Everest's First Photographers
The only known photographs of Mount Everest at the beginning of this century
were distant shots from such well known viewpoints as Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.
Claude White had taken shots from within Tibet of the East Face from Khamba
Dzong, during the Younghusband Mission of 1903-4, but that too was from nearly
a hundred miles away. No outsider approached the mountain at close quarters
until the British Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921 trekked through Tibet to
Everest and brought back a mass of valuable photographic material. This was
given a great splash in the newspapers and illustrated periodicals of the day.
At the same time George Mallory and other members of the Everest party
travelled around England giving lantern-slide lectures. Public interest was
quickly whetted and movie film followed close behind. The next year's
expedition to Everest included a cinematographer on the team. Captain John
Noel's "Climbing Mount Everest" illustrated the long journey from Darjeeling,
highlighting aspects of Tibetan life and the spirited mountaineering effort.
John Noel was an entrepreneur of considerable invention, and absolutely
dedicated to the 'conquest' of Everest (as he and most other people put it in
those days). He was encouraged by the modest success of his film and the
progress of the climbers, who he felt sure would crack the problem at their
next attempt. As preparations for the 1924 expedition were being made and
finance solicited, John Noel approached the Mount Everest Committee with an
astonishing proposal. He would pay $8000 for complete photographic rights to
the expedition—an enormous sum for the time. Somewhat bemused, the
Committee wasted no time in accepting the generous offer, which solved all
their financial problems at a stroke.
In 1922, Noel had been operating on a shoestring budget, developing his own film at
Base Camp in tanks lined with nickel-silver inside a specially designed tent,
which he kept heated with a yak-dung stove. This time he built a
permanently-manned laboratory-hut in Darjeeling to which a team of mail runners
delivered all still and movie film from the expedition. His camera was a
clockwork Newton-Sinclair, adapted as much as possible to cold temperatures.
At Advanced Base Camp he scaled a little hill, his "Eagle's Nest,"which
afforded a good view of the route the climbers intended to attempt. With his
20-inch telephoto lens ('resembling a baby Lewis gun'), he was confident of
being able to follow all the mountaineering action at long-distance whenever
not physically with the climbers. The heavy camera was also taken as high as
the North Col.
Unfortunately, the lack of summit success meant Noel's film "Epic of Everest"
was not the commercial success he had hoped for. He had captured poignant
footage of the blanket signals sent up and down the mountain after the loss of
Mallory and Irvine on their summit attempt, but he had insufficient footage of
the right personal material, and perhaps lacked the inclination, to make the
film a full blown tribute to the missing heroes. Ultimately his company,
Explorer Films, folded. Nonetheless, today, this archive footage is in great
demand with Everest film makers.
Some 'home movie' footage was shot by climbers attempting Everest during the
1930s, but the only commercial film of the decade was "Wings Over Everest,"
made for the Gaumong-British Picture Corporation by Geoffrey Barkas. This
semi-'talkie' documented the first flight over the world's highest mountain in
1933 by two flimsy biplanes.
When Nepal opened its borders after the Second World War, among those in the
first trekking party to approach Everest was the American mountaineer and avid
amateur cinematographer Dr. Charles Houston. He took the first 16mm film of the
Khumbu Glacier and Everest region.