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Re-discovered at the Royal Geographical Society is the 1939 Michael Spender map of the Environs of Mount Everest where it had been un-recorded for more than 50 years. Although eventually scanned it had also, until now remained ‘unpublished’ - but this has now been rectified see Geographical Everest 60th Annniversary issue June 2013.


The missing map from the Mount Everest Reconnaissance 1935


Michael Spender, the surveyor, was selected for the fifth expedition to Mount Everest, the  Reconnaissance in 1935 led by Eric Shipton. Michael, brother of poet Stephen Spender, died during the last week of the Second World War in a flying accident in 1945, whilst serving as a Squadron Leader in the R.A.F.

A double-first from Oxford who never considered himself a mountaineer, Spender regarded mountaineering simply as an extension of surveying, a pursuit to which he was dedicated. 'His record of exploratory survey in mountain country, his work in connection with its development and his friendship with many members of the Alpine Club' of which he was not a member, ‘nevertheless deserved an obituary notice in the pages of the Alpine Journal’ wrote Eric Shipton in the Alpine Club Journal vol.55 May 1946. 'There was no man in whose company I found more pleasure or with whom I would rather have shared the deep and varied experience of an exploratory journey'.  Although he also had a reputation for being arrogant and provocative - 'highly individual' was fellow expedition member Edwin Kempson's description - but he got on well with Shipton who grew to like and respect him.

'It is never easy to predict how people will react to one another on an expedition'.  This was well illustrated by a curious experience Shipton had at about this time.  Lawrence R. Wager, a lecturer in geology at Reading University who had been to Everest in 1933 with Shipton and was one of Watkin's companions in Greenland. Eric had spent a weekend with him discussing food, equipment and other matters in preparation for his next expedition, the Mount Everest Reconnaissance in the Spring of 1935.  Talking of the composition of his party, Wager told Shipton that he had come to the conclusion that it was a great advantage to include one member so universally disliked that the others, with a common object for their spleen, would be drawn together in close comradeship.  Though an expedient employed by most successful dictators, Shipton was astonished to hear it proposed in this context, particularly by someone as temperate and as warm-hearted as Wager.  He went on to tell Shipton that he had found the perfect subject for his experiment in Michael Spender, a brilliant surveyor and an excellent traveller, but a man whose overbearing conceit had made him most unpopular on each of his several expeditions.  Happily Spender did not seem to notice, let alone resent the fact.

Shipton was shortly afterwards startled to hear that for the reconnaissance the Mount Everest Committee, on the advice of the Royal Geographical Society had invited Michael Spender to join the expedition as surveyor, with the special task of making a stereo-photogrammetric survey of the northern face of Everest. They were to take with them the Wild photo-theolodite which had been used by Professor Kenneth Mason in the Karakoram in 1926, and a lighter Zeiss photo-theolodite used in Greenland, lent by the Danish Geodetic Institute and adapted to take films and the Watts-Leica photo-theodolite, an instrument of great simplicity.

Spender had returned from Greenland and only just arrived in England for a short holiday from Copenhagen, where he was engaged in working out the results of his last Greenland Expedition with Wager.  So this then was a golden opportunity to test Wagers' theory. The Danish authorities had kindly released Spender from his contract and he had just three weeks in which to make his plans and to collect his equipment, but managed to do so.  Now, as on the expedition itself he displayed an energy and enthusiasm for which Shipton soon came to have a considerable respect and so it seemed that he would be conducting Wager's experiment in human relations after all!  He was a little apprehensive, but too intrigued with the idea to raise any objections.  But the outcome was very different from what he had expected; for in Michael, Shipton  found a delightful and stimulating companion, and they became close friends.  Spender had an extraordinary originality of outlook, totally unfettered by conventional thought.  A year after leaving Oxford  he had abandoned a promising career in commercial research in a quest for 'reality', which still lacked clear focus partly because of the great diversity of his interests.  It was easy to see how he had made himself disliked, for his wildly unorthodox views, which effectively disguised the fact that he himself did not necessarily hold them.  He was sensitive and honest enough to be well aware of his faults and sometimes revealed surprising humility.

Whether Shipton's liking for him influenced the rest of the party, or whether they were an exceptionally tolerant lot, or whether Michael himself had mellowed, he certainly did not assume the role of scapegoat.  Nor was this needed, for, perhaps because of the width of their field of operations which meant that the party could be frequently split into small units, each with its separate objective, there was remarkably little friction -  so often caused by people treading on each other's toes.  In any case, the presence of Dan Bryant would have made dissension difficult to sustain, for any ostentation or humbug became the target of his gentle mockery, which discouraged any of us from taking himself or his grievances too seriously.

