“Our business was to fight the mountain, not to worship it.”
It’s no secret I’m a huge George Mallory fan. And its through reading about him that I’ve come to have a great appreciation for all of the early British explorers, including John Baptist Lucius Noel. A mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker, Noel in 1922 and 1924 captured Everest in photographs and motion picture at heights thought impossible. For the 1924 expedition, he bought all photographic rights from the Everest Committee at a staggering £8,000, helping to fund the trip.
The British Film Institute last year restored and re-released Noel’s incredible 1924 documentary, ‘The Epic of Everest.’ Filmed in the coldest, highest and harshest of circumstances (-30 degrees at 23,000 feet), the documentary chronicles the fateful exploration where Mallory and Sandy Irvine lost their lives. It’s an up-close look at the conditions on Everest and one of the first looks on film at Tibet. Seeing the dramatic Everest footage is amazing. Seeing Mallory in motion picture is, well,…swoon…
In anticipation of the movie’s arrival, I read Noel’s book, ‘Through Tibet to Everest,’ written shortly after the 1924 expedition. Noel first traveled to Tibet in 1913 and was able to get as close as 40 miles near Everest before being forced at gunpoint to leave–a feat in that day since it was not legal for foreigners to travel within the country. Tibetans lived their lives according to horoscopes, superstitions, demons and gods. They shunned outsiders, technology and progress (an earlier explorer who trailed a telegraph line behind him told the locals it was string for him to find his way home, so they would not destroy it). They worshiped Everest as the Mother Goddess of the World. In Noel’s book, he talks about the merging of the Tibetans and British explorers with the 1924 expedition: “This was the country and these the people among it whom we wished to penetrate with a scientific expedition,” said Noel. “The inert East and the inquisitive impertinent West were there to meet on the roof of the world.”
Noel’s is a fascinating read and incredible documentary. I highly recommend both.