Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title]. Frank Smythe.
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].
Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].

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Frank Smythe: Autograph Letters [spine-title].

“Mount Everest Expedition” Base Camp,Tibet; Gangtok, India, and elsewhere, 20 April 1933–22 July 1937. Large 4to (16.25” x 11”), black cloth over boards, title at spine. 11 letters (9 ms and 2 typescript), 1 ms note and 1 ms statement, most letters in pencil, others in ink, 46 pp. mounted on 40 leaves, 6 blank leaves. 1 manuscript map (6” x 8”). A number of letter headed, “Mount Everest Expedition” or “Mount Everest Expedition 1936.” 2 original envelopes, one with a typed note indicating that it “suffered detention in Gangtok post office…” Two typed letters are retained copies; one bears a pencil note reading “Not for Publication,” the other is trimmed at the top, removing the date, salutation, etc., but with no apparent effect on the body of the text.

A substantive and important gathering of letters by British mountaineer Frank Smythe documenting the two Mount Everest expeditions he undertook in 1933 and 1936, including a harrowing account of Smythe’s record-breaking 1933 climb of Everest, and a lengthy letter on the supposed sighting of ‘Yeti’ or ‘Mirka’ foot-tracks. These letters also reflect the wide range of Smythe’s other activities and passions.

Attempting Mount Everest three times during the 1930s (1933, 1936, and 1938), Frank Smythe (1900–1949) is widely regarded as the first professional mountaineer, and was also a prolific author. Born in Britain and trained as an electrical engineer, Smythe made his first important ascent in 1927 when he pioneered a bold ice climb on Mont Blanc. He was subsequently invited to join the 1930 international expedition to Kangchenjunga (the world’s third highest mountain) in the Himalayas. While the expedition proved unsuccessful, it launched Smythe's career as a professional mountaineer. In 1931, he led the first ascent of Kamet in northern India, the highest peak yet reached. By 1933—when he was approached to join Hugh Ruttledge’s Mount Everest expedition—he was arguably the world's foremost mountaineer. He equaled the record height climbing Everest on 1 June ‘33, at 28,120 feet. However, neither of Smythe’s two subsequent Everest expeditions came close to equaling this early success. Smythe is also remembered for his exploration of a region in the Himalayas he named “The Valley of Flowers" (described in his book by that title), which is now an Indian national park. In 1949, while in Delhi, he became ill with food poisoning, and following a succession of malaria attacks passed away later that year.

The two typescript letters included here were composed by Smythe in the immediate aftermath of his historic 1 June ‘33 climb, and include much fascinating content on this climb (one of these letters is undated but appears to have been written in July ‘33, like its companion letter). This archive—spanning from 1933 to 1937—is remarkable for not only documenting Smythe’s historic ascent and his Everest expeditions but also for reflecting diverse interests and activities that went hand-in-hand with his mountaineering. Smythe was not only a mountaineer and author (he wrote some twenty-seven books), but also a photographer, plant-collector, lecturer (delivering papers to the Royal Geographical Society), and a botanist.

The bulk of these letters are written to Smythe’s literary agent Leonard P. Moore (1876– 1959) in England, whose clients also included George Orwell (from 1932–1950). Smythe’s correspondence with Moore frequently finds him asking his agent to carry out various tasks on his behalf.

Also taking part in Smythe’s expeditions was Hugh Ruttledge (1884–1961), a fellow British mountaineer and writer. Rutledge was evidently in charge of giving dispatches from their expeditions to the press. Smythe—said to be of feisty temperament—spills much ink here on his frustration over how various newspapers—the New York Times, Daily Telegraph, etc.—are covering his climbs. In one humorous moment, he remarks, “It would be interesting to put [various newspaper journalists] all at Camp VI without oxygen at 27,400 ft. in a hurricane blizzard & a temperature of -30 F. below zero or so.” His disdain of the press is recurrent. Elsewhere he sneers, “…AND no press— we all hate it like poison.”

In addition to the expedition and mountaineering content, the letters also cover some of the following subjects: lecture-tour arrangements; Smythe’s preference for writing books over giving lectures; book-ideas he pitches to Moore; an article for National Geographic; his previous mountaineering expeditions; correspondence with the Royal Zoological Society; climbing the Matterhorn; collecting flowers, plants, etc.; his mail being stolen and/or detained in an Indian post office; weather conditions; his interests in gardening and discovering new species of plants; mountains he wants to climb; the tragic drowning of a member in their party; his desire to publish a book on his historic 1933 Everest Expedition, etc.

One 1937 letter by Smythe concerns his discovery of what he believed might be the footprints of a ‘Yeti’ (or a ‘Mirka,’ as Smythe’s sherpas here call the creature)—the ‘Abominable Snowman’ of Western popular culture. Smythe took photos of the foot-tracks (not present here) and sent the negatives to Moore, asking that he have them developed, and also corresponded with scientific societies about the matter. Smythe includes measurements of the tracks and relates where they were found. The following signed two-page statement, made by Smythe’s sherpas when they returned to base camp, is included in the volume offered here: “We the undermentioned porters employed by Mr. F. S. Smythe, were accompanying [him] on July 17th over a glacier pass north of the Bhyundan Valley when we saw on the pass tracks in the snow which we know to be those of a Mirka or Jungle Adoni (Wild Man). We have often seen bear, snow leopard and other animal tracks but we swear that these tracks were none of those, but were the tracks of a Mirka. We told Mr. Smythe that these were the tracks of a Mirka and we saw him take photographs and make measurements. We have never seen a Mirka because anyone who sees one dies or is killed but there are pictures of the tracks which are the same as we have seen in Tibetan monasteries.” After examining the photos, British experts concluded the tracks were made by a large bear. Included is a manuscript map by Smythe (written on the same paper as this letter), which appears to depict the general region in which these tracks were found. Featured on the map are glaciers, routes taken, falls, snow fields, and a summit of 17,000 ft.