In 1937 Spender again joined Shipton, this time to the Shaksgam River Valley on the northern side of the Karakoram, described in Blank On The Map. Shipton and Spender, again with Angtharkay and four Sherpas took food for thirty days and crossed Wesm (later to be know as Spender's) Pass. Although he could be tactless and quick-tempered and not much good at 'winning friends and influencing people', Shipton found a 'gentle, sympathetic, self-critical companion whose free expression of a lively imagination and intolerance of convention' he admired.

During twelve years of research for my book Mount Everest : The Reconnaissance 1935, which I published privately in 2005, I spent a good deal of time in the Picture Library of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS–IBG) in Kensington Gore. This was only after money had been found, through Lottery funding as well as extensive internal fund-raising, to index the huge number of photographs held there, including 1600 prints from the 1935 Everest expedition which had not previously been recorded. Apart from all these, I eventually also found a bunch of curled-up negatives which had remained anonymous in a brown envelope. I was able to identify them as the original exposures taken by Michael Spender during his photogrammetric survey of the Everest region.

In 1993 I met with Charles Warren, an Alpine Club member, who was then the only surviving  member of the 1935 expedition and it was he who offered a further clue to the existence of another Spender Everest map (in addition to the fine large scale map of the north face of the mountain itself, which was published in the Geographical Journal 1936 (88(4): facing p.384) and which adorns the double dust jacket of my book). This came about as Michael Ward had arranged for Warren's expedition diary of 1935 to be published in the 1995 issue of the Alpine Journal (100(344): 3–14). The final line read A new map of the Tibetan environs of Mount Everest was the outcome. Charles had told me about the 'Forgotten Adventure' which first ignited my interest in this 1935 expedition. As well as selecting photographs to illustrate my book, I also needed some new maps of the routes taken by the expedition across Tibet and their climbing and survey work in the area to the east of Everest.

G. S. Holland had drawn his own 1961 Mount Everest 1:100,000 map at the RGS and I noticed that he too acknowledged, in the gutter of that map, that amongst other sources he had used the Photogrammetric survey by Michael Spender 1:50,000 1939 (unpublished).  This confirmed the existence of the missing map based on Spender’s extensive phototheodolite survey, but it remained unrecorded at the RGS. All maps drawn there had been entered in the Job Book of the drawing office so, together with Ted Hatch who had worked at the RGS for 40 years and who I had commissioned to draw two new maps for my book, I carefully read through the pages of this hand-written tome, but there was no record of the missing Spender map in the chronological list. So had it not been drawn there – and where was it now? I had also found another tantalising reference to this map in an article by Spender in the Himalayan Journal, 1939 (11: 176–179). He wrote "The photographic surveys of the 1935 Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest were plotted in Switzerland in February 1939 at the Wild factory in Heerbrugg. The work was done at the direction of the Mount Everest Committee; the principal object was to plot the map of the Mount Everest region ... Four weeks were spent on this work and the inking in of the sheet".   In the summer of 2005 I invited Michael Ward (Everest A Thousand Years of Exploration. The Ernest Press 2003) and Ted Hatch to meet Philip Spender (son of Michael) at my home. Philip was to bring with him his father's black-painted aluminium map tube. This was very exciting as the contents had not been examined for about 60 years! Inside, very tightly rolled, was found a selection of original material from the Everest region, Nyönno Ri and Sangar Ri, including 18 plane table survey sheets, four plots made subsequently in Copenhagen and elsewhere and five earlier maps used and annotated by Spender in the field. However, Spender's 1939 Everest map mentioned above was not, as I had so much hoped, contained therein.


The Photo-Surveyed Maps of The Mount Everest Region and Nyönno Ri


 The photographic surveys of the 1935 Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest were plotted in Switzerland in February 1939 at the Wild factory in Heerbrugg. The work was done at the direction of the Mount Everest Committee; the principal object was to plot the map of the Mount Everest Region. Fortunately, however, Mr. Shipton was able to accompany me for a short while, and with his help and with the valuable assistance of the firm's engineer, Mr. Vögeli, who was enthusiastic about any aspect of the work, it was possible for us also to plot the photographic survey of the eastern face of the Nyönno Ri and the country near Sar. Not only was this (a) comparatively extensive programme of plotting between the 16th January and 15th February, but Shipton also learnt to plot, and then plotted his own photographic survey, made in 1938, of part of the western flank of Nyönno Ri.


The results obtained from this short sojourn in Switzerland are a reminder of the grave handicap exploratory survey suffers in England on account of the absence of any institution capable of dealing with such photographic surveys.


