Mount Everest and its 1924 Postal History

 

            Called “Chomolungma” (Goddess Mother of the World) by the local Tibetans, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth, rising in the eastern Himalayan Mountain range between Nepal and Tibet about 100 miles Northeast of Katmandu.

            Originally known, as “Peak XV” in the British survey records, this mountain was renamed “Mount Everest” in 1865 in honour of George Everest (1790-1866), the surveyor general of India in 1830-1843, who first calculated this mountain’s exact location and approximate height in 1841. Everest is hidden behind other lofty mountain peaks when viewed from the south in Nepal. But it can be clearly seen from its north-eastern side in Tibet where it rises dramatically 12,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau.

            Everest is a relatively young mountain, geologically speaking, because it hasn’t yet been worn significantly by erosion. Scientists believe that Everest had its beginnings millions of years ago when the Indian subcontinent “pushed” into Asia, according to the theory of continental drift, and lifted up the Himalayan Mountain range. Further uplift occurred by the folding of Everest’s limestone layers during the last Ice Age, and scientists think that Mount Everest is still slowly rising, although counteracted by erosion.

            The most commonly accepted height of Mount Everest today is 29,028 feet (8,848 metres) above sea level, which is the official height that was declared by the surveyor general of India in 1954. Periodic snowfall on the mountain’s summit may cause varying height measurements with precision instruments, but the prevailing high speed westerly winds blow the snow off the barren rocky top before much can accumulate there.

            Everest actually has two summits, the lower one at 28,700 feet called the “South Peak” (a “false summit” in mountaineering terminology) and the upper one at 29,028 feet (the “true summit”).

            Because the summit of Everest rises up two-thirds of the way through the Earth’s atmosphere, oxygen is thin and jet stream winds reach speeds over 200 miles an hour. These fierce winds and extreme cold, unpredictable snowfall, thin dry air and the rugged slopes of Everest kept the world’s best mountain climbers from reaching its top in 10 serious expeditions from 1921 to 1952.

            In 1921, for the first time, the Dalai Lama, ruler of Tibet, opened the “northern approach” (also called the “Tibetan approach”) to Everest to a team of British climbers. This opportunity had to be taken advantage of, lest the Dalai Lama change his mind. Nepal still would not permit climbers to use the easier “southern approach.”

            The hastily assembled 1921 British Expedition to Everest was limited to a reconnaissance party which climbed 22,900 feet (6,980 metres) up Everest from the north and east sides of the mountain. This was followed by a 1922 British Expedition which had to turn back after reaching an elevation of 27,300 feet (8,321 metres), using bottled oxygen for the last few hundred feet. Seven porters died in an avalanche on this expedition.

            The 1924 British Expedition to Everest was a massive project, initially organised under the leadership of General C. G. Bruce who had to drop out due to poor health, turning the expedition over to Lt. Colonel E. F. Norton. This was the expedition which produced the postcard discussed in this article, and it was on this expedition that mountain climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared into the mists and were never seen again.

 

 

Special post card with the Rongbuk Glacier Base Camp cachet, taken by runner to Calcutta where it received the British Empire Exhibition slogan post mark.

 

            Norton himself reached the altitude of 28,126 feet (8,573) metres on this 1924 expedition, only 902 feet from the top, before he was forced to turn back. But two climbers, Mallory and Irvine, tried to go higher, and they were reported to be “going strong for the top” when they disappeared from view. It’s possible they actually reached the summit before they died, but there is no evidence that they did, and the world had to wait for Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay to climb to the top of Everest on May 29,1953.

 

 

Special post card with advertising label and cachet and Darjeeling post mark.

 

            From a newspaper article written at the time of his 94th birthday Captain Noel is reported as saying “At that time (the 1922 expedition) the climbers unlike today’s well equipped breed wore Norfolk jackets and tweed trousers and as a result, suffered severe frostbite. Tempers frayed as well, and it seems that the unappetising food caused one man to hurl a plate of sausages into the face of the Sherpa cook”.

