkim. He turned up late and dishevelled to a dinner party in Darjeeling hosted by the Governor of Bengal in honour of the Everest expedition team. He was ill for the entire journey into Tibet and spent most of it being carried on a litter by porters.

Eighteen days into the journey he suffered a massive heart attack and died while crossing a high pass. He was buried in a brief ceremony at Kampa Dzong, a tiny semi-colon in the Everest story. Mallory and his team mates continued their journey into mountaineering folklore.

For the world’s leading expert on high-altitude medicine to die of altitude sickness eighteen days into the first ever expedition to climb Everest, it’s a bit like Muhammed Ali slipping on a banana skin and knocking himself unconscious eighteen seconds into his Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. Kellas deserves better from posterity and Sherpa mountaineers are surely his most enduring legacy.

While initially employed as porters, Sherpas eventually performed so well at high altitude that the best of them became mountaineers in their own right. The Sherpas on the official Himalayan Club list became known as Tigers, and very few western mountaineers have ever climbed an 8000m peak without their assistance. Fittingly one of them, Tenzing Norgay, made the first ascent of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953.

Kangchenjunga (8586m)

Kangchenjunga from Gangtok in Sikkim, Northeast India (Photo: Ian Horrell)
Kangchenjunga from Gangtok in Sikkim, Northeast India (Photo: Ian Horrell)

The late 1920s and 1930s saw a flurry of expeditions to the 8000m peaks. In 1929 a young American called Francis Farmer tried to climb Kangchenjunga illegally and died somewhere on the South Ridge. A well-organised German expedition led by Paul Bauer reached 7400m on the North-East Spur later that year before being caught in a five-day storm.

The following year an international expedition led by the Swiss Gunther Dyhrenfurth made another attempt on Kangchenjunga from the western Nepalese side. Before leaving for India Dyhrenfurth was contacted by Francis Farmer’s mother saying she had seen her son in a dream being held captive at a monastery in the Yalung valley. Dyhrenfurth promised to look for him, but he didn’t say how. Would his team of elite mountaineers storm the monastery with their ice axes and free the poor captive from his evil monastic kidnappers in a daring night-time raid? We will never know, because when they got there the monastery was derelict, and there was no sign of Farmer or his captors. He probably died on the South Ridge after all.

Dyhrenfurth’s team made very little progress during the climb. They attempted the North Ridge but found it to be an avalanche hell. One of them, Erwin Schneider, was lucky to survive when an ice cliff collapsed and swept him away. Twelve Darjeeling Sherpas were climbing with him, and one of them, Chettan, wasn’t so lucky. Chettan’s death affected morale. The team abandoned the North Ridge and left it for bolder climbers.

K2 (8611m)

K2 from Concordia in Pakistan
K2 from Concordia in Pakistan

In the 1930s American teams followed in the Duke of Abruzzi’s footsteps by making two attempts on K2. Unlike the Italians, they didn’t have any dukes to lead them (apart from Duke Ellington, who probably had to decline the invitation because of a gig). Their 1938 expedition was led by Charles Houston who later explored the south side of Everest in 1950 with Bill Tilman.

It was a successful expedition. Houston and three experienced climbers – Bob Bates, Bill House and Paul Petzoldt – opened the route up the Abruzzi Spur. House completed a difficult rock pitch which is now known as House’s Chimney, and Petzoldt reached as high as 7925m.

By contrast the 1939 expedition, led by German-born Fritz Wiessner, who had become a US citizen four years earlier, is not one of high-altitude mountaineering’s proudest episodes. While Wiessner was a brilliant and determined climber, the rest of his team weren’t, and only one of them Dudley Wolfe, was prepared to do much climbing above base camp.

That Wiessner and a Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama, managed to reach as high as 8370m is testament to the skill of both climbers. In those days climbing high on an 8000m peak required strong support from other team members. But Wiessner may as well have been supported by the crew of the Marie Celeste for all the help he received from his team.

Wolfe, who wasn’t a good enough climber to be attempting a mountain like K2, was left at Camp 8 at 7700m while Wiessner and Pasang made their summit attempt. When the pair returned to the camp they discovered nobody had been up to resupply it and Wolfe was dangerously ill. They managed to get him down to Camp 7, but he could go no further, and they left him there while they descended for help.

Camp by camp Wiessner and Pasang descended and found everything had been cleared by their team mates in their absence. With nowhere to stop and rest they had to descend all the way to base camp at 5400m before they could find anyone able to rescue Wolfe.

At Camp 7 Wolfe was a long way from help and deteriorating rapidly. Three valiant Sherpas, Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso, set off up the mountain to rescue him, but they were never seen again.

Nanga Parbat (8125m)

Nanga Parbat from the Fairy Meadow (Photo: Atif Gulzar)
Nanga Parbat from the Fairy Meadow (Photo: Atif Gulzar)

Meanwhile, German mountaineers were also having problems on another 8000m peak, Nanga Parbat, the mountain where Albert Mummery and two Gurkha officers went missing in 1895.

