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Kellas, Alexander Mitchell (1868-1921)
Kellas, an absent-minded looking chemistry lecturer at Middlesex Hospital was one of the first people to study the effects of altitude on humans. Accordingly, he was involved in the first Everest expedition in 1922. The sight of his stooped deshevilled frame, his characteristic pebble glasses perched atop his pinched face, appalled George Mallory: ‘beyond description Scotch and uncouth in his speech – altogether uncouth.’ The snooty Mallory was in a minority however, others thought Kellas more couthy than uncouth. ‘Although he was keenly interested in chemistry, he was even more interested in mountains’, said fellow chemist Norman Collie. The veracity of this assessment is proved by Kellas’s climbing record which combined the Professor’s interests in climbing and science. Between 1907 and 1921 he made several visits to the Kangchenjunga region where he dispensed with usual imported European guides in favour of employing the mountaineering skills of indigenous hill people. ‘They seemed more at home in the diminished pressure’, reasoned the scientific Kellas. One Nepalese tribe in particular, the Sherpas, he found to be especially reliable, and with these native guides he climbed several major peaks, including one of highest achieved at that time, Pauhunri (23,180 ft) in 1911. Kellas’s far-sighted collaboration with the Sherpas was not appreciated by everyone, especially stuffy traditionalists. Instead of applauding his innovative approach, the President of the Alpine Club sneered with a statement dripping with imperialist prejudice: ‘Kellas has never climbed a mountain, but has only walked about on steep snow with a lot of coolies’. History, however, was to prove Kellas right not only on his prescient choice of local mountaineering support, but also in his advocacy of the use of bottled oxygen.
Further reading: Hold the Heights, Walt Unsworth, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993
Biographical information is kindly supplied by Colin Wells.
2006-08-06 00:00:00
Maxine Willett
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Kellas, Alexander Mitchell (1868-1921)