Western Eyes on K2 Part III

I remember a great line from the Indiana Jones movies. In The Last Crusade the Jones character is lecturing to his students and he says most archeology work is done in the library and that X never marks the spot. He then proceeds to have a Hollywood-style adventure in archeology across Europe and the Holy Land which includes him finding a large roman numeral 10 to which he remarks, “X marks the spot,” and proceeds to dig.

Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn’s work was more like what Jones said to his students. (Unless he lied to me in our interviews and he really used a bull whip and a pistol in his work as a historian to obtain the stereo slides of K2.) As I explained in my previous two posts, these slides were of the very first image of K2 ever taken, replacing vague, inaccurate contours on a map with an avatar. Let me continue from where I left off…

French Ministry of Culture
It was a typo in the database of the French Ministry of Culture that held back Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn from connecting the image of K2 directly to Jacot-Guillarmod through more than his book, Six Mois dans l’Himalaya. He traced another image — a group shot of the members of the 1902 K2 expedition — to the French Ministry of Culture. They misspelled Guillarmod’s name: “GuillarmoT.” No search engine would have solved that puzzle.

There, he came across images just like those from the set of eight slides he purchased all credited to Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. He even found the actual photo image of K2 that was the template for an engraving in Six Mois. Finally, there it was: The slide in question. Of the eight slides in the purchase, Schelfhout Aubertijn was able to prove four of them were by conclusively made by Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902.

The image in question was a medium we don’t use or think about today. It was on high resolution glass plates meant for a stereo viewer. Think of those toys when you were a kid: a plastic viewer you might buy at a museum or aquarium gift shop. You aim the viewer to light and look in with both eyes to see a Saturn with its rings bright and real or a shark in what looks like you could put your hand in its jaw. It did this by having two separate images bent by a lens to tease our eyes.

The original stereo viewers were far more elegant (see the image at the top). They were sometimes wooden boxes with brass or other furnishings. You slide in the dual slides and look in with a or without a light behind it so the world inside, whether it was the Taj Mahal or some other nearly mythical place. This was even more true before National Geographic magazine had a wide circulation and television and the Internet desensitized us to the exotic nature of the world a continent away.

David Roberts, the author and Harvard Mountaineering Club member, recounts when he and classmate Don Jensen spent time in Bradford Washburn’s attic office at the Boston Museum of Science looking through a stereo viewer what even then was old (though perhaps not yet given the status of being called an antique.) Roberts describes how it was an ideal way to see a mountain and consider it’s virgin possibilities for new lines. He said the images “leap into three dimensions” (Roberts, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, 78).

New Again
Schelfhout-Aubertijn’s stereo plates were not the original close-up image used to make the engraving of K2 in Six Mois dans l’Himalaya, which may have helped the Duke of the Abruzzi, but as it would turn out, had a another significance. Another research colleague of Schelfhout-Aubertijn’s arranged all the photos credited to Jacot-Guillarmod and arranged them chronologically. The photos were laid out according to the schedule of their trip. When you move past the images into the towns and into the wilderness, it became clear that Crowley, Eckenstein and Guillarmod arrived at Concordia and must have paused nearby.

K2 probably dominated their attention more than Broad Peak and the other nearby mountains. A near-perfect pyramid. Jacot-Guillarmod was eager. As a photographer on a major adventure, every great moment needed to be memorialized. In haste, he set up his Verascope Richard and exposed the plates. He didn’t move the porter stick and other items in the foreground (see below). Not to mention, as Schelfhourt-Aubertijn points out, with their gear and low sensitivity materials, “[I]t’d be foolish not to shoot several images before you got there.”

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The other images Jacot-Guillarmod would take would be closer to the mountain. This image was the first. It shows the emotional excitement of the photographer that hoped to not only see it but had hoped to climb higher on it than anyone else, like Crowley and Eckenstein had hoped. I wonder if he knew at that moment whether it would not be possible for them.

The Cover
There has rarely been a cover of Alpinist that has been universally agreed upon among the editors. The cover of Issue 37 wasn’t any different. But the image was not only among the first but the first and so it’s place was decided; the cover it was.

Personally, I’m not sure I would have appreciated this picture of K2 so much had it not been on the cover or if Greg and Katie hadn’t introduced me to Bob himself. It was an opportunity for Bob that turned into a climbing history geek’s dream and a great mystery to be solved.

Thanks to everyone for reading this short series and to everyone that helped me tell the story!

I’ll be back soon with more to share. If you want to stay connected with updates about new posts and other climbing news, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and happy climbing!


2 thoughts on “Western Eyes on K2 Part III

  1. Great story and of course the picture speaks for itself, incredible picture. I can only imagine how it felt seeing it for the first time.

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