The Mount Everest Expedition

The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Mar 1923, p. 106-119
Wheeler, Major Oliver, Speaker
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Two expeditions, the first in 1921 under Col. Howard Bury who reconnoitered the mountain. The second expedition in 1922 under Gen. C.G. Bruce which went with the primary object of getting to the summit. A description of Mount Everest. Dealing with sun glare. Lantern slides were used to show pictures of the expeditions, the people of Tibet, the life of the expedition while there, and Mount Everest itself. A detailed description of the expedition of 1921 is given during the slide show. "Major Wheeler then put on the screen a sketch map of Mount Everest and its immediate neighbourhood, on which he pointed out the routes followed by the expeditions of 1921 and 1922, and explained the topography of the Mount Everest (or Chomohengma) group of mountains." Speculation as to whether the ascent will ever be accomplished. The unliklihood that the party could get down alive.
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29 Mar 1923
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THE MOUNT EVEREST EXPEDITION AN ADDRESS BY MAJOR OLIVER WHEELER, M.C., R.E. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, March 29, 1923

PRESIDENT WILKINSON introduced the speaker, who was received with applause.


Mr. President and Gentlemen,--I beg to acknowledge with thanks the hearty reception given me. In the brief time I have, I do not want to enlarge too much on what might be called the theory of the Mount Everest Expedition; I think you may be more interested in seeing pictures illustrating the people of Tibet, the life of the expedition while there, and Mount Everest itself.

There have been two expeditions, the first in 1921, under Col. Howard Bury, who reconnoitred the mountain; no one up to that time had been very close to it, and when the idea of climbing this mountain and exploring its neighbourhood was mooted, no one knew exactly how to get there, or the best approaches for the climb. It appeared, however, from what had been seen of the mountain, that the north side would be the best from which to tackle it; and as we were not allowed through the Indian native State of Nepal, we had to travel through the


Major Oliver Wheeler, M.C., R.E., is an Ontario boy, a graduate of the Royal Military College, who entered the Imperial Service in the Royal Engineers. During the war he served with distinction in France and Mesopotamia, was awarded the Military Cross and Bar, and the French Legion of Honour, and was twice mentioned in despatches. He is a Topographical Engineer now in the Indian Service.


smaller State of Sikkum, to the east, to Tibet, and so to the north of the mountain.

The 1921 expedition, with which I was, set out to reconnoitre the mountain and its approaches, to discover the best season for the climb, the best places to camp, and the best final route to the summit, and if possible to get to the top.

The second expedition, in 1922, under Gen. C. G. Bruce, went with the primary object of getting to the summit. I am glad to say that in the previous expedition we were able to explore the northern side pretty thoroughly, to find the best approaches, and to map about 12,000 square miles of new country in Tibet, besides 600 miles in the immediate neighbourhood of the mountain, work which I believe was very useful to the succeeding expedition in making their plans.

Mount Everest is on the backbone of the Himalayan range, and on the boundary between the native State of Nepal, and Tibet. It is possible to go directly north from Darjeeling through Sikkum, but the main though longer route through Tibet is a main trade route, and there is more opportunity of picking up transport and food on it than by the more direct line. This was the route decided upon by Col. Bury, and followed by the next expedition under Gen. Bruce.

Mount Everest is in latitude 28°, i.e., about the same as Florida, and the climate is consequently rather tropical, in spite of the altitude. The effects of these tropical conditions are considerable in increasing the great difficulty of getting to the top, partly through their effect on the snow and partly their effect on the individual. The sun beats hard on one's back, and the glare of the snow is tremendous. To defeat that glare we used a non-actinic pomade, made by a Dr. Sechehaye in Geneva, which we found very effective. Until quite recently people had used veils when climbing on glaciers and snow, but in the rarified air, at high altitudes, the veil is almost suffocating, and one cannot wear it. So this pomade was much more practical; although I felt the heat on my face I was never sunburned at all.

In 1922 they started much earlier than we did, as we found that the season at the latter end of the monsoon was not suitable. At that time there is a great deal of new snow, which is very soft and difficult to plough through. Earlier in the year, although one is apt to encounter a little ice, that is not likely to be so serious, and has a less fatiguing effect than ploughing through snow up to the knees or waist.