In 1932 Willy Merkl led a successful reconnaissance which reached 7000m on Nanga Parbat’s East Ridge, and remained free from accidents (although one of the team, Rand Herron, fell and died climbing one of the Pyramids of Giza during a short visit to Egypt on the way home).

By contrast the two expeditions to follow, in 1934 and 1937, suffered 26 fatalities between them. The 1934 expedition had already lost one member, Alfred Drexel, to pneumonia, when on 8 July sixteen of them found themselves retreating for their lives from Camp 8 in a storm.

Two of them, Peter Aschenbrenner and Erwin Schneider (who had narrowly escaped death on Kangchenjunga), were safely back in Camp 4 the same day. Four Sherpas – Pasang, Kitar, Da Thundup and Pasang Kikuli (who would die trying to rescue Dudley Wolfe on K2) – arrived at Camp 4 on 10th, two days later. Ang Tshering arrived there on 12th.

The rest of the team died at different times and different places over the course of an agonising retreat which lasted seven or eight days (no one knows for sure).

Nima Norbu died during an overnight bivouac at Camp 8 on the night of 8th.

Ulrich Wieland died a few metres short of Camp 7 on 9th.

Nima Dorje and Nima Tashi died on the fixed ropes just above Camp 5 on 10th.

Pinzo Norbu got a little futher, but died a few feet short of the tents.

Dakshi had died the same day during another overnight bivouac above Camp 7.

Willo Welzenbach died in his tent at Camp 7 during the night of 12th.

Willy Merkl collapsed at a saddle in the Rakhiot ridge below Camp 7 on 13th. Gaylay stayed with him, and it is believed they both died some time on the 15th or 16th, more than a week into the retreat.

Four Sherpa survivors of the 1934 nightmare on Nanga Parbat - Da Thundup, Pasang Kikuli, Kitar and Pasang - taken by a member of the German team after they descended
Four Sherpa survivors of the 1934 nightmare on Nanga Parbat – Da Thundup, Pasang Kikuli, Kitar and Pasang – taken by a member of the German team after they descended

The disaster which struck the German team in 1937 was more straightforward. The British transport officer Lieutenant Smart of the Gilgit Scouts descended from Camp 4 with a team of four Balti porters to find Uli Luft preparing to head on up in support.

When Luft arrived at Camp 4 on June 18th he could find no trace of it. The entire thing, tents and men, had disappeared under an avalanche of epic proportions, killing 16 people as they slept. Nine of them were Sherpas. It was probably a kinder way to go than Merkl’s team in 1934.

Paul Bauer of Kangchenjunga fame had become heavily involved with Adolf Hitler’s Reich Sports Ministry. It had now become a matter of Nazi pride that Nanga Parbat should be conquered (along, of course, with the rest of Europe). Undeterred by the two disasters of 1934 and 1937, he pressed ahead with another expedition in 1938.

They didn’t climb any higher than the previous expeditions, but they did discover Willi Merkl and Gaylay’s bodies near a feature called the Moor’s Head. Gaylay had not left Merkl’s side. His extraordinary self-sacrifice was up there with Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso’s on the second American K2 expedition. It caused me to nominate him as one of my 10 great Sherpa mountaineers, on behalf of all Sherpas.

The early history of the 8000m peaks has traditionally been seen as a competition between Europeans and Americans to become the first nation to climb one. But as you can see, none of their expeditions could have gone ahead without the help of Sherpas, who often paid for it with their lives.

The history of the 8000m peaks was driven by western exploration, but the Sherpa contribution should never be forgotten.

This text was originally written for my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten-year journey from hill walker to Everest climber. I later edited it out of the book. I could not have climbed Everest, or any 8000m peak, without Sherpa support.

If you enjoyed this post then please consider reading my book, which contains a good bit of mountaineering history to provide some background to my climbs. You can find some other reasons for reading it here.

Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite: A personal perspective on the tigers of Himalayan mountaineeringDid you enjoy this blog post? This post also appears in my book Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite, a collection of the best posts from this blog exploring the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers of the present day. It’s available from all good e-bookstores and is also available as a paperback. Click on the big green button to find out more.

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3 thoughts on “An early history of the 8000m peaks: the Sherpa contribution

  • March 12, 2016 at 12:11 am

    Thank you Mark. Keep up the interesting history lessons.

  • January 4, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Found this an excellent piece. Alexander Kellas was a distant relative of mine and I’m glad he’s finally getting more recognition for all he achieved. In a curious twist, my grandfather, Dr John Kellas, was in Nepal when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Everest and he met them on their return. Tenzing Norgay later visited my grandfather at Scottish Churches College in Calcutta, but sadly the photographs from these meetings have been lost. But, to me, it seemed fitting that a Kellas was at hand when the ascent of Everest was finally achieved.

  • June 14, 2022 at 10:27 am

    A brilliant piece on the history of early attempts on 8000-ers. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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