Scottish climber revealed to be altitude record-breaker – 80 years on

Alec Kellas
Alec Kellas
If asked to nominate the most interesting and informative writer on the Scottish hills over the past couple of decades, many would plump for Ian R Mitchell. An Aberdonian long since uprooted to Glasgow, and healthily independent of the main mountaineering establishment, Mitchell has built up an impressive body of work.

He remains best known for Mountain Days and Bothy Nights and A View from the Ridge, both co-authored with Dave Brown and the latter winning the 1991 Boardman Tasker Prize.

These early books were anecdotal accounts of bothy life and general down-to-earth hillgoing, but in recent years Mitchell has pursued an interest in more formal historical research, leading to well-regarded works such as Scotland’s Mountains Before the Mountaineers (1998) and On the Trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands (2000). He is also an engaging public speaker, whose fast-paced illustrated talks are worth catching.

In the course of his research, Mitchell has made regular discoveries. Scotland’s Mountains Before the Mountaineers, for instance, helped to debunk the myth that the Scottish hills were largely unclimbed until Hugh Munro and the Scottish Mountaineering Club came along in 1891. After many hours spent in archives and libraries, Mitchell was able to detail around 100 pre-1880 ascents of what we today know as Munros.

Now he looks set to revise another piece of accepted historical wisdom, this time on a wider stage – that of Greater Ranges mountaineering. Along with George Rodway (a mountaineer and high-altitude physiologist based at the University of Utah), Mitchell is putting the finishing touches to a biography of Alexander Mitchell Kellas – Alec Kellas as he was commonly known – who was one of the most accomplished mountaineers of the Edwardian period.

Kellas lived a fairly short but very action-packed life. Born in 1868, he read chemistry at University College London (where he worked alongside the celebrated climber Norman Collie), then lectured at Middlesex Hospital and developed an interest in the effects of altitude on human performance. A century ago these were poorly understood, but Kellas argued – correctly, as was later proved – that top-of-the-range mountains such as Everest could be scaled without supplementary oxygen provided the climbers were strong enough and the terrain not too difficult.

Kellas was a fine mountaineer in his own right – not as technically adept as some, but very strong and able. A lasting legacy of his Himalayan explorations has been the forging of links between visiting European mountaineers and the native Sherpa community.

His death in 1921 is described by Mitchell and Rodway as a “somewhat squalid dysenteric demise on the bleak Tibetan plains near at Kampa Dzong”, en route to a reconnaissance of Everest and only one day’s walk away from seeing the mountain for the first time. For all his great strength and exploratory spirit, Kellas appears to have been worn out by the sheer effort involved in such endeavours – he had only just completed another arduous expedition to the Kangchenjunga region. His name is on the Everest memorial on the Rongbuk glacier, above the names of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine – “a place I think he merits”, says Mitchell.

Mitchell and Rodway point out that Kellas had spent more time above 6,100m (20,000ft) than any man alive, while his tally of first ascents of peaks of this height ran into double figures. Notable among these was Pauhunri, in the border region between China and the north-eastern corner of India. Accompanied by two Sherpas known as Sony and “Tuny’s brother”, Kellas reached the summit on 14 June 1911. It was a very fine achievement, albeit one which has become rather lost amid the subsequent decades of Himalayan endeavour.

What Mitchell realised, however, while researching the biography of Kellas, is that in climbing Pauhunri the intrepid chemist had made the highest ascent of any mountain up to that time. And the odd thing is that no one, including Kellas himself, knew this.

Until now, the generally accepted timeline for the highest summit reached has been as follows:

Aconcagua, 6,962m (22,841ft): Matthias Zurbriggen, 12 February 1897
Trisul I, 7,120m (23,359ft): Tom Longstaff, 12 June 1907
Jongsong Peak, 7,462m (24,481ft): Hermann Hörlin and Erwin Schneider, 3 June 1930
Kamet, 7,756m (25,446ft): Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, R L Holdsworth and Lewa Sherpa, 21 June 1931
Nanda Devi, 7,816m (25,643ft): Bill Tilman and Noel Odell, 29 August 1937
Annapurna I, 8,091m (26,545ft): Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, 3 June 1950
Everest South Summit, 8,760m (28,740ft): Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, 26 May 1953
Everest, 8,848m (29,029ft): Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, 29 May 1953

Note that this the summit record, rather than the overall altitude record. Tom Longstaff captured both with his 1907 ascent of Trisul, but lost the altitude record during the Duke of the Abruzzi’s remarkable expedition to K2 and the surrounding area, which saw the Italians reach 7,500m (24,600ft) on Chogolisa in 1909 or 1910 (opinions vary as to the year, but it was definitely before Kellas climbed Pauhunri), before a retreat was made approximately 150m below the summit.

What has not been doubted until now, however, was that Longstaff held the summit record for almost 23 years. In 1911, Pauhunri was regarded as 7,065m (23,179ft) in height, 55 metres lower than Trisul. However, it was only in the latter part of the 20t century that the remote Pauhunri was properly surveyed. This saw its height nudged upwards by 63m to 7,128m (23,386ft), making it eight metres higher than Trisul and meaning that it was Kellas, not Longstaff, who held the summit record until Hörlin and Schneider climbed Jongsong in 1930.

Will this discovery make Kellas a household name? No, it will not. But it should help to confirm his place in the pantheon of Himalayan pioneers such as Shipton, Tilman and the ever-intriguing Mallory and Irvine. This, after all, was a mountaineer of whom Walt Unsworth, in his magisterial 1981 book Everest, wrote “in terms of Himalayan experience he was the greatest of all”.

He had two Himalayan peaks named after him. The first was a 7,070m Everest outlier which Mallory called Kellas Rock Peak. The second was Kellas Peak, a 6,680m mountain in his beloved Sikkim, named in his honour by the German-Swiss mountaineer Günther Dyhrenfurth and still believed to be unclimbed.

Kellas was particularly well regarded by the German mountaineers of the middle part of the 20th century – an acclaim that reflects ill on his relative anonymity on his home shores. He was, as Mitchell and Rodway write in their forthcoming book, “a middle-aged awkward provincial who had not gone to the right school and university and who was of undistinguished, unprepossessing appearance”. Even Mallory – who was fond of Kellas – described him as “altogether uncouth”. But he did great deeds, and for almost two decades had reached a summit higher than that achieved by anyone else.

That Mitchell has stumbled across this neglected fact will further enhance his own reputation as a historian – and ought to be seen as a form of home-town homage, one Aberdonian mountain-lover helping to restore the reputation of another.

Prelude to Everest: Alexander Kellas, Himalayan Mountaineer, by Ian R Mitchell and George Rodway, will be published by Luath Press in April 2011.