Friday, 19 October 2012

1952: Mount Everest and the Russians

USSR stamp, 1982
Did the Soviet Union make an attempt to climb Mount Everest in the autumn of 1952? Following the failure of a Swiss expedition to climb the mountain in the spring of that year*, news reports in the west suggested that the Russians had mounted an assault in a bid to be the first nation to reach the top of the world.  I recently came across the following 1953 Manchester Guardian article which suggests that in response to the 'tragic failure' of this expedition, another attempt was being planned for the following year. Apparently the aim was to erect statues of Stalin and Lenin on the summit.

Manchester Guardian, 20 October 1953
There are a few stories online that suggest a Russian team of 35, led by Dr Pawel Datschnolian, did indeed set off for Tibet in October 1952. Certainly the country was starting to take an interest in mountaineering at the time, as noted by Mick Conefrey in Everest 1953 He writes that while Soviet newspapers had in the past dismissed the sport as a decadent, bourgeois, folly, it was now being presented as a new front in the Cold War. However, the story goes that six mountaineers, including the leader, disappeared at Camp VIII at a height of around 8,000 metres. 

This is a fascinating tale but the Russians have always denied that the expedition ever took place. Walt Unsworth mentions it in Everest: The Mountaineering History (1989), but the most thorough investigation into the mystery is Yevgeniy Gippenreiter's 1994 Alpine Journal article, Mount Everest and the Russians: 1952 and 1958. A well respected Soviet mountaineer, he could find no evidence to support the rumour. It would be interesting though to know if any new information has emerged over the past 18 years.

The proposed 1954 expedition didn't take place either, but a Soviet team made it to Everest in 1958 as part of a joint venture with the Chinese. Finally, in May 1982, Eduard Myslovsky and Vladimir Balyberdin became the first Russians to make it to the summit.

* A second Swiss attempt was made in December 1952

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