Circumnavigating the globe in a biplane, Richard Halliburton took the first aerial photograph of Mount Everest.
In 1931, Richard Halliburton – one of America’s greatest adventurers and travel writers of the twentieth century – hired pioneer aviator Moye Stephens to fearlessly circle the world in an open cockpit biplane, optimistically named the Flying Carpet. For Halliburton it was the ultimate in romantic, risky exploration and was a means of seeing the world in a way that few had ever seen it before. They performed aerobatics in Fez, explored Damascus and Petra, met the legendary aviatrix Ella Beinhorn in Iran and spent time with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.
These adventures were chronicled in Halliburton’s best-selling book The Flying Carpet, and the extract below tells the story of how whilst soaring over the Himalayas, Halliburton took the first aerial photograph of Everest.
While in Agra, Elly and Moye and I received an unexpected telegram. It came from the Flying Club in Calcutta, inviting us to that city in order to take part in a flying meet being held shortly in honour of the Maharajah of Nepal. This was a miraculous answer to all my prayers, for if the interest of the Maharajah could be aroused by the Flying Carpet’s antics, he might grant us permission to fly across Nepal to Mt. Everest; and Everest, now that we were in India, had become our major goal. Only one other airplane, that of Sir Alan Cobham, had ever approached the Great Mountain, because the Nepalese native officials, who control the southern route, emphatically refuse to give pilots permission to cross the borders; and any flight from the northern side involves first surmounting the entire Himalayan range before even reaching Tibet.
And now, awaiting us in Calcutta, by the grace of God, was the one and only person who had the power to lower the Nepalese barriers and open for us the aerial gates to Everest.
Elly was just as eager as we were to visit the mountain. Even though her little ship had only a twelve-thousand-foot ceiling she would be able, provided she could gain permission from the Rajah, to have a good look at Everest from that height. We counted on the girl’s aerobatics interesting him more than ours. But all three of us planned to put on the greatest flying show in our power. Mt. Everest was at stake.
We reached Calcutta just in time. On the morning of the meet the whole official colony of Bengal gathered at the field to honour the Maharajah. He arrived – a grand old man of nearly eight years, looking impressive in his frock coat and long white beard. The royal pavilion had been raised before the hangar, and under its crested canopy, in the place of honour, the Maharajah sat, surrounded by members of his family and his court. So strict had been the isolation in which he had always chosen to live, he had never seen an airplane fly before!
The Flying Carpet was polished till its gold and scarlet colours glittered in the sun. I begged Stephens, when our turn came, to go the limit, risk anything, to astonish Nepal. Excepting Elly’s agile Klemm, the other airplanes entered in the meet were mostly training ships of small power, modest performance and subdued colours. In this show-off competition, we had an enormous advantage – just thorigh a more powerful engine and a more spectacular plane.
Calcutta probably never saw such a stunting exhibition as Stephens put on. With the very first wide-open dive at the royal tent, the Maharajah was on his feet, white beard flowing in the wind, hat in hand, looking up in amazement at the wild-flying Carpet. He was wondering, no doubt, how the airplane ever held together – and so was I. Moye had stunted with me before but never like this. After exhausting our bag of tricks, as one last stroke we shot past the tent upside down and, hanging on our safety-belts, waved at the grand old King. Elly was startling him with gyrations hardly less intricate than Moye’s. In fact, her whip-stall, three hundred feet off the ground, was a stunt we did not dare to do so close to earth.
Both planes landed to find the Maharajah as excited as a small boy…. Now was the time to broach the subject of Everest. We made Elly act as spokesman – for who would bar her from any country!
Beside the Maharajah, acting as interpreter, stood his oldest son, the Crown Prince, whose grey moustache indicated that he himself must be no younger than forty-five. Through him Elly made our appeal, and at the same time invited him to go joy-riding over Calcutta with her aboard the Klemm.
He turned to his regal old father, and they spoke in Nepalese. Then with a sad and disappointed face he turned back to her: ‘Papa say I can’t go.’
‘And Mt. Everest…?’ – holding our breath.
The Prince smiled: ‘Can do!’
The next day Elly’s plane and ours headed for the Himalayas. The first night out was spent in Siliguri, just at the foot of the mountains. The following dawn, stripped of every possible ounce of weight and carrying as few gallons of fuel as we dared, we sailed up into the sky, and after climbing the foothills, struck out for Darjeeling.
