The forgotten Scots of the first Everest expedition of 1921 - one died, the other went mad
A century ago, in May 1921 the first expedition to reconnoitre and to possibly attempt to ascend Mount Everest left Darjeeling in India.
On it was George Mallory who died on the mountain in 1924 and whose name is forever associated with Chomolungma to give the mountain its correct name. But also on the expedition were two Scotsmen, Alexander Kellas from Aberdeen and Harold Raeburn from Edinburgh - both of whose mountaineering achievements were arguably greater than those of Mallory. Today they have been largely forgotten.
Who were Kellas and Raeburn?
Alexander Kellas was in 1921 unquestionably the most experienced Himalayan mountaineer on earth, and was then recognised as such. He had spent more time above 20,000 ft. than any man alive, possibly than all men alive combined.
In the process he had climbed several peaks over that height in Sikkim, India, including Pauhunri, which at 7,125 meteres (23,375 ft.) remained the highest mountain peak climbed for over 20 years. Sadly Kellas did not know this due to erroneous measurements, which were only corrected in the 1980s. With his companion Henry Morshead, Kellas would have achieved international renown had their attempt to climb Kamet in 1920 succeeded. This was the highest mountain wholly within the British Empire, and had a porters' rebellion on the summit day not foiled them, success was within their grasp.
In addition, Kellas was the first man to champion the sherpas as porters against previously favoured European guides and Gurkhas, and he had done more work on the physiology of high altitude mountaineering than any man alive. A professional scientist, he was an associate of 1904 Nobel winning scientist William Ramsey at University College London and was mentioned in Ramsay's Nobel acceptance speech for his work on inert gases. Kellas was also a lovely man, here is Mallory, usually hyper critical of everyone, "Kellas I love already. He is beyond description uncouth and Scotch in his speech- altogether uncouth. He is an absolutely devoted and disinterested person."
Harold Raeburn was a complete contrast. A man of independent means after selling his share in the family brewing business, he was - even on an expedition where everyone seemed to dislike everyone else -the most unpopular man in the party, cantenkerous, opinionated and well past his peak as a mountaineer at 56.
His record before World War One was impressive with a remarkable list of new climbs on rock and ice in Scotland, guideless first ascents in the Alps, and the conquest of several new peaks in the Russian Caucasus. But he had very limited Himalayan experience, a circuit of Kangchenjunga excepted where he had attained 20,000 ft. He was a bad choice as leader of the four man climbing party. Kellas, though included in that party was mainly there to conduct experiments in high altitude physiology for which he had taken equipment. And though also too old to dream of climbing Everest, he was not the passenger that Raeburn was destined to be.
In many ways this was a typical good old-fashioned amateurish British expedition. The other two climbers were Mallory himself, a good choice, and his friend, chosen at the last minute, Bullock - neither of whom had any Himalayan experience. There was an excellent partner for Mallory, one he wanted, feeling the climbing party would be too weak without him, George Finch. The trouble with Finch was that he was not "a chap", he had lived in France, bad enough! - but worst of all - he was an Australian! The leader was Lt.Col. Howard Bury a man with some Asian travel experience but little, indeed no mountaineering or exploration experience, who was chosen mainly as he offered to make a large donation to the costs of the expedition in a cash- strapped post World War One Britain.
The expedition doctor was one Wollaston, who had worked professionally for two days in a hospital - and thrown it in. He was, however, a fine chap. He watched as the entire expedition succumbed to gastric and other ailments due to the filthy hygiene of the cooks, delayed sending Kellas back to India when he developed life threatening dystentry, and only sent Raeburn back (later he returned, partially recovered, to the expedition) when Kellas actually died at Kampa Dzong on the 5th of June 1921. Even though he did not die, Raeburn never fully recovered his physical health and lost his mental health, ending up in a convalescent home where he became convinced that he had killed Kellas.
Despite all this the British, as usual "muddled through" the leech-ridden jungles of Sikkim and the sand and fly-blown wastes of the Tibetan plateau. And not only did the expedition find the route to the mountain through much previously unmapped and previously unexplored country in Tibet, but Mallory and Bullock (who in the event performed well) actually found the route to the summit itself, via the North Col. This became the route of ascent of subsequent parties. But the great failure of the expedition, expressed by Howard-Bury himself in his official report was that Kellas died without completing his physiological experiments. Interest in this subject was lost by the several subsequent British attempts on the mountain before World War Two and only revived in preparation for the successful ascent of 1953, to which this research was a major contributory factor.
Kellas himself slipped off the radar. He was not even on the official photograph of the Expedition team, taken after he died. In this image Raeburn stands at the extreme right, Mallory seated at the far left. Kellas was a quiet unassuming man who generally climbed alone with his sherpas, and wrote little about what he had achieved. His grave at Kampa Dzong was visted as a shrine by all subsequent expeditions before World War Two, though it now lies in a restricted military area. However at the foot of the Rongbuk glacier, till it was looted by tourists, stood a memorial to the expeditions of the 1920s and to those who died on them. Mallory is, or was, commemorated there, as well as were several sherpas. Atop the list stood the name of a forgotten Scotsman.
Raeburn deserves to be remembered for his achievments in mountaineering in Scotland and Europe, but in this centenary year of the First Everest Expedition and of his own death Alexander Kellas merits even more to be remembered for what he achieved, and deserves a place in the Pantheon of Himalayan Greats. A biography of the man, published ten years ago, is gradually filtering this information into the general Himalayan narrative. In this centerary year, that verdict should be placed centrally in all coverage of the 1921 Expedition.