An exhibition here in Grasmere of previously unseen photographs will open a window on a remarkable historic mountaineering expedition.
The Heaton Cooper gallery will host the story of an attempt on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, by a German team 90 years ago. The photographs are from the private collection of the British transport officer on the expedition, alongside paintings of the mountain by Julian Cooper. It will form the curtain raiser on the Kendal Mountain Festival.
In 1929 Germany launched its first Himalayan mountaineering expedition under the leadership of Paul Bauer. Its goals were explicitly nationalistic, motivated by a desire to rebuild a faith in German manhood and to finally leave behind the defeat and humiliation experienced in the First World War.
Bauer’s various accounts of the Kanchenjunga expeditions in 1929 and 1931 are shot through with the language of struggle and military metaphors, the celebration of mountaineering comradeship harking back to the camaraderie of the trenches. Underpinning it all was a sense of German national destiny expressed in the language of racial theory.
But if the expedition’s goal was to establish German mountaineers on the world stage it also brought them into contact for the first time with the multi-ethnic world of the Himalayas. The photographs taken by Bauer and his colleagues Julius Brenner and Dr Eugen Allwein all exhibit a strong ethnographic sensibility, sensitive to the ethnic diversity of Sikkim and the region.
Sherpa and Bhotia high-altitude workers are accorded special attention. They featured in group photographs and individual portraits. One remarkable photograph features the expedition cook Tenchaddar, seated outside a tent, praying in the Lotus position.
“The sublimity of this image is underlined by the fact that, all too often, Western mountaineers ignored and belittled the indigenous religious practices of the expeditionary labour force they relied on,” says Dr Jonathan Westaway, a mountain historian who is curating the exhibition.
Dr Westaway is a research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire, examining the history of mountaineering, exploration and the outdoor movement.
“What marks these images out as unique is that they were annotated by E.O. Shebbeare, the British transport officer on the expedition,” he says. “A forestry official and founder member of the Himalaya Club, Shebbeare was able to name most of the Sherpas featured in the photographs, preserving for us their individuality and unique identity.”
In one tender portrait a group of seven Sherpas lies in the grass, smiling at the camera, twirling Edelweiss in their hands. The flowers, a symbolic link with the Germans’ own Bavarian homeland, signal a tranquil moment before the fruitless struggle on the north east ridge.
Paintings by Julian Cooper of Kanchenjunga, and of a Himalayan porter, will also be on display. Mountain of Destiny: Kanchenjunga 1929 captures a unique moment in German Himalayan mountaineering before the deadly focus on Nanga Parbat consumed so many mountaineering lives and before German and Austrian mountaineering organisations became subsumed into the Nazi Reich.
Mountain of Destiny: Kanchenjunga 1929: Photographs from the 1929 German Kanchenjunga Expedition presented to E.O. Shebbeare (private collection) and paintings of Kanchenjunga by the landscape artist Julian Cooper.
Heaton Cooper Studio Gallery, Grasmere, Cumbria, opens November 15, until December 31, part of the Kendal Mountain Festival 2018.
Kendal Mountain Festival is the world’s premier adventure film and literature festival, the most diverse, creative event of its type. It hosts an international film competition, a packed lecture programme of guest speakers, filmmakers and athletes and attracts thousands of visitors from home and overseas, hundreds of film screenings including high-profile premières and other special events over a long weekend in the Lake District.