This celebrated little town, sixty-five hundred feet high, seemed to be sleeping on its ridge-top, half-blanketed in mist. To wake it up and to give the tourists watching the sunrise from Tiger Hill something to talk about, we did a few loops and slow-rolls. In the background, appallingly immense, loomed Kinchinjunga, thrusting its ice peaks five and a half miles into the clear cold blue – a mountain normally clothed in purest white, but now turned gold and purple by the sunrise glow. The early morning light fell full upon the shining flukes and spires, the castles of snow, the cascades of ice. From ten thousand feet we could see this glorious peak, which is only one thousand feet lower than Mt Everest itself, stretching out its whole vast length before us.
We had previously arranged with Elly, because of the great inequality in our climbing power, to part company over Darjeeling and approach Everest separately. We now waved good-bye and good luck to her, and started to climb.
The cold dug beneath our fur-lined flying suits as we reached fifteen thousand feet and turned westward across the borders of Nepal. For an hour we sped down the Himalayan range until we were a hundred miles west of Darjeeling and about seventy miles south of Everest. Then we turned at right angles and flew straight north. In wave upon wave of hills, rising higher and higher, Nepal climbed toward the supreme peaks. A few scattered villages appeared below on the river banks, and though we could not observe their inhabitants, we knew that they were probably looking up in bewilderment at the airplane.
Thinner and thinner the vegetation grew as the foothill ridges of Mt. Everest ascended the stairs – and thinner grew the air as we climbed above them. But the stairs were climbing faster than the Flying Carpet. Though we pushed up to seventeen thousand feet, the ridges still pursued us. Through a tremendous effort (and a light load) we struggled to eighteen thousand – two thousand feet higher than the Carpet had ever been before. The engine was being forced to its utmost revolutions, but even so we were just hanging on by our very teeth. This – eighteen thousand – was our absolute ceiling. Not one more inch could we gain. Would eighteen thousand be enough to take us around Everest, which was the most we had ever hoped to do?
The Great Mountain loomed ahead, forty miles away now – one peak from the titanic wall of peaks. Kinchinjunga still dominated the east. Westward of Everest, the Himalayan sentinels soared and fell and soared again in a vast phalanx of snow and clouds. We were beholding the most stupendous panorama the eyes of man are privileged to see, a panorama of the highest and the mightiest monuments on this planet, the great white beacons for which inhabitants of Mars look when they turn their telescopes upon the Earth… and we were beholding the sublime picture from a vantage point which only one other man had ever shared – from the sky above Nepal.
I had seen the famous mountain peaks of the Alps. But Alps! They seemed now like toy mountains compared to these overtowering giants. Before me one precipice on Everest’s southern slope measured as high as the top of the Matterhorn measures from the sea. At sixteen thousand feet, in this same Flying Carpet, we had flown well above the summit of Mont Blanc: now at eighteen thousand we were about to bump into the foothills of the Himalayas.
Mt. Everest continued to approach, but with every mile our flying problems multiplied. The thin cold air seemed to give us no support at all, and the ridges below were licking up at us closer and closer with each succeeding wave.
At twenty-five miles distant, every detail of the Everest group appeared brilliantly clear. The mighty Makalu, 27,850, shaped in the form of an armchair, paid but small homage to her Majesty. Cho-Oyu, 26,750, would have bedazzled the world with its frozen spires had it been in any other company but this.
And then Everest itself, indescribably magnificent, taunting the heavens with its gleaming crown. Her precipice, her clinging glacier shield, her royal streamer forever flying eastward from the throne, her court of gods and demons, her hypnotic, deadly beauty… what incomparable glory crowns this Goddess Mother of all mountains!
Where on this huge mass did Mallory and Irvine lie? On the point of that last high tower? On the slope a thousand feet below? At the bottom of that appalling cliff? Wherever they are, they have not died in a lost cause. Already other men have taken up the fight, determined to conquer the mountain and all her demon train. Chomo Lungma is doomed. The spirit of Mallory will see to that.
