Friday 6 November 2015

TH Somervell-Man of Everest

TH Somerville-front left with G Bruce right.1924 Everest Expedition. Photo, Bentley Beetham.
HE WAS already the grandest of old men when I met him in the early summer of 1970. He was then 80 years old, rotund, rubicund and happy, living in a house above Ambleside looking across at the Langdale fells — those same fells on which he had started his climbing career at the turn of the century. And now he is dead —Theodore Howard Somervell, a man of great stamina and even greater ideals. We, in the mountaineering world, will remember him as one of the two men who on June 2, 1924, reached a height of 28,000 feet on the North face of Everest but in India he will be remembered as a surgeon who devoted his life to healing the sick and teaching a new generation of surgeons and physicians. He was born in Kendal in 1890, the son of W. H. Somervell who was then the head of the boot and shoe manufacturers that still exist in that town. Soon he was wandering alone in the Lakeland Fells and extending his horizon to mild rock climbs.

And soon he graduated to the Alps where his father offered to pay for some guides. 'I looked very carefully at what the guides were doing and I saw that a guide isn't a magician — he's a man with experience who knows what snow and ice means. Well, I already knew what rock climbing meant so after that season in the Alps, I never had a guide and I did all the route finding.' He was lucky to survive the war —his ship was delayed by submarines on the way to the Dardanelles — and in 1921 he graduated from University College Hospital as a doctor and surgeon. In 1922 General Bruce chose him for that first assault on Everest. Howard Somervell himself was very modest about the reasons for his selection. He talked about the many better climbers who had been killed in the war and thought that he was chosen because of his stamina.

He told a story of being challenged by some friends to try to beat the record for the Cuillin ridge in Skye which at that time stood at just over 12 hours. He knocked some two and a half hours off that record. When I talked to him he laughed at his own performance compared to the modern record of four hours nine minutes set by Eric Beard. On that 1922 Everest expedition he was involved in a terrible avalanche on the North Col: 'I was quite certain that we were going to be carried over the ice cliff — so certain of it that I don't remember being frightened. I think that one is only frightened if there is some doubt about it but I thought that in five seconds I would see what wonderful things happen after death.'

But his patch of snow stopped and he dug himself out only to find that seven Sherpas were missing. 'We climbed down to the bottom of the cliff and dug them out and all except one was dead. And that was the end of the 1922 Expedition.' He was back in Darjeeling by August and had to wait two months for his boat home so he spent his time travelling around India: 'As a result of what I saw I decided that I must spend the rest of my active life (he was 32 years old at the time) trying to help. There were so few surgeons working in that immense country and there I stayed in a mission hospital for 25 years and then I went on to teach the coming generation.

Original Somervell watercolour

 We could have done so much more if only we'd had more time. ‘Coming from a civilised country you could hardly believe the things we saw every day.' But Everest was to call him away again and in 1924, he and Norton were selected for the second push to the summit after Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce had retreated. Their epic climb to well over 28,000 feet is well documented but I shall always remember this gentle giant sitting in front of a window overlooking the Lakeland fells and recalling the descent: Norton with increasingly painful snowblindness and Somervell, with a plug in his throat that was on the verge of stopping him breathing: 'We were unroped and Norton was ahead and I couldn't breathe in or out so I sat down in the snow and made violent efforts to cough. But I couldn't and I thought "Oh well, this is the end. Cheerio everybody!

And then I remembered my medical training — that most of our breathing is done with the diaphragm and so I gave one huge cough and at the same time pressed hard with my hands into my tummy. That did the trick. Up came a horrible black slough which I think was the inside of my larynx. Intense pain —but complete relief. It hurt like hell but it was air in sufficient quantity to keep me alive. If only it had happened higher up, we might both have gone on very much further.' And now he is dead at the age of 84 and I am proud that I met him: mountaineer, surgeon, musician and artist but above all, a man who loved his fellow men, a man who enriched all those diverse people who came into the Christian aura which surrounded his life.

On what happened to Mallory and Irvine I always think it is quite possible that they did get to the top and then had an accident on the way down. We know that Norton and I reached our highest point at about three in the afternoon whereas Mallory and Irvine were seen on the Second Step at 12.30, I believe. So they were two and a half hours in front of us and a couple of hundred feet higher. With oxygen and going at least twice as fast as Norton and I, they could have got to the top and back to Camp Six if they'd hurried a bit. Many accidents in climbing history have been on the way down. I think it's probable that one of them slipped while the other was not in a position to hold him. I've always thought that the probable place was a snow and ice slope on the way down and that they would have fallen down that terribly precipitous South-East Face.

On his personal equipment for Everest I had a woollen vest, a flannel shirt and three cardigans — not pullovers but cardigans with buttons so that you can take them off easily — and then a short mackintosh coat with buttons up to the top. On my legs I had long woollen underpants and some sort of loose riding breeches. My boots were very light and made in Kendal but big enough to take four pairs of socks. With four pairs of socks, the sweat from your feet settles on the outside pair so that the inner pair stays dry and as long as that stays dry you won't get frostbite. I never got frostbite on Everest or any other mountain on my feet. I'm perfectly satisfied with that as a rational rig-out for climbing. 

On danger I am sure of this: that many adventures like Everest have certain dangers which have to be faced and any adventure is not worth the name unless there is a certain amount of risk attached to it.

On Mallory himself One of the disasters of the First World War was the death of so many good people who might have influenced our nation for the better. And I felt that about Mallory — the tragedy of his death on Everest was not just a personal one. He was an idealist who wanted our nation to be a leader in the world: not in the sense of military power or the bossing of other nations but as an example of what civilisation can do for a people to make them happy. He was not exactly communistic but he did believe in an equal chance for everybody as far as it can be given in a well organised society. I should think he would probably have called himself a Fabian type of socialist.

Everest 1924: Irvine standing far left,Mallory next to him.Somerville-Sitting third right.

Chris Brasher : First Published in Mountain Life: Feb/March 1975