SOME REPRESENTATIVE PASSAGES

“Mount Everest Expedition,” Base Camp, Tibet; 20 Apr. 1933 “Here we are at last after a long march across Tibet under wintry conditions. A fit party on the whole but 2 are ill & then of course there is the usual case of sore throats.”

Tibet; 9 July ‘33 “There is a strong possibility of another Expedition to Everest next year or the year after. The Tibetans are very friendly these days, and if they give permission it will be only a matter of raising the necessary funds. We know that the top can reached in good weather and conditions without oxygen by acclimatised men, but the idea that the upper part of Everest is easy is bunkum—it’s hard as any first-class Alpine peak.”

Tibet; ca. July ‘33 “No doubt you and others are disappointed at our failure. We were perfectly acclimatised and fully capable of reaching the summit physically and mentally. Personally from Camp 6 to my highest point I did not have to stop once for a rest and took but two or three breaths to a step. But no expedition every had such terrible weather as we. Blizzard after blizzard whilst establishing glacier camps and temperatures far lower than previous expeditions—20 degrees F below zero … Owing to blizzards and avalanches it took two weeks to find the north col. alone. Then after one effort Camp 5 was established and we went up for an attempt only to have to remain there in the most terrible three days blizzard … Shipton and myself had our tent nearly blown over the precipice, and I had to get out in night and secure it in the worst wind I remember. … All Europeans and porters were frost-bitten … Two porters lost fingers. Nothing like this has been experienced by any former party. … we returned to the attack and managed to pitch Camp 6 at 27,000 feet—a marvellous feat by the porters. … Shipton collapsed and I went on alone but the conditions were terrible … [snow] steeper than a roof. I did the most desperate piece of solitary climbing I’ve ever done … A sudden and furious storm broke. It caught Shipton descending alone to [Camp] 5, blew him from his foot holds and left him hanging on his hands over a precipice—only by a supreme effort did he save himself. At Camp 6 the tent in which I was the solitary occupant was nearly blown away, and had I been descending from the summit I should not, of course, have got down alive.”

Tibet; ca. July ‘33 “Next day I descended to Camp 4 and was caught in the worst storm I’ve ever known on a mountain. I was blown off my holds several times and only saved myself by a miracle each time by driving in the pick of my ice axe. The cold was so bad that to have stopped would have meant being frozen to death in a few minutes. … we can only hope for another shot and luck with the weather. Without luck with the weather, Everest cannot be climbed. It is not only a difficult peak in the best of conditions … but for wind cold and storms there can be nothing in the world to approach it.”

Tibet; 20 Apr. 1936 ”My great ambition is to spend a summer wandering peacefully & philosophically about the central Himalayas … One thing is certain I want to make up for the big gap an Everest Expedition causes in my work as a writer, and I want particularly to develop my craft as a writer not wear myself out on repetitious work as a lecturer. … What with expeditions, lecturing & travel books I have never yet had a chance of getting down to the serious job of writing imaginative stuff. … We are camped beneath one of the wonders of the world … the [?] mountain & foot of Shelkar.”

“Mount Everest Expedition”; 24 June ‘36 “The fact is the strongest & fastest party that ever went to Everest met with impossible conditions of a like never before encountered plus an earlier monsoon than has ever been known in this part of the world. We are lucky to get away with it. … The future of Everest lies in small & inexpensive expectation …. I am certain an expedition costing £2000 has a better chance than a large one—the history of Himalayan climbing is one long list of failures by large expeditions & brilliant successes by small expectations. … All we want is to vanish quietly & withinout fuss into Tibet & have one whack at the mountain without the feeling that the ‘eyes of the world’ are on us.”

“Mount Everest Expedition”; 24 June ‘36 “What I’m hoping to do is to get permission to go to Kailash & enter Mandhata. So far Rutledge is the only European to go [?] [mount] Kailash. … It is the most interesting mountain in Asia—the sacred peach of Tibet & believed to be the very hub of the universe. I believe it can be climbed … Gurla Mandhata is nearby—a 25,000 ft. peak & it too can be climbed. I know a book of exceptional interest could be made out of it. I want to revisit the ‘Valley of Flowers’ that most beautiful of valleys & there collect plants & seeds … Next year I can publish a book on the 1933 Everest Expedition, but I don’t want to clash with Routledge’s book on this … No one has yet written a personal account of Everest & surely its time the official accounts were supplemented by something more personal & intimate…”

24 June ‘36 “The more I see of this part of the world the more it grips me—its atmosphere calming & people. There was a tragedy 2 days ago. One in our parties was drowned. It was horrible as we could do nothing to help him in the raging torrent—only watch & hope it would be over quickly—which it wasnt. Very upsetting.”

REFERENCES: “‘The last 1,000ft are not for mere flesh and blood’” at telegraph.co.uk

CONDITION: Some scuffing to covers, cracking along spine; contents quite clean, no losses to the text.

Item #5767

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