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Prelude to Everest.


by Ian R Mitchell and George W Rodway

Luath Press, hb, 20 [pounds sterling]

When Alexander Kellas died in 1921, he was the most experienced Himalayan mountaineer in the world. He was the first to consider seriously the effects of altitude on the human body, and the first true advocate of the Sherpa people as elite mountain guides.

By 1912, he had ascended five virgin Himalayan peaks of more than 6,000 metres and, without knowing it, broke the world summit altitude record in June 1911. Despite his remarkable athletic abilities and doggedness as a mountaineer, he was a solitary academic who published little and suffered from severe psychosis for much of his adult life. In a field crowded with neglected reputations this is a man and a story whose rediscovery is genuinely warranted.

Drawing on a handful of mountaineering club applications, youthful essays and academic papers, the authors of this outstanding book bring to life a mountaineer and physiologist who was decades ahead of his time in his thinking and, in the end, obsessed completely by the effects of altitude and the challenge of Everest. It's in his humane treatment of the Sherpas that we see most clearly the character of the man; copying their diet, observing their methods and studying their performance on the mountain.

Kellas climbed alone with his porters, lived with them, and in his photos, it isn't him we see heroically on the summit, but his trusted Nepalese guides. One account has him washing their wounds with hot tea.

Kellas' theories on high-altitude mountaineering have been vindicated repeatedly since his death in the shadow of Everest. Had he lived beyond 1921, I've little doubt that Everest's summit would have been reached sooner.

But what drove him to the mountains? The authors can't answer this central question, but it makes the rediscovery of this humble and impenetrable man no less revelatory.

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Author:Ward, Thomas
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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