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!


Western Eyes on K2

The cover and mountain profile of K2 from Alpinist 37 (courtesty Alpinist magazine)

The cover and mountain profile of K2 from Alpinist 37 (courtesy Alpinist magazine)

On a subject tangetial to the topics on The Suburban Mountaineer, but quite impactful, Natalie and I are excited that our home is listed for rent and we signed a lease for a new home with more space for our family’s growing needs. We’ll miss a lot of wonderful things about our current home but the move means a dedicated space for my books and maps as well as room to finally use my hangboard. I’ll let you know how that goes after we move in a month.

Now back in December I teased a little project I was working on concerning the first photographic image of K2. I love this story that I am about to start telling because it makes me feel closer to the events that helped shape our world. It also makes the people from the past become more alive.

The story began last winter when I received the 2011-12 winter issue of Alpinist in the mail. It was issue 37. I usually pause whatever climbing literature I am reading and go through the magazine from beginning to end. 37’s feature was part I of a Mountain Profile piece on K2 (28,251 ft./8,611m.) and the image on its cover was of the mountain in what looked like sepia; clearly an antique. Inside on the table of contents page the citation given for the image said: “The south face of K2 (8611m), with a survey rod and a porter stick in the foreground. Taken during a 1902 expedition, and recently found at an auction by Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn, this is one of the earliest photos of K2. Jules Jacot-Guillarmod/Courtesy Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn/Top of the World Books.”

I knew the proprietor of Top of the World Books, Greg Glade. He actually reached out to me about something unrelated sometime before issue 37 came out. His shop is a wealthy resource of books and artifacts on mountaineering and arctic exploration. I reached out to Greg this past fall. He gave me the gist of the story, which unwrapped the reference in issue 37 a little better and he told me something the reference didn’t say; it was the very first photographic image of K2.

The Himalayas and its Karakorum Range were still mostly a mystery to the majority of westerners in 1902. While the Great Trigonometric Survey estimated the heights of many of the Himalayan greats in the 1850s, the valleys and features were largely unmapped. In fact, the first western explorer in the region was Francis Younghusband in 1886-87, when he documented the way through the range via Muztagh Pass (west of K2). But the point of that route was to give the British options for military maneuvers rather than an interest in mountain exploration.

Two other small expeditions of westerners visited the area around K2 in 1890 and 1892 but they were of little significance to exploring the mountain. However, these two expeditions were drawn there because K2 was the highest accessible mountain in the world.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mount Everest was shut off to foreigners. Both Nepal and Tibet denied access to all outsiders and so the mountaineers that were heading out from the Alps seeking greater challenges focused elsewhere in the greater Himalaya. Those that traveled there were relying on the Trigonometric Survey data from the 1850s and the little beta from Younghusband. The next two highest points became a fascination and both K2, the second highest mountain, and Kangchenjunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), the third highest mountain, were within British-controlled India.

In 1902, Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley lead a small team to make the first attempt on K2. They pledged to climb higher than anyone had climbed previously in order to achieve the world altitude record. The team’s physician was also a photographer. Dr. Jules Jacot-Guillarmod took the first photographic image of K2 and it was published in his book Six Mois dans l’Himalaya (1904). After the mountain’s elevation recording by the Trigonometric Survey, this may have become the next piece of beta for future climbers. While I do not know for certain, I suspect the leader of the next expedition, the Duke of the Abruzzi, saw this book and this image. The Himalayas and K2 were beginning to be unmasked.

It’s a bit of revisionist history, but the 1902 attempt and this photo by Jacot-Guillarmod may have been a symbolic moment for the Himalayas. The blank on the map wasn’t just replaced by contour lines but an avatar or icon.

In my next post about K2’s first photograph I’ll tell you about how this image resurfaced and introduce you to an extraordinary linguist and K2 historian, Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

Sources: 1) Greg Glade, Top of the World Books; 2) Katie Ives, Alpinist; 3) Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn; and 4) Viesturs, Ed and David Roberts, K2, 2011.