The field-work of these surveys is described respectively in my paper 'Photographic Survey in the Mount Everest Region' (Geographical Journal, vol. lxxxviii, no.4 Oct. 1936, p. 289) and in an appendix by Shipton to Tilman's paper 'The Mount Everest Expedition of 1938' (Geographical Journal, vol. xcii, no. 6 Dec. 1938, p. 487). The survey of the north face of the mountain had already been plotted and published, first in a preliminary form in my paper mentioned above, and then in a more complete form, together with another account of the work, in the Himalayan Journal, vol. ix, 1937, pp. 16-20, map p. 126, and in Mr. Ruttledge's book Everest: The Unfinished Adventure, describing the 1935 and 1936 expeditions. Reference should be made to these papers for accounts of the technical and circumstantial difficulties of these surveys. Our work of two years later in the Karakoram seemed like a summer holiday in the Alps when compared with the difficulties peculiar to the Mount Everest region. The discussion that took place at the end of the earlier paper, describing the condition of photographic survey in England in May 1936 applies with equal force in March 1939.


The position at the beginning of January 1939 was that the frame­work for plotting had been prepared for the eastern half of the Mount Everest survey. This existed as a plot on the scale of 1: 50,000 on Correctostat paper. It had been possible to lay this plot down with some sureness on the basis of a preliminary plot started in the Rongbuk valley which showed that certain of the available fixed points were badly out of position (cf. Himalayan Journal). In particular Kharta Changri and the so-called ‘Dent Blanche’ were erroneously given in the G.T.S. pamphlets. The present plot is based in position and height on Mount Everest, Makalu, and ‘Kellas’. The resulting heights, which are reliable, have a general tendency to be some 100 feet higher than Wheeler’s determinations.


Before proceeding to Switzerland on the 15th January as much progress as possible was made with the re-plot of the Rongbuk valley and the whole survey was transferred to a large sheet of mounted cartridge paper. The Sar survey was also plotted by Mr. Milne at 1: 100,000 on a large enough sheet to allow room for Shipton’s survey and any further work which may be undertaken by future Mount Everest expeditions.


The photographs to be plotted had been made with two cameras of differing focal lengths. The Royal Geographical Society’s Wild photo-theodolite had been used in the Rongbuk valley, while in the remaining areas the camera belonging to the Danish Geodetic Institute, converted by Zeiss at my suggestion to use film, and kindly lent by Professor Norlund, had been used on account of its lighter weight. The two instruments had focal lengths respectively of 161.14 mm. and 139.10 mm.; the areas photographed to some extent overlapped. It was for us a matter of the greatest convenience that since the expedition set out a plotting-machine had been developed by the firm of Wild which permitted an instantaneous change from the value of one camera’s focal length to that of the other. It was also an advantage that we did not have the expense of making special plotting-cameras, since it was not to be expected that a plotting-camera for the Swiss lens would be found in Germany, or vice versa. This property of the Wild Autograph A5 allowed us to work casually from film to plate and plate to film exactly as the convenience of plotting suggested and entirely without reference to any instrumental idiosyncrasies. It will be recalled that in the A5 the ray-paths are embodied by steel rods and the plotting-cameras have no lenses.


The progress of the plot revealed the following points:

1. The underlying plot in plan and height was completely reliable.

2. The film photographs, which in my paper I referred to as being somewhat flat in quality, were in fact excellent to work with, as it was possible to plot on both rock and snow. The film (Perutz Topo emulsion specially prepared on a base of Fliegerfilm) was of an extremely fine grain; there appeared to be no errors arising from irregular distortion of the film; and altogether it was pleasanter to work with the film negatives than with the plates.

3. No difficulties arose from the plates having been rather badly scratched during transport.


In general, the plot emphasized to Shipton and me the progress made in co-operation between climbers and surveyors. With the experience we both now have, the work might have been planned a great deal better. In many cases the Watts-Leica instrument could have been used then, or even in 1936 or 1938, to support the stereo-survey; in other cases the panoramas taken by the climbers with hand-cameras might have been better planned and more complete. As it is, valuable rounds of photographs from commanding points are often restricted to the picturesque or imposing section of the view. A clear example of work badly carried out is to be seen at the foot of the Khartachangri glacier, where there is a comparatively small area, liberally surrounded with fixed points and yet unsurveyed, although it was traversed by a party of four climbers.


