The term ‘glacier lassitude’ has had an endearing and enduring usage by mountaineering authors. For the first time, this article traces the origins and use of ‘glacier lassitude’ from the British and Himalayan mountaineering literature. The object of this work is to find and give credit to the person or persons to whom we owe this fine expression and its literary tradition thereafter. It may be a trademark expression of none other than famous Everest pioneer George Mallory.
Outdoor enthusiasts and medical providers alike are familiar with heat-related illnesses. The Himalaya seem an unlikely location for this to happen, but it does. Lassitude is a feeling of weariness, listlessness, sluggishness, lethargy, torpor, languor, or diminished energy from physical, mental, or emotional causes. West’s authoritative textbook High Altitude Medicine and Physiology has no direct mention of the term glacier lassitude, but this description: “Mountaineers are familiar with the extreme intensity of solar radiation, especially on a glacier in a valley between two mountains. Here the sunlight is reflected from both sides as well as from the snow or ice on the glacier and the heat can be very oppressive despite the great altitude.”
In The Altitude Experience, an educational guidebook, Farris portrays lassitude as not just a physical problem but also ‘negative will,’ distinct from laziness that is chosen whereas lassitude is decreed. “The best example is glacier lassitude. There is nothing in the world more able to evaporate will than trying to carry a load up a hot, sunny glacier.” The continuum leading to heat stroke is described as starting with glacier lassitude, “the combination of dazzling light, heat, and snow seem to suck the will to move from your veins and makes walking or climbing a horrible chore.”
Thomas George Longstaff, the English physician and explorer, was the first person to climb a summit of over 7000 m, Trisul in the Indian Himalaya in 1907. His book Mountain Sickness recounted high altitude illness noted by western explorers over the centuries starting with Cortes’ men in 1519 on Popocatepetl in Mexico. Longstaff stated with accuracy, “‘Mountain lassitude’ which few can escape at altitudes of over 19,000 ft. –we refer to this height an altitude beyond which deterioration outstrips acclimatisation,” but he used the incorrect understanding of his time, “Stagnation of the air on snowfields has long ago been suggested as a cause of mountain sickness.”
Charles Granville Bruce climbed with early Himalayan mountaineering pioneers Collie, Conway, Younghusband, Mummery and others. He was leader of the second British Expedition to Everest (1922) as well as the third (1924) until he became ill and Norton took over. In Mountain Sickness, Longstaff attributed the term ‘mountain lassitude’ to Bruce, with whom he explored in 1907. Longstaff said that earlier in 1892 when Conway and Bruce were in the Karakoram that Conway “complains of the scorching rays of the sun when traversing the snowfields,’ and Bruce “has invented the term ‘mountain lassitude’ by which he means ‘diminution in the strength of a man due to diminished atmospheric pressure”.’
Alexander Kellas. Kenneth Mason in his 1955 Abode of Snow wrote, “Perhaps no climber has enjoyed himself more among the Sikkim Himalaya than Dr. A.M. Kellas of Glasgow.” While Kellas was a Scottish lecturer in chemistry and not a physician, he “Made observations on his physiological reactions to altitude, and wrote valuable accounts on these aspects.” Going over 20,000 feet many times in the Himalaya helped Kellas to understand altitude illness. The reader is directed to a review of Kellas’ activities in Rodway and Mitchell’s 2011 book, Prelude to Everest. In a 1916 reading by Kellas to The Royal Geographic Society and based on his observations of oxygen utilisation on other Himalayan peaks, he correctly predicted that, “near the top of Mount Everest…the rate of climbing might be less than 300 feet per hour.” Kellas’ larger 1920 manuscript, a masterpiece far ahead of its time, had a specific goal, ‘A Consideration of the Possibility of Ascending Mount Everest.’ It lay dormant at the Alpine Club in London, given to them in 1920 but finally published in 2001 for the first time by John West in High Altitude Medicine & Biology. This larger Kellas work includes a section on mountain lassitude. Written in 1920, Kellas the expert did not specifically mention glacier lassitude because he died near the Tibetan village of Kampa Dzong on the approach march of the 1921 First British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition weeks before they entered the Rongbuk glacier area and before George Mallory ever uttered the words.
The next two quotations are from Kellas’ section on physiological difficulties and mountain sickness. Kellas appropriately discarded other theories such as ionizing, electrical, or even psychic origins. Instead, sounding much like John West’s future textbook of 2007, he emphasised that, “It is generally assumed that snow, especially melting snow under a hot sun, is far more likely to cause trouble than rock, and a ravine or gully with stagnant air is more likely to produce mountain sickness than an open ridge … it is far more likely that the climber is influenced by the intense reverberation of the sun’s rays from the snow.” In his description of ‘General malaise: lassitude’ there is an explanation that, “Mountain sickness varies within certain narrow areas….passes of about the same height in the same region differ greatly as regards to mountain sickness….it has been generally assumed that one is more liable to be attacked when climbing in gullies and on snow, than on open ridges and rock.” This sounds like glacier lassitude. Kellas and other writers that he referenced from as early as 1783 already knew of the problem - it just awaited a catchy name. This was what George Mallory found out later, and verbalised, in 1921-1924.