This picture (lantern slide) shows the 1921 party, except Dr. Kellas, who unfortunately died on the way up, Col. Bury, Dr. Wollaston, M.O. and naturalist; Mr. Raeburn, a very experienced Alpine climber; Dr. Heron, geologist; Mr. Mallory, who went again in the 1922 party, and I understand is ready to go again in another expedition in 1924; Major Moorhead, senior surveyor; Mr. Bullock, and myself. (Laughter) I think it is very unkind of you to laugh at that picture, because the sort of life one lives there does not help to make one look one's best. I hope I do not always look as tough as that. Of this party only Mallory and Moorhead went in 1922.

This party assembled in Darjeeling in May, and struck north through the little State of Sikkum, which is clad with the most luxuriant tropical jungle: and is very "steamy" owing to the heavy rain and tropical heat.

A very annoying pest in this part of the country is the leeches. In rainy weather the place is infested with themlittle fellows about 3/q, of an inch in length and as thick as a match. They sit on the cobble-stones, with which the path is paved, and wave at you as you pass. The eyelets of your boots are no obstacle to them, and if you are incautious and stand too long where the leeches are they will "hop" on to your boots, crawl in through the eyelet holes, and through your socks, and get on to your feet, where of course they very soon swell up. When they are full of blood, they fall off, and then of course you walk on them; it is almost literally true that when you take off your boots you find them "full of blood." Fortunately for us, we experienced very few leeches, because they like a fairly heavy rain, while we had a fair proportion of sun when going through that neighbourhood.

This picture (slide) shows the main trade route. The path is cobbled pretty well through and really is kept in very good shape. It was originally built for the 1904 expedition to Tibet, but has since been kept up by the local Sikkum Government. All the lower parts are full of a luxuriant growth of this flower shown in the picture--the datura. It has lily-shaped blossoms about a foot in length, and it is a wonderful sight to see villages simply surrounded by hedges of this plant. It is poisonous, and cattle sometimes die from eating it.

As you get higher up you get out of this tropical growth, and at about 9,000 feet begin to see forests more or less like those in the Canadian Rockies. The trees are mostly firs, and you see everywhere tiny fields of barley, surrounded by little rocky walls to support the earth and over which flows the water used for irrigation. Every little stream there is utilized for irrigation.

You notice--and this is more or less typical of the Himalayan valley--that the valleys are considerably steeper on their lower slopes than they are in the Rockies. One gets pretty steep peaks at the top of the Rockies, but rather gentle concave slopes and a broad valley at the bottom. Here you have pretty much the opposite-steep peaks of course, but with more rounded lower shoulders, and below, a steep convex valley. This makes it very hard for surveying; in every case you must have two stations, one on the upper slope and another on the rim of the shoulder, below which the valleys become almost gorges.

As you get over into Tibet at about 14,000 feet, you meet the open, grassy, stony plain. Tibet is not a plain by any means; geologically I believe it is described as a plateau at about 20,000 feet, deeply intersected by valleys which are in places widened out into considerable plains, at altitudes of 12,000 to 15,000 feet. Practically, it seems to me a much more apt description to say that it is a plateau at 13,000 or 14,000 feet, with large bumps on it ever so often; you seem to spend your life in Tibet in crossing these bumps from plain to plain. No one ever seems to go round; it is always straight across. You climb up to 17,000 feet, and then drop down again, and so on, and I must say one gets rather tired of it.

Shortly after entering the Tibetan plateau we reached Phari Dzong. Up to that time we were living in the travellers' bungalows which are scattered along the trade route to the north, but from there on we were moving westward and consequently had to take to canvas.

As soon as you get into Tibet you see villages of the type shown in the picture (slide). On the right of the picture you see two little white things, and here a wall. The white things are chortens, and the wall is what is called a mendong or mani wall. The chortens and walls are pretty well covered with flat (or sometimes round) stones. These stones are inscribed, sometimes with very well carved pictures of Buddha, and sometimes with numerous inscriptions "Our mani padme hung," which mean--"Hail to the jewel of the Lotus Flower"--the sacred flower of Buddhism, the religion of Tibet. Each chorten and wall is covered with thousands of these inscriptions. If a Buddhist passes these walls or chortens in the proper direction all these prayers are offered to heaven in his behalf; but of course if he goes in the opposite direction they go the other way. So the Buddhist is always very careful to see that he passes them in the correct way. They are both built as a means of praying, but also merit is acquired actually in their building. The chorten is also used in another way, which is illustrated by the story told us by a villager when we enquired about one exceptionally big chorten we saw, with four smaller ones--one at each corner. The man told us that in that valley there had been a particularly malignant devil, and that this extraordinarily big chorten had been built in order to keep him in subjection. Unfortunately it was found that the chorten was not successful; they then had to build one more small one at each corner, and that seemed to do the trick; they had no further trouble after that.

