I had never read about Aberdeen’s connection to the first Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921 until I read about Alexander Mitchell Kellas. Kellas was born in Aberdeen in 1868 and he can best be described as a chemist, explorer and a mountaineer.
During the early part of the twentieth century Kellas made nine trips to the Himalayas making two important first ascents of Pauhunri (7126m) and Chomiomo (6830m). As well as being a mountaineer Kellas was a chemist. He was awarded a Dphil from Heidelburg (Germany) and following this he took a lectureship in chemistry at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, London.
The combination of chemistry and mountaineering gave Kellas a unique insight into high altitude physiology and by the time of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, Kellas was an expert in this field of study. He pioneered modern thinking about altitude and the variables that would need to be addressed including barometric pressure, alveolar P02, arterial oxygen saturation, maximal oxygen consumption and maximal ascent rate near the summit. Having considered these issues Kellas believed that Mount Everest could be ascended by men of extreme mental and physical constitution without the use of supplementary oxygen. This hypothesis was not verified until Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler made the first ascent of Mount Everest without artificial oxygen in 1978.
Kellas was also extremely knowledgeable about routes on Mount Everest and he was the first to note the natural ability of the Sherpa to operate at altitudes above 5000 metres. He was also one of the first to train teams of Sherpa to work at altitudes above 7000 metres.
Kellas was not the stereotypical early twentieth century mountaineer and George Mallory described him in the following way, ‘ Kellas I love already. His appearance would form an admirable model to the stage for a farcical representation of an alchemist. He is very slight in build, short, thin, stooping, and narrow chested; his head is made grotesque by veritable gig-lamps of spectacles and a long pointed moustache. He is absolutely devoted and disinterested person.
Before setting out for the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Kellas had been on an arduous expedition to Karbru in eastern Nepal. He had nine days rest before joining the Everest expedition. Kellas died of a heart attack at Khampa Dzong, just as Mount Everest would have come into view for the first time during the expedition. He was buried within sight of Everest.
Kellas made a huge contribution to the science of high altitude mountaineering but his expertise and knowledge has not been fully recognised until recently. A biography entitled Alexander Kellas: Prelude to Everest by Ian R. Mitchell and George Rodway is to be released in August 2011.
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