George Leigh-Mallory. It is ironic that on the first British Everest Expedition of 1921 medical observer Alexander Kellas died while mountaineer George Mallory described glacier lassitude, whereas on the third British Everest Expedition of 1924 it was the other way around: the mountaineer George Mallory died while medical officer RWG Hingston officially reported glacier lassitude.
George Mallory, in his 1921 letters from Everest Base Camp complained that, “ I found it pretty hot on the glacier…I must confess to a degree of tiredness after the glacier work which I have never quite reached in the Alps.” In Bruce’s Everest Reconnaissance: the first expedition of 1921, Mallory’s section included the description of glacier and lassitude on the Tibetan Main Rongbuk glacier: “It was the glacier that had knocked me out, not the hard work alone but some malignant quality in the atmosphere, which I can neither describe nor explain; and in crossing a glacier during the day I always afterwards observed the same effect; I might feel as fit and fresh as I could wish on the moraine at the side but only once succeeded in crossing a glacier without feeling a despairing lassitude.” Mallory repeated it in chapter 16 on weather and condition of snow, “More than once, though the sun was not shining, in crossing a glacier late in the day I was reduced from a state of alert activity to one of heavy lassitude.”
In Mallory’s 1924 letters, published posthumously in Norton’s book on that fatal expedition, he depicted 'the Trough’ of the East Rongbuk glacier like this, “Irvine suffered very much and I somewhat from the complaint known as glacier lassitude – a mysterious complaint, but I am pretty certain in his case that the sun and the dazzling light reflected from the new snow had something to do with the trouble.”
The use of ‘lassitude’ involving explorers before 1921 such as Bruce, Conway, Longstaff, Morshead, Whymper, Wollaston, Workman, Younghusband and others revealed that the word was used in the traditional sense of fatigue in the mountains, but not the glacier-specific usage as in Mallory’s ‘glacier lassitude.’ Mallory’s use of ‘known as’ suggests he might not have been the first to say glacier lassitude in 1924, but he might have invented it earlier during that trip, or in 1921 on the Main Rongbuk glacier, or in 1922 on the East Rongbuk glacier. Many others seem to give credit to Mallory as discussed below.
Norton, Odell, and Younghusband
Edward ‘Teddy’ Norton, the leader after Bruce became ill, reported in The Fight for Everest 1924, that high on the East Rongbuk glacier at Camp III (21,300 feet) that, “Somervell – had more the matter with him than the early morning lassitude; he was in fact suffering rather severely from the sunstroke he had contracted in the windless glare of the ‘trough’ the day before.” The ‘trough’ or medial moraine was part of the problem. The sun was strong there in the thin air and the location is closer to the equator than, for example, the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Looming tall seracs and other ice formations surrounded the team on both sides. Scientists refer to ‘albedo’ - the extent to which something reflects light from the sun. Fresh deep snow over a featureless landscape may have an albedo as high as 90%. Glacial hard ice and/or an irregular surface may be less, however, the fact that the Trough climbers were surrounded on both sides suggests that they were thermally ambushed in a glacial slot canyon, thus experiencing not high-altitude lassitude alone, nor heat lassitude alone, but the two of them combined into the Himalayan Super Grand Total of Glacier Lassitude.
By the time of the third British Everest Expedition, scientific understanding had improved. Noel Odell, in his chapter on Geology and Glaciology in The Fight for Everest 1924, explained with scientific precision what happened on the East Rongbuk glacier in 1924 and the previous expedition of 1922, and similarly on the Main Rongbuk glacier in 1921, “ In spite of the low mean annual temperature from which this region suffers, its situation in such low latitude (Everest is 28o N) causes it to experience the effects of a very hot sun [and] a striking example of the effects of a tropical sun is the way in which eastward and westward flowing glaciers frequently have their southern sides melted back into steep ice cliffs, a case in point being the tributary to the East Rongbuk at Camp II...this action is aided by re-radiation of heat from rock-walls enclosing the glacier.” Odell continued with his description of the medial moraine, “The Trough – This interesting and possibly unique feature that provided a natural causeway for nearly two miles of the way up and down the East Rongbuk glacier between Camps II and III, will ever be remembered as a fairy scene, of the greatest beauty and highest artistry… exhilarating in the extreme, except at the hot hours of the day in late May and June, when the close stagnant air within the depression of the Trough was apt to produce a certain lassitude and disregard for its remarkable beauty !”
So now we have these facts; we have arrived back to the three expeditions of the early 1920s, we have the glaciers, their location and description, the source of the heat, and the presence of mountaineers. In his 1926 trilogy about the three expeditions, The Epic of Mount Everest, the first Mount Everest Committee Chairman and Great Gamer Francis Younghusband wrote that the “party felt a peculiar kind of lassitude which evaporated all the energy in them. It was what afterwards became known as ‘glacier lassitude,’” Note his choice of the word ‘afterwards.’