While we were at Phari, the local musical comedy troupe entertained us with devil dances. As you see, the dogs liked it, too. We paid the performers one tanka, which is about eight cents, each. They seemed very pleased indeed. I suppose that is about as much loose cash as they would be likely to get in the best part of a year, for I understand from Col. Bury that the Tibetan servant employed by a Tibetan gentleman-not, of course, if a European employed him-gets an average of 75 cents a year.

From Phari one starts going west. Everywhere one sees groups, such as this in the picture. This is more or less typical of the eleven-o'clock tea halt. We did not always take tea at this eleven-o'clock function, but a native beer was easily got, and we found it much more suitable in that climate. But in Tibet, where you get a howling gale every morning at eleven, with almost sufficient regularity to set your watch by it, this tea is quite an institution. They get into the first shelter they can find, and unpack their yaks, or let them graze with their packs on, and make tea. Really it is not so pleasant as one might think, because the tea is made with salt water, and contains soda and a good percentage of rancid butter. Personally, whenever it was offered, I chose the other alternative which is also always offered--"chung," or the native beer, made from barley, and really quite a refreshing drink.

The people all dress more or less alike (slide), and it is not always easy to tell a man from a woman, unless you look at the backs of their heads; the woman has her hair parted at the back, with one pigtail falling over each shoulder, whereas the man parts his hair in front and a single pigtail, through which is plaited a piece of red string, or, among the more wealthy people, a very nice piece of crimson silk, which ends in a silk tassel.

Few of the farming classes wash, all over at any rate, and their faces and hair certainly show it. The clothing almost universally is this robe or cloak (slide). This robe is sometimes made of yak hair, sometimes of home-spun cloth. The cloth boots shown are typical, but are often varied by leather shoes or patent leather Wellingtons for men. The women almost always wear the head-dress shown. In the better classes these are covered with turquoise or coral, but the poorer people cover them simply with red cloth, or sometimes with one or two real turquoises and a lot of imitations. The children are dressed just the same as their parents. A great many of them carry baskets, which they use for almost anything-from carrying a letter to carrying all their personal goods.

That hat on the man to the right is also typical, with earlaps which can be let down when it is cold. They often wear rather fancy coloured eye shades, which seem to help a good deal against the wind and glare.

The fort of Kampa Dzong, now on the screen, was the headquarters of the British Mission to Tibet in 1703. "Dzong" simply means "fort." You will see a fort wherever there is a pass through which the Nepalese--that is, the Gurkhas--were able to attack the Tibetans. As there are a good many of these passes, it follows that there are also a great number of forts.

These towers you see are twenty to thirty feet in height, so you see it would have been quite a proposition, in the days before high-powered rifles, to tackle a fort of this sort. Here you have the Governor's residence, and to the right the monastery or "Gompa." There are, of course, many of the latter all over Tibet. At all these headquarters you have to change your transport because no Governor will provide transport further than the boundaries of his own district; so that it is always quite a business getting away from a dzong, and we always had to allow a day's halt there to enable us to collect fresh transport and to call on the "jongpen" and enchange presents, and usually to have a meal with him. Transport is of various descriptions, but most generally the yak, which by the way is an extremely useful animal to the Tibetan, both alive and dead. He is a very fine transport animal. The Tibetans, being Buddhists, are not allowed to kill the yak for meat, but when he dies he makes very good beef. The skin tans very well. The hair is used to make clothing, tents, and robes, and the tails are very popular in India, and form a considerable item of export from Tibet to India, together with sheep's wool.

The cow also is used for transport, and carries a pretty good sized load. The load on this cow is not so big as it looks in the picture, because the basket on top is empty.

They also use a hybrid yak-cow they call the "Zo." I think the yak probably makes the best transport animal of the three.