  From the technical point of view the plot shows that since film has been introduced into exploratory survey technique, there are no effective arguments left in favour of the use of plates. The transport difficulties, the use in the field, and the risks of breakage all speak strongly against the use of plates. There is in fact no point at which the plate is superior to the film in terrestrial photogrammetry. Nevertheless, there is at present no satisfactory photo-theodolite on the market using film. From the specialized point of view of the exploratory or mountain surveyor it is urgently necessary that this gap be filled.

  Plotting was done in both areas at 1:50,000 with contours at 250-foot intervals. The Mount Everest area was about 350 sq. km. and the Sar area about 450 sq. km. In the first area plotting went forward at about 25 sq. km. per day: in the second at about 45 sq. km. per day. The figures are very approximate, but offer some guide to later work. The filling in of the Mount Everest sheet by single picture photogrammetry from photographs taken in 1935 as well as during other expeditions demanded considerably more time than that required for the stereo-plot. Four weeks were spent on this work and the inking in of the sheet.


M. S.

The Himalayan Journal vol. XI 1939 pp176-9



The Society's Library, Map Room, and Archives were closed from February 2002 to June 2004 to prepare for the excavation and construction of the centralised new Foyle Reading Room. Francis Herbert (Curator of Maps) selected a few cartographic items which might be sensibly retained on-site in view of potential enquiries from commercial publishers and up-coming anniversaries. The Spender Everest MS survey was one of these. Unfortunately, the Collections staff, as other departments, were continually shunted around temporary 'work-places'; during 2002-4 Francis Herbert had to move papers and working materials three times - on two different floors - before the refurbished basement 'Africa Room' was decorated and accessible as 'home' to the Library, Map Room, and Archives staff in 2004. Somewhere along the removals, Spender, partly because of its unique format and size, got left behind. Only after Tony Astill's book had gone to print, alas, did the rolled-up Spender survey re-surface. This was just prior to Francis having to gather together what remained of the former RGS Map Drawing Office's archival materials .


   Before completing my own research, I left a hopeful request with Francis to let me know should Spender’s map ever surface in the future. In August 2006, shortly after his retirement, I received an e-mail from Francis, delicately combining apology and triumph in telling me that, in some post-retirement “mopping up” activity in a temporary reading bay, he had come across a brown-paper roll inscribed by a long-departed former Map Room colleague (probably Holland) “MS of Spender’s 1939 Everest survey”.

   Shortly afterwards I was able to inspect this roll which turned out to contain a single sheet of paper approximately one metre square, mounted on cloth, plotted in pencil and numerous different coloured inks, together with seven small photographs and signed by Michael Spender in February 1939. Clearly this is the unpublished map missing for the 45 years since the 1961 acknowledgement mentioned above, mysteriously still uncatalogued but ready at last to be reunited with the survey negatives and, hopefully, with Spender’s other material which had remained in the black map tube for more than 60 years.


Tony Astill

The Missing Map of Mount Everest

Geographical Magazine

June 2103 Everest Special Issue, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain.




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Michael Spender - The Mount Everest Reconnaissance 1935

As part of the Mount Everest 60th Anniversary

Be Inspired - Mount Everest : The Reconnaissance 1935 ‘The Forgotten Adventure’ by Tony Astill

Fri, June 28, 2:30pm – 4:00pm Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR

Join us for the latest series of afternoon talks linked to the Society’s Collections and those whose work has been inspired by travel, exploration, people and places.

These talks are given by speakers whose work is closely connected to the Society’s Collections and are intended to kindle interest from members and non-members alike in using our rich resources for study or enjoyment.

In 1935 Eric Shipton, leader of the fifth expedition to Mount Everest, unwittingly paved the way to the first ascent in 1953. The full story of this small, lightweight reconnaissance remained untold until Tony Astill, after 12 years of research, discovered the individual climber’s diaries and was gradually able to piece together 'The Forgotten Adventure' in full.

Tickets: free to RGS-IBG members and educational users, non-members £5 payable in advance.

Pre-booking required. Tel.02075913044 E showcase@rgs.org


http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Publications/geographical+magazine.htm

Mount Everest 1935 The Reconnaissance by Tony Astill HOME. MOUNTAINEERING BOOKS. LITHOGRAPHY. RARE ITEMS. MOUNTAIN PAINTINGS. REST OF THE WORLD. RARE DUSTWRAPPERS. ASTILL'S ALPINE BOOKS. DOLOMITI LIBRI. ALPINE GRAVURE. HIMALAYA BOOKS. MOUNT EVEREST 1935. BRITISH CLIMBING. CLIMBING GUIDEBOOKS. NEW MOUNTAINEERING BOOKS. MOUNTAIN BOOKS. RARE MOUNTAIN BOOKS. EDWARD WHYMPER. HILLARY AND TENZING.

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