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!


Mountain Paradox: Peace and Restlessness

At long last, I obtained my copy of Mountain, a hefty collection of images from the mountain world by Sandy Hill. I ordered it with the Barnes and Noble gift card from my parents after Christmas; it just arrived on Wednesday.

It’s an amazing coffee table book, both in size and scope. It includes work from Ansel Adams, Victorio Sella, Bradford Washburn and many others, some of which has never been published previously.

Paging through it is quite different than going through my latest issue of Climbing (which I am really getting a lot out of) or reading whatever climbing story, history or guidebook I have listed on my Recommended Reading page. It’s not like going on the Internet and searching page after page for images or Gasherbrum IV or Pangbuk Ri.

It’s a rather peaceful experience, just you and the mountain, one image at a time. In that calm, memories of thoughts, ideas and daydreams from when I was just entering high school return. They’re from when I sat in my aunt’s and uncle’s home during Thanksgiving break paging through an old coffee table book of Asia, including the Himalaya and Karakorum. I was thinking about setting out to be a mountaineer and explorer before I knew what that meant.

With Mountain, like the old Asia book before, it pulls at my restless qualities. As the ideas and thoughts of the climb surface I can’t help but just look. So here I encourage you to go buy it. It supports the American Alpine Club — and association dedicated to fostering climbing and supporting inspiring climbs. And then go climb where you dream about.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Our Military and the Mountain Tradition

Last weekend I was going through a stack of books I acquired through a donation to my local section of the American Alpine Club and I came across a reprint of the American Alpine Journal from 1946. Don’t get too excited; it’s not really that old. My copy is the reprint from 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which was established for specialized mountain warfare during World War II on November 15, 1941.

The 1946 volume — marked as “Special War Number” — contains articles on the service of members of the American Alpine Club where they were involved in the mountains or employed their mountain knowledge. It was also the first edition of the journal printed since the beginning of the war, the only hiatus in publishing the journal since it started in 1929. Paging through it, there is an article on the 10th itself by Albert Jackman, about the effect of high altitude on humans by Charles Houston — who would later write the definitive treatise on that topic, an article on the improvements on equipment by Bradford Washburn and several more pieces on other matters.

One thing was clear from reading these articles: the war’s unique problem was its global scope, which meant it would be fought on all imaginable terrain. That introduced challenges especially for the Allies of the US, Canada and Great Britain; they had not before fought on alpine mountains, though the Nazi and Italian forces, in particular, were trained and prepared to do so. The Ally militaries turned to experienced mountaineers to fill in the knowledge gap — many of whom included pieces in this journal.

The preface to the 1991 reprint puts the effect of the war on mountaineering and climbing in general into proper, historical perspective. While grand climbing accomplishments were halted, there were significant advancements in other areas. Without the challenge of winning the war on all fronts — including in the mountain ranges — the innovation in climbing gear would not have occurred at such a rapid pace. The biggest improvement was the development of the virtually unbreakable nylon ropes we use today. Before then, they were made of hemp and other fibers… and they broke, with relative frequency. (Thoughts of the legendary fall on the Matterhorn spring to mind!) By comparison, William House writes, “[T]he best grades of [hemp rope] could be stretched only to approximately 13% of their length before breakage, whereas the nylon rope would stretch over 39%.”

In addition, the role the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division played a significant role in creating America’s mountain culture after the war. They established many ski resorts throughout the United States. I first learned of the 10th through my trips to the Adirondacks and the Whiteface Ski Resort in particular. Later I started coming across memorials for the unit on backcountry trails, like the one on the western side of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We may not think of or realize it, but the mountain enjoyments we enjoy in the United States — especially skiing — was made accessible because of the World War II veterans of the 10th.

It’s easy to say on Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada) that we wouldn’t know the life we enjoy without the sacrifice of those that paid the ultimate price. While that’s unequivocally true, we also appreciate the contributions of the veterans that survived the war and how they have shaped the world we enjoy.

So, happy 70th birthday to the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which Tuesday, and have a happy Veterans Day tomorrow!

Remember, if you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Denali or Mount McKinley

I just began reading High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker & Mount Hunter by Jonathan Waterman (1996) as part of my new focus on the Alaska Range I am about to start. Early in, I came across a curiosity about the name of North America’s highest peak.