Despite our heavy flying clothes, Stephens and I were suffering from cold. Remember, we were flying in January, over three and a half miles high, and had reached the belt continually harried by the freezing blasts from Everest’s glacier fields. Our Carpet struggled forward against these winds. Our hands grew numb as we manoeuvred the plane. Respiration became increasingly laboured. But however sharp our own discomfort, I realised it was a bed of roses compared to the torments endured, not for a moment as was our distress, but for days and weeks, by the Everest climbing parties. If we were miserable at eighteen thousand feet, think what they must have suffered having to live at twenty-five thousand, and endure not only the everlasting below-zero cold and the hundred-mile-an-hour blizzards, but also the tortures inflicted on lungs and heart by the least exertion in this oxygen-less air.
The buttresses of Everest were now reaching up so dangerously close to us, we saw we had no chance whatsoever of making a flight around the mountain. Even the passes at the base, passes we had hoped to cross in order to reach the Tibetan side, rose another mile above us. We decided that no airplane with less than a twenty-five-thousand-foot ceiling would possibly encircle Everest; and to fly over it one would need, in the face of the fearful winds, a safety margin of five thousand feet, or a ceiling of thirty-four-thousand. Obviously, with our inadequate power, we must rest content with a visit to the southern slope.
Just how close could we go? Twenty miles had been reduced to fifteen. But now the rocky slopes were only five hundred feet below, and directly ahead of us they rose abruptly. Pilot Stephens did not dare go nearer. This was the time for a photograph. Hoping to record the vision before us, I unslung my camera, unstrapped my safety-belt and leaned over the cockpit’s edge to focus on the mountain. But I promptly realised there was no hope of a picture. The straining, vibrating engine, pushed to the limit, was almost shaking the camera out of my hands. Any photograph could only be a blur.
And Moye could not cut the motor. It would have meant a sudden dizzy drop of probably a thousand feet – with the ridges now not half that distance below us. We had reached the absolute limit of any possible advance – another brief moment and we would have collided with the mountain-side. While there was yet margin enough, we turned about and headed away, lamenting for the first time the Flying Carpet’s inability to rise as high as our desire.
As we retreated, I looked back for one last time at Everest’s summit, untrodden and unflown, another eleven thousand feet above us. I must have some sort of photograph to record this unique view. But I had to wait until we had retreated twenty miles, where we cleared the rocks below by four thousand feet. Again I aimed my camera. Moye cut the motor, and naturally, as we expected, we took a headlong dive through the thin air like so much solid rock. The fall, before we straightened out, almost lifted me, freed of my belt, bodily out of the cockpit. As for the picture, it recorded the mountain, though a very badly shaken mountain photographed by a badly shaken photographer. But however imperfect, it is the only aerial view of Everest ever made, and definitely shows the streamer and precipice which identify the peak.
Thus Mt. Everest repelled one more attack – or rather, two more, for Elly’s little plane had been driven back at a lower altitude than ours. But these two attacks were only the latest and the least – not the last. Other climbers and other fliers the mountain must reckon with. The more defeats men suffer at her hands, the more new volunteers will enlist to fight against her.
Some day, some flier with a super-powerful plane, and oxygen tanks, will launch an attack at thirty-four thousand feet and conquer the Goddess Mountain from above. Stephens and I like to hope that we ourselves may be able to return with a greater Flying Carpet and accomplish this. It would be a great achievement to fly over the mountain and all around it, and photograph every angle of its summit with special cameras. Perhaps such photographs will serve the next party of determined climbers when they follow the guiding spirits of Mallory and Irvine up the terrible trial to the pinnacle – the pinnacle of that cursed, divinely beautiful Himalaya.
Why must men match themselves with such a cruel opponent? One man will say – Because it is monstrous, merciless, demanding the utmost of one’s energy and effort. Another will say – Because with one summit attained, everything else on Earth will be below. And yet a third – Because that streaming and defiant flag flying from Mt. Everest’s citadel is the greatest challenge in the realm of exploration.
But Mallory himself gave the best reason of all.
To the literal-minded his reply seems puzzlingly abrupt and inadequate. But to the questing spirits, to those who understand, it is eloquent and altogether sufficient – an answer that reveals, moreover, the impulse in the souls of such men as Mallory.
‘Why do you wish to climb Mt. Everest?’ an unimaginative person asked of him.
‘Because it’s there!’ he said. ■
Image courtesy of douas.
Richard Halliburton (1900–1939) was America’s greatest adventurer and one of the most successful travel writers of the twentieth century. Halliburton has not been seen since 1939 when he disappeared while attempting to sail across the Pacific in a junk. His books include The Glorious Adventure, The Flying Carpet and Seven League Boots.