            A special illustrated post card was published for the 1924 expedition and shows a view of Snowdon from the Rongbuk Base Camp with a printed message and signature of Captain J. B. L. Noel (John Baptist Lucien) of the 1924 expedition to climb Everest. The card is printed with the notation “Dispatched by Postal Runner to India” where it entered the normal mail system. It is believed that thousands of these postcards were produced and mailed, and many have survived to the present time.

            All of these 1924 Everest postcards have the facsimile hand-written message of “Best Wishes, J. B. L. Noel. Captain. Mt. Everest Expedition.” And almost all of these cards that I have seen are slightly damaged with bent corners, small edge tears and “foxing” (paper mould stains) here and there, but such cards are still desirable. I haven’t seen any of these cards without addresses or postal markings.

            It was Captain John B. L. Noel, who was also on the 1922 Everest Expedition, who thought up the idea of using a special adhesive advertising label or “stamp” to commemorate the 1924 Expedition, to be stuck onto official mail that was dispatched from the Expedition site in Tibet. The artist who designed this stamp probably worked under the guidance of Noel. The exact purposes of this Everest stamp are not entirely known today. It was possibly made to raise expedition revenue, to spread publicity about the expedition or to “mark the missives” from this 1924 British Expedition to Mt. Everest.

            The other illustrations shows the Advertising label on Snowdon special post cards “postmarked” by the official Expedition hand stamp used on post cards mailed from this Expedition. They were printed in sheets of 36 stamps, and full sheets are sometimes offered for sale. These stamps are known with and without gum when unused.

            This stamp or as it is generally known as an “advertising label” in philatelic terminology, meaning that is was produced privately (not by a government) for limited use on mail which then had to be placed into a real postal system somewhere. Cards sent from the Rongbuk Glacier Base Camp during the 1924 attempt to climb Mt. Everest were taken by runner to Calcutta where they were cancelled with a post mark advertising the British Empire Exhibition. Some mail was sent to Dahjeeling to be post marked.

            Notice that each of these Everest stamps has a swastika in the corners of its design. The swastika is a Buddhist symbol of good luck, and 1924 was nine years before Hitler came to power in Germany and forever gave the swastika symbol an evil connotation. Such was not the case in 1924 when this Mt. Everest stamp was designed. Inscribed in the left, top and right frame margins of this stamp are the words SIKKIM, TIBET and NEPAL respectively, the three regions which the 1924 Expedition crossed. This stamp comes in various shades of blue.

            The Mt. Everest advertising label described above was mainly used on special postcards sent by the 1924 Mount Everest Expedition crew from their Base Camp site in Tibet. Illustrations 2 and 3 shows the address side of two cards, with the usual position of the Everest local stamp in the upper left corner of the card. Regular postage stamps had to be affixed to the upper right of this postcard because it was eventually placed into the Indian postal system. The majority of these cards were addressed to England.

            Different Expedition “postmarks” exist on the Everest local stamp. Two scarce hand stamped markings read as follows: “MT. EVEREST EXPEDITION * 1924 * TIBET” and “MOUNT EVEREST EXPEDITION / TRACTOR PARTY / TIBET / 1924.” These Expedition hand stamps are all circular, and can be found in red, black or occasionally violet.

            Captain John Noel, who died in 1989 aged 99, was the last survivor of the Mount Everest Expeditions of 1922 and 1924, which he accompanied as official photographer.

            In 1919, in the course of a seminal paper to the Royal Geographical Society about an expedition he had made into Tibet, Noel made the first public suggestion that Mount Everest should be climbed. The gauntlet was taken up on the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921, and Noel himself was invited by Sir Francis Younghusband, who was then president of the R. G. S., to take part in the expedition of 1922 as official photographer.

            The War Office would not allow him extended leave so Noel was forced, with regret, to resign his commission. A celebrated revolver shot, at the time of his death he was one of the last surviving officers of the British Expeditionary Force of 1914.

            Meticulous in his preparations, he ordered an improved model of the movie camera used by his friend and mentor Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott’s last expedition; the two cameras are now exhibited side by side in the Science Museum.

