Pitching a 1933 tent
by Liesl Clark
April 23, 1999
As far as tents go, this one looks like it could have housed two people
comfortably on the East Rongbuk Glacier at the foot of Everest's North Col.
Everest climber Andy Politz found the tent after noticing several goraks—raven-like birds—making a lot of noise around a clump of yellow and white
on the glacier. Politz, expedition leader Eric Simonson, and researcher Jochen
Hemmleb excavated the site as best they could in 40-50 mph gusts of wind.
An inventory of the relics was conducted back at Base Camp so we could
photograph and record where they were found. The digital photographs were
then sent out to consulting experts.
Top of can
"I'm now convinced that this is a tent from the 1930s, and probably from the
1933 British expedition on Everest," said Politz, after taking on the challenge
of setting up the tent in the middle of the sandy moraine at Base Camp. Using
fellow expedition mates as "tent poles," Politz and Hemmleb were able to determine
that the tent is an A-frame design with a center (pole-less) ridge. Mostly in tatters
from years of churning within the East Rongbuk Glacier, the tent, nonetheless,
maintained its original shape. Expedition member Jake Norton found a single pocket
in the tent's interior. Unfortunately, nothing was inside. There is a built-in fly or
integral frost liner that prevents frost from building up on the inside of the tent.
"If that tent is cotton with silk, that probably is from the '30s, because after
World War II you have nylon," wrote in mountaineering historian Gary Neptune,
owner of Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colorado. We were able to forward to
Neptune, as well as Everest historian Audrey Salkeld in England, digital images of
the artifacts. In this digital age, it's remarkable to have insights returned
to us in Tibet from the other side of the world. "The basic ridge tent shape barely
changed until after World War II," comments Salkeld. "My guess is that the fabric
is a fine Egyptian cotton, rather than silk."
Tent pegs and poles
Based on Jochen Hemmleb's analysis, the
site appears to have been multi-generational, with expeditions from several years
camping on top of each other's debris—the oldest pointing to 1933. Neptune agrees:
"The description [of Hemmleb's] is probably pretty accurate as far as the ages of them
being some kind of mix." And it was the tin cans that tipped us off to there being
remnants from several expeditions there: "The date on the tin can: 22 VII 56 is
interesting since that clearly cannot date back to the old British expeditions
and is too early for Woody Sayre (who led an illegal attempt to the North side of
Everest from Nepal in 1962). That makes you wonder if it is from the Chinese
reconnaissance of 1958, or their 1960 expedition. For the latter they purchased
various stores and gear items in the West," explains Salkeld. Neptune agrees:
"The food tin thing was really interesting, and that lends credibility to the
idea that the (other) tent parts may very well be the Chinese tent. A picture
I have of the tents in a 1975 Chinese climb shows a profile that kind of matches
a joint for the tent poles, which implies that the tents may be from that climb."
Tents from 1933 and 1975 are not a bad find at 21,750 feet. If anything, this
find has served to cement our mission here: to learn more about what happened
in 1924 to Mallory and Irvine. Documenting and excavating artifacts at altitude
is a difficult achievement, and having had one go at it above Advance Base Camp,
our team is now poised to go higher and continue their search.