Climbing a mountain is the quintessential metaphor we use for any difficult feat, and with good reason. The first Mount Everest expeditions were not for the faint-hearted. The Tibetan people call the mountain “the mother goddess of the world”, and as many have learned, survival was not always assured when attempting to climb.
This month, the Bowers Museum is teaming up with the Royal Geographical Society to present ‘Everest: Ascent to Glory’. The historical exhibit opens on Saturday and features more than 20 original artifacts and 60 photographs from Everest’s history.
“It tells the story of the first attempts to climb Everest,” said Kelly Bishop, vice president of external affairs at the Bowers Museum.
Visitors will find photographs, films and artifacts from five expeditions leading up to the first successful attempt to climb the mountain.
This exhibit comes just after the centenary of the first British reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1921, which Bishop said was more a mapping of a path to its summit than an ascent. The following year portable oxygen cylinders were introduced, and while explorers were encouraged to try again, two deadly expeditions ended further attempts to scale the summit.
In 1933 radio made communication on the mountain possible for the first time, but it was not until 1953 that Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary crossed the final dome of the mountain.
Besides the story, “Everest: Ascent to Glory” explores unsung heroes like Tibetan and Nepalese Sherpas.
“These guys couldn’t have done any of this without the Sherpas,” Bishop said of the British reconnaissance. “That’s part of the story we want to tell in this exhibit.”
Highlights include a climbing rope found with the remains of George Mallory, an English mountaineer who perished with his climbing partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine.
“[Mallory] was probably the most famous climber in the world in the 1920s. He was on the first three expeditions to climb Mount Everest,” said Mark Bustamante, director of special exhibits development for the Bowers Museum. “Having failed on their first two attempts in 1924, they made a misguided third attempt, and he and his young companion died trying to reach the summit.”
Mallory’s remains were discovered in 1999, but Bustamante said the rope had become a lingering issue. Did he manage to reach the summit of Everest?
“This rope almost certainly seems to answer the question. There is still some doubt, but it seems to indicate that he probably died before reaching the top of the mountain,” Bustamante said. “It’s a fascinating piece and seems to show how these objects are so connected to the history of those early ascents.”
Visitors can also see the first oxygen sets ever used in high-altitude climbing and a National Geographic Society model of Mount Everest.
Wade Davis, ethnographer, writer, photographer, filmmaker and former explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, is the guest curator of the exhibition. Davis is the author “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest” and Saturday will do a virtual talk to coincide with the opening, one of a three-part series he will give during the exhibition.
Other programs surrounding the exhibition include a virtual presentation by Alasdair MacLeod, Head of RGS Business and Resources at the Royal Geographical Society on Sunday, and a virtual presentation with the first all-black team to attempt to climb the highest mountain, the Full Circle Everest Expedition, February 19.
The exhibition is the latest project in the Bowers Museum’s ongoing partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and will run until August 28 and is free with general admission. Tickets and a programming schedule can be found at bowers.org/programs.
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