            Noel’s 1922 film enjoyed such public success that he was invited to return to Everest in 1924. His book, Through Tibet to Everest (1927, republished in 1989), was the first to give the full story of the 1920’s expeditions. Its most dramatic passages concern the achievements and tragedies involved in the approach to the summit, culminating in the loss of George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

            Mallory’s last message from the highest camp was addressed to Noel, instructing him where to look for his party on the morning of the last climb. In the event the view from Noel's position, on the North Col at 24,000 ft, was obscured by cloud; but he held an unshakable, almost mystical, belief that Mallory and Irvine had reached the summit.

            In later years Noel became, in the words of Chris Bonington, “probably the most successful mountaineering lecturer of all time”. His splendid expedition films were supplemented by slides — coloured by a process of his own in those days before colour film — many of them showing Tibetan monasteries now sadly destroyed.

            In his photographic work he combined artistic flair with great skill and a resourcefulness approaching genius. He was equally adventurous and open-minded in his approach to the techniques of mountaineering and, to the dismay of his more traditionally minded colleagues, was in favour of all technical aids for climbing.

            Noel forecast the time when a man would land from the-air on the summit to make his way down; and when the climb would become routine for active tourists, after well-stocked cabins had been established along the route.

            John Baptist Lucien Noel was born in 1890, a grandson of the 2nd Earl of Gainsborough. He received his early education in Switzerland, where he fell in love with the mountains and made guideless ascents of such high peaks as the Matterhorn.

           Noel was commissioned from Sandhurst into the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1908 and soon found himself in India, where he spent the next five years.

           On local leave in 1913, disguised as “a Mohammedan from India” and guided by three frontier hillsmen, he explored the passes leading to Mount Everest and became the first European to reach within 40 miles of the mountain, before being turned back by Tibetan soldiers.

           In 1914, within weeks of beginning his first home leave, Noel was posted to the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, his own regiment being still in India. In the heavy fighting during the retreat from Mons his regiment was almost annihilated at Le Gateau; their ammunition spent, he and 22 survivors were taken prisoner.

            But Noel managed to escape and, after much privation, to make his way back to the British lines; after a period in hospital in England he rejoined his regiment at Ypres early, in 1915. During the latter part of the war he was in charge of revolver training for the newly formed Machine Gun Corps.

            After the war, when the Small Arms School was established at Hythe in 1919, Noel was a natural choice as revolver instructor under Major (later Maj-Gen) D. G. Johnson, VC; but his other interests were soon to claim him.

            As a lecturer in the 1930s Noel made no fewer than eight coast-to-coast tours of America and Canada, and took particular pride in having introduced to his agent the name of Winston Churchill, who was then out of office; as a result of two successful lecture tours the great man was well known there by the time the 1939-45 War broke out.

            During the war Noel served at home as a staff officer in the Intelligence Corps, where his main contribution was to deduce from air photographs the best supply route from India to the Allied armies in Burma; to his chagrin he was not allowed to go and check it on the ground. His exact route was later chosen, though it was rather unfairly given the name of “Stilwell Road”.

            After the war he specialized in the restoration of old Kentish houses, establishing himself as an expert craftsman.

            Noel had an inventive and visionary mind and was often out of step with his contemporaries. In extreme old age he retained detailed memories of the past but remained forward-looking, firm in the belief that: “This world is owned by man. Man has infinite capacity within himself.”

            He married twice: in 1915, to the actress Sybil Graham, who accompanied him to Tibet in 1924 to collect fairy tales for her book, The Magic Bird of Chomolungma, who died in 1939; and to Mary Sullivan. He was survived by a daughter of the second marriage.

            This article has been compiled from several sources, firstly a letter from Captain Noel in my collection, in which in answer to a question “did he actually sign the original post card” from which the printing plate was made and his reply that “yes it was his signature”. Secondly from an article by Barry Krause published in I believe a defunct post card magazine some years ago, and thirdly from the obituary published in the Daily Telegraph.

 

© Exhibition Study Group 2009

Index