Colonel Frank Smythe - Francis Sydney Smythe, 1900-1949
military leader, explorer, mountaineer, writer, photographer

The fascination of mountains casts a particular spell on mountaineers who knowingly risk their lives for the sense of exultation they experience in ascending a high and dangerous mountain - or by just being there on its heights.

Essentially, Frank Smythe established himself as the first professional writer/climber, explorer and photographer. He was born in Maidstone and died at the young age of 48. Having been invalided out of the RAF in 1927 he went on to command the Commando Mountain Warfare School during Word War II. He published many books, beautifully illustrated by his fine mountain photography and his only novel, set in the Himalayas - "Secret Mission" - (Hodder & Stoughton) is a scarce volume to find in the modern era. He is still acknowledged as being one of the outstanding mountaineers of the 20th. century.

He was "educated at Berkhamsted School [in Hertfordshire] where a heart murmur kept him off the football pitch. When sent to Switzerland for his health, however, he discovered the Alps and went on to become a very distinguished climber, as well as an author, photographer, and botanist, constantly striving to compensate for an apparent inferiority complex." (Royal Geographical Society)

He was a member of three Everest expeditions (1933, 1936, 1938) and was involved in many of the leading developments in mountaineering during its early, rudimentary years. He remained at the forefront of early Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering. Beginning in the late 1920s, with T. Graham Brown, he pioneered two very important routes up the Brenva Face of Mt Blanc and was the first to achieve a successful ascent of the 25,447 foot (7756 m) Himalayan peak, Kamet. He shared the world's altitude climbing record. He died in 1949 - reportedly 'languished and died of a broken heart" when he was denied permission to climb Kangchenjunga - having been part of Professor Dyhrenfurth’s international expedition to Kangchenjunga in 1930. This anecdote concerning his last days was heard by Herbert Tichy from a nurse who treated him. (See Himalaya, trans. R. Rickett and D. Streatfeild (New York: Putnam's, 1970), p.118.)

The Valley of Flowers
"In my mountaineering wandering I have not seen a more beautiful valley than this ... this valley of peace and perfect beauty where the human spirit may find repose."

Originally called the Bhiundhar Valley (after a village located in south-east Badrinath) it was renamed “The Valley of Flowers” by Frank Smythe. Along with Eric Shipton and R.L.Holdsworth, he discovered it by chance during the expedition to the Kamet Peak. He returned to the Garhwal region in 1937 and spent three months making a number of first ascents in a rapid and frugal style, very modern in concept. He was profoundly affected by the profusion of flowers in the valley which was punctuated by waterfalls and trails crossing the lush alpine meadows - hence the very apt christening. The valley’s beauty has withstood the test of time and continues to attract many visitors. In fact, so high is the degree of visitation to the area that for preservation purposes camping is no longer allowed in the Valley. However, treks back and forth to the Valley are allowed.

Frank Smythe played a central role in the Everest attempts of 1933, 1936 and, later, in 1938. On Everest, in 1933, he reached 28,100ft without using supplementary oxygen, his strong bid stopped by poor snow conditions and the lack of a partner. He was the climber who came closest to success prior to Hillary and Tensing and their peers (all using supplementary oxygen) and it was not until Messner's 1982 solo ascent that his performance, in physiological terms, was bettered.

Smythe joins Shipton and Tilman as one of the trio of great mountain writers of the period - Shipton the vivid geographical commentator, Tilman the wry anecdotal observer and Smythe the master of taut action and, helped by his fine photography, a profound observer of mountain moods. Frank Smythe thus became the most celebrated and popular mountain writer - photographer of his day - authoring 27 books.

The 1933 Expedition

Nine years had passed since the previous Everest expedition, mostly because Mallory's death (1922) (not treated here) had dashed Britain's drive to conquer the mountain. The Everest Committee was unclear about the human chemistry needed to succeed and the men selected for this expedition reflected that fogginess. The worst of weathers also became the catalyst for serious dissension, virtually confining the men to their tents for as long as one whole month.

Nevertheless, three climbers reached the same point Major Norton had achieved in 1924. Frank Smythe, reached the height climbing alone. His vivid reports insightfully address the issue of supplemental oxygen, which after much debate was not used by the climbers. Had oxygen been used, the summit might well have been reached.

