Last night at the North East Mountain Trust's first winter talk of the season, Ian R. Mitchell gave an interesting and entertaining talk on the “forgotten” Scottish Himalayan mountaineer Alexander Mitchell Kellas. Kellas made several notable first ascents in the Himalaya, including being one of the first Europeans to climb above 20,000 feet, but sadly died in Tibet in 1921 on the way to Mount Everest. As a member of the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition he met George Mallory who would famously disappear on Everest just three years later.
Ian Mitchell is best known for his 1987 book Mountain Days and Bothy Nights which he co-authored with David Brown. In his latest work, which he hopes to be the definitive biography of Kellas, he collaborated with George Rodway of the University of Utah to piece together from the few written sources the story of this mysterious figure. Unlike his peers, and many of those characters which figure in the great stories of mountaineering history, Kellas really doesn't fit the profile of a typical world-class mountaineer.
Kellas was born and raised in Aberdeen, firstly on Regent’s Quay and later in a house on Carden Place. His mother’s family had a farmhouse near Ballater and it was from here that he and a brother had their first mountain adventure. From Ballater they walked 35 miles in to Loch Avon where they spent a dark, cold night under the Shelter Stone. The next day they summited Macdui and walked back to Ballater for a round trip of more than 70 miles. Kellas is also thought to have been one of the first people to rock climb in the Cairngorms, climbing to the summit of Cairn Toul by way of the mountain’s rocky north-east face.
After further time spent in the Scottish Mountains, Kellas took a trip to Switzerland where a guide took him up the Finsteraarhorn in the Bernese Alps. In 1907 he went on his first trip to the Himalaya, exploring the mountains in the remote Indian state of Sikkim. By this time he was a highly regarded chemist, who had worked with William Ramsay on the discovery of the Noble Gases, and had taught at University College London.
During several visits to the Himalaya he made detailed studies of the approach routes and possible climbing routes of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, and attempted to summit many of the lower peaks in the state of Sikkim as well as exploring remote areas of Kashmir and Nepal. In 1911 he had a hugely successful year, summiting several mountains over 20,000 feet including one, Pauhunri, which was later (after his death, sadly) found to be taller than its original surveyed height. This discovery retrospectively gave Kellas the height record from 1911 to 1930.
In 1921 he joined the first British expedition to explore the northern approach to Mount Everest and look for the possibilities of a route up the mountain itself. Sadly, just a day before he would have had his first close-up view of the great mountain he died, succumbing to complications arising from diarrhoea.
For his numerous Himalayan achievements he was a celebrated name in mountain circles up until the Second World War, but for reasons unknown disappeared from the pages of history after that period. His name is now more recognised within high altitude physiology circles, an area which interested him greatly, and which was the area where his few public writings were published.
Mitchell hopes that with the publication of this book, the name of Kellas will once again garner the recognition it deserves… whether or not Aberdeen City Council feel it is a fitting tribute to erect a blue plaque on his first home on Regent’s Quay.
Mitchell's lively talk brought this intriguing character to life, despite the rather sparse evidence (Kellas very rarely wrote up his mountaineering exploits), and it was a great chance to see some amazing images from the very beginning of Himalayan exploration and climbing.
The book, Prelude to Everest: The Scottish Mountaineer Alexander Kellas Who Made Everest Possible by Ian R. Mitchell and George Rodway, is now available to buy and can be found at the usual popular online retailers if your local bookshop doesn't have a copy.
There is also a short account of Rodway's attempt to summit Kellas Peak, done as part of the research for the book, in this report from the Himalayan Club.