FOR THOSE who are unable to explore the treasures of the Himalayan Club library perhaps a resume of Dr Longstaff's Everest diary will be of interest to throw light on how attitudes to the Himalaya have changed — and how they have also remained the same — since 1922'.
The diary comprises of thirty handwritten sheets in ink on good cartridge paper which were written in letter form and posted from stations along the route to 'Dora' who presumably is the diarist's wife; for an Englishman's reserve is nowhere more on guard against emotional disclosure than at high altitude. The letters are simply signed 'Tom' with no formal expression of feelings though the style is uniformly warm and affectionate. As the journey proceeds the handwriting deteriorates but is legible throughout, even at base camp on the Rongbuk glacier when the writer was down with flu. Altogether Longstaff's tenacity is confirmed by the existence of this diary and his memorable description of the journey into Tibet is a jewel of mountain literature; especially when it comes straight from the horse's mouth or rather from its saddle, for he wrote as he rode, so to speak.
The sheets were presumably collected in England and pasted in a seven-volume scrapbook of Everest clippings from 1921 to 1951 (mainly from the Times and Telegraph), the whole tastefully arranged and bound in green covers by Printing House Square. The inscription throws no light on the donor's relationship with Longstaff: 'Everest 1921-1951. Seven Volumes of Newspaper Cuttings and letters collected by Lt Col J. E. H. Sawyer, MA, DM Oxon, RAMC. Presented to the Himalayan Club by his widow Margaret Longstaff Sawyer, March 1957.' Another puzzle is how certain sheets of a smaller size and whiter tone have been pasted between the original leaves (the numbering goes up to page 32) though the chronology is intact.
The second volume (1922-23) is sub-titled 'TGL's Diary'. It is intriguing that the first clipping is an editorial from the Times cut out so as to include the Times insignia. Appropriately the clock of Empire is set at five past six in the evening and the justification for climbing Everest is made slightly on the defensive. It is left to the Children's Newspaper clippings to wave the flag of civilisation over ignorant lamas. Everest had become a national fixation and the British could perhaps afford to be magnanimous in letting Nanga Parbat become a German mountain and K2 an Italian for it kept away competition. In those days gentlemen didn't compete . . . except in humbug.
'Darjiling (sic) Wednesday 15th March (1922). We reached Bombay on Friday to hear news of . . . Gandhi's arrest — news which was greeted joyfully by everybody.' Allowance must be made here for the Englishman's insularity complex. By 'everybody' of course he doesn't mean the subcontinent but his pinko-grey companions who, experiencing their overwhelming outnumbering, needed all the assurances they could muster. Thus Longstaff continues in imperial mood. 'Calcutta quiet - as all India will be as soon as we assert our decision to keep order.' This is a thinly veiled dig at the long-suffering bureaucrats by an army man.
After the long dusty rail journey the sahib-log had the predictable hot-bath and stayed free at the Mount Everest hotel in Darjeeling though they were awakened by an earthquake. Longstaff lunched with Morshead 'extremely nice chap' and met Bruce's 'grand' Sherpas. Throughout the diary he expresses a resentment against the Buddhist law of not killing, for he had hoped to shoot and skin specimens of birds and animals. He comforted himself with the fact that 'Everest is the thing. We must concentrate on that — the other things are sideshows.'
It soon becomes clear that in spite of all the boy-scout talk of 'playing the game' Longstaff was obsessed with height though he appears not to realize it. Also all the talk of everyone being 'splendid chaps' covered his real and vociferous dislike of oxygen being used on the expedition. Longstaff bought a pony and rode most of the way to base camp in the lead while Finch brought up the rear with, his 21 tin trunks of 'beastly' oxygen equipment. Strange that the expedition doctor should be so hostile to a life-saving device. Perhaps age had something to do with it. Longstaff was then 47.
We are told that Norton had piles but that this did not prevent him taking out the Prince of Wales pig-sticking, before joining the expedition. The team was entertained to Tibetan theatre and blessed by the chief lama and the Sherpas were exhorted to bring honour to their race. (Seven were to die in an avalanche.) Longstaff notes a bit sourly that the natives took more interest in their attempt than the Europeans. The social psychologist will find the diary fascinating for the racial nuances that made intelligent Britishers assume superiority while avoiding arrogance. Thus the Civil Surgeon and his wife are 'very nice Irish' implying that the bulk of that race may not be !
'Chumbi Rest House 3rd April: Dear Dora I have got sadly behind with my diary letters . . . read your last letter in undisturbed enjoyment. Norton and I started on our bird studies, shooting a redstart that was new to us, for identification.' (They were still in Nepal.)
'I rode over to MacDonalds the Trade Agent. He is haif-Lapcha and his wife Nepali.' Oh dear, most unpromising but there's worse to come: 'His daughters are dark.' However not as dark as 'Indian Eurasians. . . . We were invited to dinner but I sent excuses.' One can't see him doing it for half-Germans at Buckingham Palace !
The climax of his ride in was to bag an ibis-billed curlew which was much sought-after by the Natural History Museum. 'Tomorrow I post this in Yatung together with a pair of Tibetan woven belts which are pretty work. ... So good night . . . I'll write again from FharL I am very well .Tom.'