Richard William George Hingston served as the Medical Officer for the third British Expedition to Everest, surprisingly reaching Camp IV (27,400 feet) and contributing to Norton’s book The Fight for Everest 1924. Identical paragraphs occurred in that book and in Hingston’s ‘Physiological Difficulties in the Ascent of Mount Everest’ appearing in The Geographical Journal in 1925, with a section titled ‘Glacier Lassitude.’
Hingstons’ first paragraph stood squarely on the shoulders of Longstaff, Kellas, Mallory, Norton, and Odell. A second paragraph, however, became problematic when he blamed ‘saturated atmosphere.’ A 1925 Lancet medical journal article discounted humidity as possibly contributing to glacier lassitude. Leonard Hill and Argyll Campbell at the London National Institute of Medical Research discussed the physiological problems of the Everest expeditions and agreed that Hingston “clearly demonstrates that great lassitude was produced by overheating the body whilst at a high altitude.” Hill and Campbell studied the effect of exercising while breathing air saturated with moisture and at low oxygen tension on six test subjects, simulating 20,000 feet in the laboratory. They concluded that while “Hingston refers to the air being saturated with moisture in the case of glacier lassitude… this factor is almost negligible,” and finally, “it may be concluded that ‘glacier lassitude’ was due to the combined effects – of overheating of the body and of breathing oxygen at low tension.” The humidity theory died in the scientific literature, but the term glacier lassitude was to gain immortality in the mountaineering literature.
Mountaineering Literature and Glacier Lassitude
The British mountaineer and prodigious romantic writer Frank Smythe wasted no time theatrically plugging the phrase into his literary hobby. He was a frequent embellisher, most famously known for his hallucinatory companion on Everest. In The Kangchenjunga Adventure and going badly on a glacier in 1930, he rightfully attributed the term glacier lassitude to the 1922 and 1924 Everest teams, “Members of the Everest expeditions remarked the same thing in the trough of the East Rongbuk glacier.”
His artistic flare with glacier lassitude shows in three examples: from The Kangchenjunga Adventure in 1930, “The sun poured down upon us a fierce heat in which the snow became more abominable every hour [and] once again we experienced the energy sapping effects of glacier lassitude ,” from Kamet Conquered in 1932, “ Our bodies and minds became the unwilling slaves to that insidious drug, glacier lassitude [and] crossing the glacier…we felt like flies in the focus of a burning glass [for] the sun shone with relentless vigour upon our backs and our pace was funereal,” and from Camp Six describing Everest in 1933, “On the snow-covered glacier there was such an airless blinding glare that our energy drained away like liquid through a funnel.”
In his 1955 condensation of multiple expeditions entitled Men Against Everest, famous British explorer Eric Shipton described the scene on the north side of Everest in 1921, “As they climbed slowly up the glacier they were oppressed by a curious lassitude which robbed them of much of their strength. It was what has since become known as ‘glacier lassitude.’” Note his choice of the words ‘what has since become’ appears to date the term to 1921.
Matt Dickinson’s The Death Zone gives this credit, “‘Glacier lassitude’- the disease so brilliantly introduced to the world in the book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle” however, it was actually only exaggerated there. Bowman’s Rum Doodle is a 1956 parody of a bumbling, thoroughly British Himalayan expedition, supposedly inspired by the 1934 & 1936 expeditions rendered more classically in Shipton’s Nanda Devi and/or HW Tilman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi. At most, Rum Doodle gets credit for bringing many lassitudinal words to the armchair traveller. Bowman mentions London lassitude three times, heat lassitude once, valley lassitude once, plain lassitude once, sleeping bag lassitude once, altitude lassitude once, base camp lassitude once, and the vaunted glacier lassitude twice .
In conclusion, Longstaff, Kellas and others knew the symptoms of mountain lassitude, high-altitude lassitude, calm-air lassitude, and narrow-space lassitude, but never uttered the famous term ‘glacier lassitude.’ Mallory first used the two words glacier and lassitude in the same sentence in 1921. Mallory combined them into ‘glacier lassitude’ before he and Irvine disappeared on Everest in 1924. Norton and Odell added their descriptions in 1924. Hingston authored his medical reports in 1924 and 1925. Researchers Hill & Campbell clarified the phenomenon further in 1925. Younghusband, Smythe, Shipton, and others gave credit to the early pioneers, especially Mallory, and made it a literary tradition thereafter. There may be additional sources or private papers, especially prior to 1924, not included here. Other researchers are invited to help analyse the term glacier lassitude, and perhaps give credit to the words of George Mallory, to paraphrase his famous Everest phrase, ‘because they are there.’
The coining of the term ‘Glacier Lassitude’ by Mallory and further use by other mountain writers thus establishing the term in mountain literature.