This is part II of my posts on the first image of K2. Now that you understand why the photo is significant, let me tell you about how it was lost and then resurfaced.There are probably countless climbing antiques and photographs that have remarkable stories to tell if only they were well researched and featured according to their merit. In fact, I don’t think that there is a dull climbing story, only tales that are poorly told.
In 1993 — the same year Greg Mortenson, the now infamous author of Three Cups of Tea attempted the mountain — a climber with roots in Australia and a passion for photography set forth to reach the top as well. Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn wasn’t yet interested in the history of the mountain. He hadn’t even seen the images taken by Vittorio Sella. Without topping out, Schelfhout Aubertijn returned home and his interest in K2 turned into passion. Some may say that it’s an obsession.
Since his attempt, Schelfhout Aubertijn built an extensive library around K2’s early exploration to its contemporary climbs. To illustrate how comprehensive his compilation is, he has 13 copies of Ardito Desio’s account of the 1954 first ascent of K2 — one in English, another in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Swedish… Of all the foreign language editions in print, he is only missing the Japanese edition. Schelfhout Aubertijn is also a bit of a linguist, which allows him to glean from the interesting details and nuances between translations. With those skills and his experience on the mountain itself, he’s an extraordinary authority.
His collection is greater than just books. He also owns Fritz Weissner’s ritual robe and cap, and carabiners that have been to K2’s summit that were given to him by Anatoli Boukreev. Then there is the art, ranging from paintings to photos by Sella himself.
If you read The Suburban Mountaineer regularly you can understand what Schelfhout Aubertijn sought by climbing K2. He calls it experiencing the “true essence” in mountaineering. But clearly for him it was a beginning rather than and end.
Six Months in the Himalaya
Unfortunately, one book about K2 Schelfhout Aubertijn doesn’t own is Jacot-Guillarmod’s record of the 1902 expedition, Six Mois dans l’Himalaya. It’s rare and listed by one collector at US$2,500. This book contained the Jacot-Guillarmod’s photo — the first photo — of K2 that the Duke of the Abruzzi no doubt referred to as beta for his expedition soon afterwards.
The book fell into dated obscurity. (Aside: Other books come to this purgatory and I recently noticed that Don Mellor’s out-of-print guidebook to climbing in the Adirondacks is now fetching over US$100, though Mellor’s book seems to remain in demand.) For K2, other stories from the Duke’s expedition and Sella’s superb photographs superseded Jacot-Guillarmod’s work from his six-month visit to the Karakorum.
The images Jacot-Guillarmod took were preserved on glass stereo plates, similar to slides for a projector your teacher may have used in school before SmartBoards, except there were a pair meant to be seen through a stereo viewer. They were among several others. The collection was simply labeled “Inde”, French for India.
The private owner put them up for auction on Ebay and they caught the eye of a photographer hobbyist. That same hobbyist was Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn. The images on the eight plates were of pictures you might imagine in an old book of British India with one plate devoid of people with a foreboding landscape on the lower half and on the top half a bright shining pyramid feature. He asked the seller for a larger image than the one posted online. Unmistakably, it was K2.
Schelfhout Aubertijn bid and won the auction.
Without knowing when the images were taken or by whom, the glass plates were merely a historic curiosity. The only clue was a notation on the margin of the slide, which read, “Verascope Richard.” After some digging, Schelfhout Aubertijn found that it was a French camera company that produced cameras from 1880 to 1930. That gave the image a window of time.
In addition to keeping excellent records, Schelfhout Aubertijn also has an good memory. He immediately narrowed the field of possible photographers, considering the expeditions I mentioned in my previous post. Schelfhout Aubertijn’s memory and collections for reference were also sufficiently comprehensive enough to rule out Younghusband — he did not see K2 from the south — and the others.
Schelfhout Aubertijn’s senses went on “full alert,” when he discovered that Jacot-Guillarmod used a Verascope when he went to the next highest accessible mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga in 1905.
American Alpine Club Library
Connecting the dots turned into a game of six-degrees of separation. Schelfhout Aubertijn contacted his friend, award winning author Bernadette McDonald, because he knew she read Six Mois. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a copy and referred him to Katie Ives at Alpinist. But she had actually only seen copies of pages from the rare book, which were made available by the American Alpine Club Library. That meant a call to our mutual friend, Beth Heller, who was the librarian at that time.
Heller, with Adam McFarren, got scans of pages with photos printed in the book to Schelfhout Aubertijn. I know Heller to be extremely prompt with email and she was true to character. It wasn’t the K2 image, but they matched some of the other glass slides he had acquired — exactly.
Schelfhout Aubertijn was getting close, but there was still a giant leap to be made to arrive on the cover of Alpinist. I’ll cover that in my next post about the first K2 photograph and tell you about these stereo plates and why even Bradford Washburn loved them.
To read the next post in this series, click here.