Mount Everest was first climbed in 1953 as part of the ninth British expedition to the Himilayas. Everest: Ascent to Glory at the Bowers Museum celebrates these attempts to explore and summit what the Tibetan people call the “Mother Goddess of the World.” 

Humanity has long sought to expand into new frontiers, pushing boldly where others have feared to or could not go. For Great Britain, the early 20th century was marred by the Great War, as well as the failure of a British expedition to beat Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. To escape a country that felt unfamiliar to them after the horrors of World War 1, the greatest explorers of England set their sights on reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

The 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition mapped approach routes to the mountain and climbed to 23,000 feet, laying plans for future attempts and providing some of the first—and finest—close-range images of Everest. The introduction of oxygen the following year seemed promising until two fatal expeditions put efforts to climb Everest on hold. The advent of radio in 1933 made communication on the mountain possible for the first time. It was not until 1953 that Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary would crest the mountain. 

All images ©Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) 

Everest: Ascent to Glory, at the Bowers Museum through August 28, 2022, in a partnership with the Royal Geographic Society, features more than 20 original objects and 60 stunning photographs of the early exploration of Everest. From climbing rope found with the remains of George Mallory, to one of the first oxygen sets ever employed in high-altitude climbing, the exhibition takes visitors on an epic journey reflective of the true triumphs and tragedies intertwined with Everest. 

Curated by Wade Davis, the award-winning author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, explores the history, resolute characters, unsung heroes—including Tibetan and Nepalese Sherpas—and changing technologies of the initial attempts to climb the tallest mountain on Earth. 

Photographs taken in 1921 were originally intended to complement the purpose of the expedition—to carry out new and more detailed survey work in the region, in preparation for future attempts to summit Everest.

However, the aesthetic quality of these images—among the first to document Everest at close range—is remarkable, including some of the finest panoramic photographs of any high mountain region ever taken. They remain astonishing in their ability to transport the viewer to another time and place.

Photography has always been an important component of Mount Everest expeditions. From the first expedition onward, cameras and the paraphernalia required were part of the equipment factored into the logistics of climbing the mountain. For the porters it was certainly a heavy load, from cameras and lenses to glass plate negatives, tripods, and chemicals. The early expeditions took all that was needed both to expose and to develop pictures on the mountain.

The 1921 photographs were taken by a disparate group of men, from scientists to climbers, doctors of medicine to surveyors, and there are fascinating differences in how each saw and recorded their time on the mountain.

These early photographs are part of the Society’s wider collection of over 20,000 Everest images, documenting the expeditions carried out under the auspices of the Mount Everest Committee.

They are also a critically important source of historical documentation for the Tibetan and Nepali peoples—the Everest archive at the Royal National Geographic Society holds some of the first photographs of people in the region.  

Everest: Ascent to Glory is organized by the Bowers Museum in partnership with
the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London.

Bowers Museum | 2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana |

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