'5th April. Spent morning skinning specimens. A merry evening with the second party. And a long evening talk with Strutt on Central European chaos.' S'trutt of course of Alpine Journal fame, who foamed at the mouth at the Germans daring to try something the superior races (British and Swiss) were afraid to face — the Eigerwand.
'Kampa Dzong. 15,200 ft 14th April: A wonderful steep dark dirty crows nest of a place. Took up a party to repair Kellas' grave. Made a good job of it. A wonderful site in full view of Everest. . . . Sleeping badly but all bellies in working order, which is all that matters. Tempers v.g. A happy family.' Here he also describes the wild asses and gazelles and acquired four dozen eggs as fees for doctoring sick Tibetans.
'Tringki Dzong. 18th April: On the lagoon were Brahminy duck and bar-headed geese, very tame. . . . and [since they were now in Tibet] not molested by us, . . . Alas Tummy. . . . Castor oil. . . . two-day fast. ... on the mend.' Mallory and Somervell decided to go for a peak and Bruce consented hoping the experience would teach them 'scale'. It did and they returned peakless and wiser.
On the 22nd they crossed quicksands near Shiling and had praise for their interpreter Karma Paul. At Shekar Dzong they found extensive ruins 'the most picturesque town I've seen in Tibet. Rather a wonderful place'. There they fell to Sahib pre-occupations — hot baths and washing of clothes — and experienced (no doubt more so after hot baths and clean clothes) 20° frost at night.
'28th April : First Europeans (unless possibly Heron) to cross the Pang La 17,300 ft to Namda. Surprising view of Everest—black conical rock peak with only snow gullies on its north face.'
'30th April: Rode ahead to Rongbuk monastery in full sight of Everest. . . . where dwells the holiest incarnation of all the lamas in Tibet. . . . Bruce had a great interview with the lama taking the line that we wished to get as near heaven as possible.' Remarks like this show another side to the racial assumptions for these — for the most part military — men made no attempt to proselytise the Tibetans and were humble enough to accept that religion was outside the ambit of their scientific interests.
'May 15th : Rongbuk glacier. 16,500 ft. Base camp set up and reconnaissance done in 37° of frost. 'All Europeans well' . . . except the doctor. 1 thought it best to return to base on a coolie's back in spite of the ignominy of such a proceeding.' (One can think of some modern mountaineers who would never admit having done this.) He blames the coolies for giving him flu but never considers that his pony ride in may have made him a target for a weakening virus. Those who walked were immune. In spite of the ignominy he doesn't lose spirit. 'For the present I'm out of it. Must be thankful to have been on Reconnaissance . . . poor Mallory is rather sore at being left out but he is quite useless for anything of that sort.' Notice the language changing in the rarefied atmosphere !
'May 19 th : I find the true name of Everest is Chama lung — the place of the female eagle.' [This makes the Survey claim of 'no local name' look rather foolish.]
'May 20 th : Camp made higher than any other on record and an actual altitude record also beating Abruzzi by 400 ft. Absolutely splendid.' (One can't imagine English Dukes being stripped so unceremoniously of their titles.) He was delighted that his contention about the dispensability of oxygen had come true. 'Bruce and I consider the expedition is successful even if nothing more is achieved.' Would that other expeditions saw their failures in a positive light and extracted some consolation from honest effort.
'May 23 rd : I am only anxious about three fingertips of Morshead. I would have willingly suffered much injuries to have achieved this great feat. But of course frost bite is really carelessness when all is said. ... Finch and Geoffrey Bruce are at Camp III with the oxygen intending to have a shot. They are too small a party.'
The following day Longstaff sums up his philosophy, and even if one does not agree with him you have to admire his clear stand : 'The whole effort has been quite magnificent and comes up to my utmost hopes. Much better to 27,000 without oxygen than the summit with it.'
His last words convey the transparent honesty that characterize the whole diary : £I have to admit that I am feeling the altitude and the constant cold wind. We all are. For altitude Somervell is better than Norton and Mallory. We hope Finch and Geoff Bruce will stand it. The rest of us are played out. Tom.'
As a postscript we might include tone of the several mementos attached to the scrapbook, a postcard of the view from Darjeeling addressed (with a one-and-a-half anna stamp) to 'Mrs Longstaff' in Kent. It reads 'Many thanks for your 2 letters. Very well. Very busy. All arrangements splendid. Should be off on the 24th.' It is dated 15-3-22. Another postcard of the team shows Longstaff to be a slightly-built man (compared to General Bruce), very British in tweed jacket and waistcoat, old school tie and tie-pin and holding a pipe and an enormous sola topee. The receding hair above the piercing eyes and decisive nose is made up for by a luxuriant moustache. No one would guess looking at his photograph that here was a man who fifteen years earlier had climbed 6000 ft to gain the summit of Trisul (23,360 ft) in ten hours and descended in three. As Bruce was later to tell the boy scouts (and God knows what Freud must have made of that situation): 'Always remember the old British motto — It's dogged as does it.' Tenzing and Hillary did.