The name of Charles Howard-Bury has been mentioned in passing several times this year in Roamer’s mailbox; initially in a reader’s reference to an auction of old photographs in Co Meath in February, and more recently in lieu of the centenary of the First World War Armistice.
So it’s high time his story was told here, and ‘high time’ is an apt testimonial to a unique individual from Ireland who trod fearlessly on the top of the world.
Lieutenant-Colonel Howard-Bury was born in 1883 in Charleville Castle, Tullamore, Co Offaly.
During the First World War he served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele.
He was captured by the Germans in the spring offensive of 1918, a dramatic if terrifying adventure that included escaping from a POW camp and being recaptured 10 days later.
At the Somme he experienced unimaginable trauma while digging a communication trench, under fire, through heavy, water-logged, chalk soil.
Frightened, fatigued and encrusted with thick mud he and his men were excavating a dense wall of earth that parted to reveal huge mounds of corpses, the dead from both sides, “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots” he recounted.
In absolute contrast to his harrowing but much-decorated First World War exploits, February’s auction in Co Meath concerned another chapter of Howard-Bury’s varied, action-packed life story.
Amongst his extraordinary tally of unusual accolades, he was also a brilliant writer, an accomplished naturalist, fluent in 27 languages and an explorer in the Himalayas.
Under the hammer at the auction were photographs that he took during his historic though little-recounted 1921 Mount Everest Reconnaissance expedition.
I would love to have seen those photos, having read some of his accounts of the expedition.
On September 17, 1921, at 2 am and at a height of 21,000 feet, he described, in almost dream-like prose, the world’s highest mountain.
“Except for the distant roar of the stream far away below in the valley, there was no other sound, only an intense stillness.
“Never anywhere have I seen the moon or the stars shine so brightly. To the South, far away from us, there were constant flashes of lightning – the valleys in Tibet, the great gorges of the Arun, the wooded valleys of Nepal, all lay buried under a white sea of clouds, out of which emerged the higher mountains like islands out of a fairy sea.
“To the west, and close at hand, towered up Mount Everest, still over 8,000 feet above us; at first showing up cold, grey and dead against a sky of deep purple. All of a sudden a ray of sunshine touched the summit, and soon flooded the higher snows and ridges with golden light, while behind, the deep purple of the sky changed to orange.
“Then the white sea of clouds was struck by the gleaming rays of the sun, and all aglow with colour rose slowly and seemed to break against the island peaks in great billows of fleecy white. Such a sunrise has seldom been the privilege of man to see, and once seen can never be forgotten.”
The photographs of Howard-Bury’s 1921 Everest expedition, and his many other mountaineering missions to the Far East, were auctioned in 21 lots at the February sale.
Had I been there with the cash, the one that I’d most like to have bid for was his pet bear called ‘Agu’, photographed in 1913 in the Tian Shan Mountains, between China and Kyrgyzstan.
He’d spent six months high-altitude exploring and bought the bear in a local market.
It was a baby when he got it and Howard-Bury nursed and protected it throughout the expedition, often carrying it with him on his horse.
A year later both Howard-Bury and ‘Agu’ were back in Ireland, where he then lived on another of his family’s estates, in Belvedere House, Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
‘Agu’ grew to seven feet tall, living in the arboretum, and wrestling with it was apparently Howard-Bury’s favourite form of exercise.
Seven years later he went east again, as organiser and leader of the first British Reconnaissance Expedition to Everest in 1921.
It was another epic adventure.
His team included other expert-climbers: Harold Raeburn (mountaineering leader), George Mallory, Guy Bullock and Edward Oliver Wheeler.
Apart from the hazards of previously unconquered terrain, their primary task was mapping and looking for a route to the summit along the dangerous snow-clad peaks, deep valleys and icy precipices on the north side of the mountain.
They hired 50 coolies and 100 mules for an expedition that attracted significant public interest, not least because a wolf’s footprints in the snow were misinterpreted by the media as evidence of the ‘Abominable Snowman’.
“The tracks which caused so much comment,” Howard-Bury wrote in his account of the expedition “were probably caused by a large ‘loping’ grey wolf, which in the soft snow formed double tracks rather like those of a barefooted man.”
As well as a bear and the Abominable Snowman, the redoubtable Irish explorer wasn’t unaccustomed to bizarre animal encounters.
In 1905 in India he shot and killed a man-eating tiger that was reputed to have carried off and eaten 21 fakirs, or holy men.
The Everest expedition of 1921 made Howard-Bury a public figure and in 1922 he was elected to parliament for Bilston as a Conservative member.
He died on September 20th 1963, aged 82.