The formal name of that mountain is Mount McKinely. It’s on the USGS maps. It was named for the American President, who (as everyone points out) had no interest in Alaska. The original native name is Denali, which means great one. Not all that original, but its true and echoes back to an even wilder Alaska where the Inuit lived and trappers and explorers renaming their landscape were rare or nonexistent.

Most climbers these days prefer to call Mount McKinley Denali instead. Still, some refer to it as Big Mac, in more casual conversations. Denali remains the preferred title and most would say that that is so out of respect for the native tradition — or in disrespect to the reference to the former president.

So I was surprised to read a simple remark by Waterman that said the great Bradford Washburn prefers the name Mount McKinley.

I have taken and used the Denali name but suddenly I am rethinking that. The formal name is McKinley. Everest is named similarly poorly but hardly anyone refers to it as Chomolungma, its original native name, meaning goddess mother.

Washburn made the first ascent up the West Buttress among other firsts on the mountain. He is an authority on the subject having climbed it extensively, photographed it an mapped it. You would think that would make it so he preferred the name Denali.

Perhaps Mount McKinley isn’t such a silly name when you take into consideration that it is the officially recognized name and is the name given by the country that holds it. The name is also nearly as unmistakable as Denali or Everest. Besides, all names are subjective; it’s the mountain that matters.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed the value of this post and many others, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter.

Help Support the Most Significant Climbs

When it comes to books, maps and guidebooks, our genre of mountaineering and mountain life is a niche subject even among outdoors publications. But the importance to us as climbers to have a record of past climbs and their stories is just as important to us as having the current map and the latest guidebook. This is why having and supporting the American Alpine Club Library is so important.

The AAC Library contains the largest collection of mountaineering and mountain culture literature and information in the world. It archives the world’s most significant climbs through periodicals, like the American Alpine Journal, mountaineering tales, including best sellers and even out of print texts. It also holds many rare and foreign texts. Climbers about to embark on the next legendary epic, often start here.

Now the AAC Library is raising funds for its work by offering Mountain by Sandy Hill. Mountain is a book of highland photography including works by Ansel Adams, Vittorio Sella, and many others including never-before-seen photos by Bradford Washburn. The book is not yet available to the public, however the AAC Library  is currently accepting pre-orders of Mountain.

I encourage you to consider purchasing the book or contributing what you can to the Library. Climbers and armchair mountaineers will thank you by maintaining this for the climbing community we love.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed the value of this post and many others, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter.

A Mountain Geek’s Treasure Chest: AAC Archives

As you know, I am much more of an armchair mountaineer these days with my career and family in Peaklessburg.  But even when I climbed and hiked with more regularity, I enjoyed coming across old maps in yard sales and climbing narratives from the 1930s in antique stores. 

I still do and I have to tip my Major League Baseball cap to the Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library in Golden Colorado for maintaining and continuing to build upon the “collective memory” (their words) of the mountaineering community.  The library has a circulating collection available to American Alpine Club (AAC) members and Friends of the American Alpine Club Library, rare and non-circulating books in the AAC Archives, and photographs which can be considered documentary or art, depending on who is appreciating it. 

Mountaineers are also encouraged to donate their letters, diaries, photos and scrapbooks, expedition reports, films, and even gear to the library in the hopes of maintaining a continuous thread of history.  The library indicates that not everything may be accepted however based on its “appropriateness” — perhaps they mean historical value.  Their website, at least, does not elaborate on that point.  Regardless, this invitation helps ensure the collection will remain the current today as we look back tomorrow.

The libary’s archivists just began reviewing and catalogueing the Bradford Washburn archives with the climbing community’s financial support.  Washburn is one of the greatest Alaskan mountaineers in history, with multiple ascents of Denali, an epic first ascent of Mount Lucania and he was a talented mountain photographer.  He also lead the expedition to map the entire Wrangell-St. Elias Range when no one knew what was in that territory. 

The Washburn archives include 20 unopened file boxes, five flat unopened boxes and over 20 rolled maps.  Staff and resources are needed to properly go through these records of the great mountaineer and explorer.  Individuals may adopt the archives in $100 increments to help complete the work. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may follow future articles on Facebook or Twitter (@SuburbanMtnr).  Thank you.