The team of climbers set up a camp at the base of Mt. Everest in an attempt to reach the summit. One of the team members, Frank Smythe, would later describe this and other climbing experiences in a book titled, "THE ADVENTURES OF A MOUNTAINEER" (Dent, 1940). The Everest climb is commonly known to be one of the most dangerous challenges for any mountain climber even today due to the thin air, bitter cold, and fierce storms.

Smythe's team had set up several camps up the mountain slope as way stations where the climbers could rest and obtain provisions. The advance team's sole job was to establish the camps to allow the main climbers to use their energy only for climbing, and for toting heavy supplies as well. On April 17, 1933, the highest camp was erected - Camp Six. At 27,400 feet. This camp was at that time the highest ever camp on Everest. This was to be the last stop before the summit. As Sherpa guides finished and descended from Six, Smythe and a colleague, Eric Shipton, had ascended to Camp Five at 25,700 feet. The next day the team arrived at Camp Six, in the process passing by the remains of another camp where George Mallory and a colleague died in a summit attempt in 1922.

Fierce blizzards racked the mountain for much of the climb, hindering the progress of the climbers as well as sapping their strength. An attempt to reach the summit from Camp Six by Smythe and Shipton resulted in Shipton quitting the climb and returning to Camp Six. Smythe was on his own. He ascended under great physical stress but it became obvious to him that his strength was no longer there. He abandoned the climb short of his goal. As he made his way back to Camp Six to rendezvous with Shipton, a strange thing happened. Frank Smythe wrote:

"I was making my way back towards Camp Six when chancing to look up, I saw two dark objects floating in the blue sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, except that one appeared to possess short squat wings. As they hovered motionless, they seemed to pulsate in and out as though they were breathing. I gazed at them dumbfounded and intensely interested. It seemed to me that my brain was working normally, but to test myself I looked away. The objects did not follow my gaze but were still there when I looked back. So I looked away again, but this time identified by name various details of the landscape by way of a mental test. Yet, when I again looked back, the objects were still visible. A minute or two later, a mist drifted across the north-east shoulder of Everest above which they were poised. As this thickened the objects gradually disappeared behind it and were lost to sight. A few minutes later the mist blew away. I looked again, expecting to see them, but they had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. If it was an optical illusion it was a very strange one. But it is possible that fatigue magnified out of all proportion something capable of a perfectly ordinary and rational explanation. That is all I can say about the matter and it rests there."

Edward WhymperThe date of this incident is uncertain but must have been around the latter part of April in 1933. He prefaced his remarks on this, calling it a "bizarre" experience and adding, "It was in all probability an hallucination due to lack of oxygen, which affects not only the physical powers but the mental powers also." It would be easy to brush this off as a hallucination. He was physically exhausted and defeated in his effort to complete the Everest climb. It's not uncommon for people to hallucinate on the mountain from oxygen depletion. On one occasion, at about 23,000 feet on Everest he records also that he sat down in the snow and fed his food to imaginary companions.

Further Reading - A comprehensive biography - by Frank Smythe on Edward Whymper (photographed)
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940. xiv, 330pp, 24 plates, 2 folding maps, 22cm.

Frank Smythe's son, Tony Smythe, launched the publication of his father's book - 'Frank Smythe: The Six Alpine and Himalayan Books' in 2000 with a unique slide-illustrated reflection on his father's life and work. The Six Books - Climbs and Ski Runs, The Kankenchunga Adventure, Kamet Conquered, Camp Six, The Valley of Flowers, Mountaineering Holiday. Published by Bāton Wicks 2000 - ISBN 1898573379

"This selection of his most powerful narratives (illustrated with his pictures, plus new colour photos and maps) will prompt a reassessment of his writing and photography and his contribution to the shape and ethos of modern climbing." Distributed by Cordee £18.99 229mm x150mm 928 pp, 64 pp of photos.

"These books represent his finest work. They contain gripping adventures, a rich sense of period and a thread of timeless mountaineering good sense."

Tony Smythe is also well-known for the text of the inspirational book
'Rock-Climbers In Action In Snowdonia'.
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