The donkey is used considerably also, and carries a pretty heavy load, even though he is so small, that your feet might drag on the ground when you sit on his back. Of course loads fall off him very easily, but that does not matter very much, because they usually have at least two children with each donkey; they run after him whenever loads fall off, and put them on again, so you don't really lose much time, and the donkey is good for fifteen or twenty miles with the best of them.

I have heard of ponies in the Rockies walking logs, but have never seen one do it. But a yak certainly will walk on two very small logs, and not turn a hair, as the one in this picture is doing. This bridge was narrow, and the stream was swift, with a fairly heavy load on my shoulders. I was very careful indeed to keep my balance and made good use of my ice-box as a balancing pole.

Our next stop was Shekar, about 15,000 feet above sea-level. This again was used to keep the Nepalese out of Tibet in the early days. The top tower is now used for incense, the next buildings are the official headquarters of the district, and the next and larger is the monastery, in which there are about 400 monks and nuns; and on the left is seen the village of Shekar, with the expedition camp in front of it. The dark foreground in front of the village is barley fields, which forms the staple food of Tibet. The Tibetan threshes his barley in a rather curious way; he simply throws it out into an enclosure perhaps the size of this room, turns all the cattle in the village into it, and all the men after the cattle; the men chase the cattle around until the grain is threshed. The barley, after threshing, is parched and ground, to form "tsampa;" the tsampa is mixed with cold or hot water as preferred, and eaten like porridge; the Tibetan eats little else except chilies. If an animal dies-a yak or goat or sheep-he eats it; he also grows a small quantity of vegetables-no potatoes, but peas and beans and such like.

His cooking is mostly done over fires made of yak dung. There is very little timber for fires in Tibet, and the chief method if heating is by yak or cow dung.

The expedition of 1922 went straight south from Shekar to Mount Everest. In 1921 we had no idea of the best way to reach the mountain and local information was of little value: all we could get out of the villagers when we asked them how far it was to such and such a place was, "Oh! about three cups of tea"! (Laughter) That was not very helpful, so we had to go around to the west side of the mountain to find out for ourselves, working back to the east, and so home. We spent three months up there in exploring, and at the last got to a height of 23,000 feet, on the route finally adopted by the 1922 party.

Major Wheeler then put on the screen a sketch map of Mount Everest and its immediate neighbourhood, on which he pointed out the routes followed by the expeditions of 1921 and 1922, and explained the topography of the Mount Everest (or Chomohengma) group of mountains. He also pointed out the curious fact that all the drainage from Mount Everest, north, south, east and west, eventually finds its way south, that from the north and east passing through the main Himalayan chain, to the Ganges river, and so to the Bay of Bengal, even though the Brahmaputra river is only about 100 miles to the north.

He showed several slides of Mount Everest from various points of view, and pointed out on the screen the approximate points reached in 1922 by the parties led by Mr. Mallory (27,000 feet, without the help of oxygen), and Captain Finch (27,400 feet, with oxygen). These slides illustrated the enormous ice pinnacles (100-200 feet high) formed on the Himalayan glaciers through the effect of the tropical sun, and also the great difference in appearance between the northern (Rongbuk and Kyetrak) and eastern (Kharta and Kama) valleys, due to the change in the rocks from shales and granite to gneiss, and to the greater effect of the monsoon in the eastern valleys.

Major Wheeler explained that the other members of the expedition had crossed early to the eastern side in the course of their reconnaissances, while he had to follow more slowly in order to complete his surveying operations, and was consequently alone for the first two months, only joining the others in the Kharta valley at the end of August, just in time to participate in the final attempt on Mount Everest.

He continued

We eventually got up to a camp at 20,000 feet, immediately under Mount Everest. Here we acclimatised a bit. It is undoubtedly true that you can acclimatise at 20,000 feet by spending a few days in resting and doing easy expeditions. At this height mountain sickness might better be called "mountain lassitude;" people are seldom actually sick but feel headache and lassitude, which requires a great amount of determination and will power to overcome. While at this camp we took photographs and went on easy expeditions, and undoubtedly benefited by our stay there, although I think that at altitudes greater than 20,000 feet it pays to get up to your objective and back again with as little delay as possible.

The photograph on the screen was taken from our camp on Windy Col, (22,000 feet), looking back at the route we followed, and showing in the distance, about 100 miles away, Kangchenjunga, 28,400 feet, which is the second highest mountain in the world.

