Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Highest Mountain Ascent and the Effects of Rarefied Air

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 46 March 1895  (1895) 
The Highest Mountain Ascent and the Effects of Rarefied Air by Edwin Swift Balch


IN 1855 the brothers Adolph and Robert Schlagintweit reached an altitude that for many years was unapproached. This was in a partial ascent of the Ibi Gamin or Kamet Mountain on the southern frontier of Tibet. They traveled up a long glacier by easy stages and encamped at gradually increasing elevations. Their highest camp was 19,360 feet above the sea, and the greatest height they reached on their final effort, 22,250 feet.

Between the years 1860 and 1865 Mr. W. H. Johnson, of the Indian Survey, reached some very great altitudes in Cashmere, for which he has never had due justice done him. Colonel Montgomarie, in receiving from the Royal Geographical Society a reward for Mr. Johnson, made the following statement: "The occasion of Mr. Johnson's (1864) ascending to 22,300 feet was owing to his inability to get at a valley in any other way except by crossing a ridge which reached this altitude. He actually forced his way over, and was obliged to spend the night at nearly 22,000 feet above the sea, darkness having come on before he got any lower." In 1865 Mr. Johnson climbed three peaks of the Kuen Lun, one of which, according to the measurement of the Indian Survey—by a single observation, however—is put down at 23,890 feet, Mr. Johnson seems never to have written any account of his ascents, and in the opinion of the Indian Department it was considered as probable that the single unverified determination of height was erroneous rather than that Mr. Johnson should have ascended to nearly 24,000 feet without special difficulty, and the determination was therefore omitted in compiling the synopsis of final data for publication.

In the year 1884 the little world of Alpine climbers was startled by the narrative read before the Royal Geographical Society by Mr. W. W. Graham, describing a journey to the Sikhim Himalaya, in which with Emil Boss, proprietor of the Hotel Bar at Grindelwald, and the well-known guide, Ulrich Kaufmann, he claimed to have reached in the preceding October the height of 24,000 feet on Mount Kabru. The whole Anglo-Indian press and Himalayan Survey, prompted by jealousy at an English climber with two Swiss guides leaving their efforts so far behind, with great unanimity attacked Mr. Graham's assertions most bitterly. Their arguments are very curious. One of them was that the Bhooteas, natives of the neighboring valleys, stated that they would not attempt the ascent under any circumstances; and yet it was argued that if any one could make the ascent it would certainly be the Bhooteas, for one of the women once carried a grand piano on her back forty-six miles in three days. This is equivalent to saying that a hotel porter would be the best guide on a mountain side. One of the Indian surveyors, Mr. Roberts, said it would be impossible to ascend Kabru, "as no one can avoid the almost certain consequences of an attempt to clamber over sharp ledges of rock and of the yielding of the snow coating that covers over a concealed crevasse." What almost certain consequences clambering over sharp ledges of rock should entail, except, perhaps, barking the climber's shins or tearing his knickerbockers, is a still unsolved riddle, and evidently the Indian Survey has never even heard of using a rope on a glacier.

Then, again, Mr. Graham was attacked about Pandim, a mountain 22,018 feet in height, which the Anglo-Indian press said the natives denied he had ascended. His character for veracity was called in question. The beauty of this attack lay in the fact that he never claimed to have ascended Pandim; on the contrary, he said in his report: "I do not know of any more formidable peak. On the west side it drops sheer, while the other three are guarded by the most extraordinary overhanging glaciers which quite forbid any attempt." Mr. Graham also announced his discovery of two peaks from Kabru, the one a rock peak, the other a snow peak, which seemed higher than Gaurisankar. The Indian Survey taxed this as being no discovery on his part, because the following February a survey party saw peaks which are assumed to be identical with those of Mr. Graham, and which the surveyors thought would prove higher than any mountain yet measured.

Mr. Douglas W. Freshfield, the present secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, aroused by the general foolishness of the Indian Survey, took up the cudgels in behalf of Mr. Graham, and a war on paper resulted in the pretty general acceptance of the reality of his ascent.

Since Mr. W. M. Conway's exploration in the Karakorums, however, the whole question has been reopened, Mr. Edward Whymper, the first climber of the Matterhorn, coming forward especially on account of his disbelief that any one could reach 24,000 feet without extreme suffering from rarefied air. Mr. Graham in his narrative states that neither he nor his Swiss companions "suffered any inconvenience from breathing other than the panting inseparable from any great muscular exertion. Headaches, nausea, bleeding at the nose, temporary loss of sight and hearing, were conspicuous only by their absence; and the only organ perceptibly affected was the heart, whose beatings became very perceptible, quite audible, while the pace was decidedly increased." Mr. Conway, on the contrary, states that "when 18,000 feet had been passed, we found that it was well to look to our breathing. A long stride had to be taken, and one went at it as usual with a momentary holding of the breath. The penalty was instantly exacted—a giddiness supervened, and had to be puffed and pumped away." Mr. Conway's greatest altitude on the Pioneer Peak was 22,500 feet, which is believed to be the greatest altitude from which an observation on the spot was ever taken. The difficulty in reconciling Mr. Graham's and Mr. Conway's narrative lies especially in the fact that all of Mr. Conway's party suffered—Englishmen, Swiss guide, and Ghoorkas—while none of Mr. Graham's party were affected.

This question of loss of breath at great altitudes can not, however, be taken as a sure test of the height reached. The state of health of the climbers, and whether they are in proper training or not, whether they have had a sufficiency of food, and the different states of the weather are very large factors in the comforts or discomforts of an ascent. Count Henry Russell, one of the most experienced of mountaineers, suffered severely on Mont Blanc (15,800 feet), while Mr. Henry Gale Gotch, after an easy ascent of the same mountain, tried the experiment of jumping a number of times over an alpenstock, which he did without any inconvenience whatever—his guide, Henri Dévouassoud, however, confiding to him after a few days his abiding astonishment at so peculiar a mode of resting after an ascent. Mr. Whymper and the Carrels suffered severely on Chimborazo (21,424 feet), while on the other hand Dr. Güssfeldt on Aconcagua reached 21,000 feet without suffering any inconvenience; and Mr. Freshfield's party of six did not suffer in any way from the air, though they almost ran up the last rocks of Elbruz (18,526 feet).

As the question now stands, we can not be certain which is the highest mountain ascent. There are certainly mistakes in the measurements of the Indian Survey. Peak K 2, Mr. Conway's "Watch Tower," will have to come down from its 28,200 feet to something nearer 27,700 feet; and it is quite possible that too high a measurement may have been given to Kabru, which has not been measured either by mountain barometer or boiling-point thermometer. It is not impossible that Mr. Graham may have been mistaken in his peak, and gone up some other mountain instead. If Mr. Johnson had been a less reticent man than he is described as being, and if more were known of his ascents, he might be a possible claimant for the record. The careful notes on breathing made by Mr. Conway, however, prove pretty conclusively that beyond 21,000 feet every one will, at any rate at certain times, suffer more or less from want of air, and the general feeling in the Alpine Club at present is that Mr. Conway has the highest established record.