It was on the way to this camp that we saw tracks very like those of a bare-foot man and we enquired from the coolies what it was. They said, yes, they were certainly the tracks of a very dangerous man, the "metokangma," or hairy wild man, who had very long hair that flowed over his eyes, so that it was always advisable to run down hill if he chased you. They also said that he was a great imitator, and if he chased you, the best thing to do was to lie down and pretend you were asleep. He would imitate you, and really go to sleep, and then you could run away. One of these wild men was caught and brought before a Buddhist magistrate, who was not allowed, under their law, to sentence him to death. So the magistrate hit upon a plan to get rid of him without violating the law. He got two oil cans. He filled one with water and one with kerosene. He took the water-can and poured its contents over himself. Then he handed the can of oil to the wild man, who poured the oil over himself. Then the magistrate lighted a match and applied it to himself, and the wild man did the same-with the result that he put himself to death.

From our camp on this col we had a very fine view of Everest. We saw from here that the correct route lay directly up the Ronghuk glacier to its east branch and up the latter to the basin at our feet which led up to the north col and so to the ridge of Mount Everest. This would have avoided the steep ascent and descent of Windy Col, on which we were, and was the route taken by the 1922 party. Three of us, Mallory, Bullock and myself, descended to and crossed this basin and camped at the foot of North Col, from which latter camp we made an expedition to the summit of the col, to establish with certainty that it could be reached. We had hoped to get higher, but there were such heavy gales blowing on the col and on the north ridge that it was quite impossible.

This practically ended the expedition, and everybody started for home except Bury, Wollaston and myself, who wanted to go over into the Kama valley, to the south-east, to make the closer acquaintance of Makalu, a magnificent 28,000-foot peak we had often seen from the Kharta side. When we got to the Kama valley I think we were all agreed that Makula improves with closer acquaintance, as this picture shows. To my mind it is a much finer looking mountain than Mount Everest, and is only about 1,200 feet lower. After a very short stay in this beautiful valley we started for Kharta and civilization.

The route followed home by both expeditions led direct up the Arun valley for about four marches, where it joined the outgoing track. This made a pleasant variation, the only excitement being the bridge-so-called-across the Arun, which consisted of three very flimsy strands of rawhide suspended across the 30-yard-wide stream, on which a rough wooden "traveller" was hauled back and forth. However, the crossing was made without mishap, and the whole expedition were safely back in Darjeeling before the end of October.

I am very frequently asked: "What is to be gained when you do reach the summit of Mount Everest?" From a commercial point of view, nothing; and from a scientific point of view, extremely little; the scientific work-geology, topography, exploration, natural history--is all done at lower altitudes. But surely it will be a very great achievement to reach the highest known point on the earth's surface, and one which should be most appreciated by the Empire, for both the expeditions so far have been entirely British. (Hear, hear, and applause)

As to whether the ascent will ever be accomplished it is very difficult to say. Choice of season and perfect organization--which means perfect morale and physical condition on the part of the climbers--these can be controlled by man and will be controlled in future expeditions; but weather, and its consequences, snow conditions, cannot be so controlled, and it is on these factors that success or failure must depend. Given perfect weather and snow conditions, I think the top may be safely made; but without them, although it is possible the summit might be reached, it is unlikely that the party could get down alive.

MR. JOHN HOUSTON, Senior Inspector of High Schools for Ontario, expressed the thanks of the Club to Major Wheeler for his very interesting and instructive address.

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The Mount Everest Expedition

Two expeditions, the first in 1921 under Col. Howard Bury who reconnoitered the mountain. The second expedition in 1922 under Gen. C.G. Bruce which went with the primary object of getting to the summit. A description of Mount Everest. Dealing with sun glare. Lantern slides were used to show pictures of the expeditions, the people of Tibet, the life of the expedition while there, and Mount Everest itself. A detailed description of the expedition of 1921 is given during the slide show. "Major Wheeler then put on the screen a sketch map of Mount Everest and its immediate neighbourhood, on which he pointed out the routes followed by the expeditions of 1921 and 1922, and explained the topography of the Mount Everest (or Chomohengma) group of mountains." Speculation as to whether the ascent will ever be accomplished. The unliklihood that the party could get down alive.