Constructed at the Royal Geographic Society from photographs by Major E.O. Wheeler and sketches.  East Rongbuk Glacier track added in 2023.

Article shared by 12532 Jim Everard, originally published in the 2023 Canadian Alpine Journal

People are remembered for as long as stories are told about them. Retelling the stories of Oliver Wheeler’s pivotal role in the 1921 Everest Expedition is important for RMC alumnae, indeed for all Canadians. It shows appreciation for RMCs roots and Wheeler’s legacies. We can spread the story. In the process we may learn some surprises about one of the RMCs most distinguished and decorated members.[1]

The story of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition includes two major themes. One was scientific: the filling in of a vast blank in the map of Tibet using traditional surveying tools, plus the detailed mapping of the Everest region using the “Canadian method” of photo-topographical surveying. The second theme was mountaineering, specifically sussing out the best approach to climbing Mt. Everest and verifying, as much as possible, the most promising ascent line.

“Major Wheeler had probably the hardest time of any member of the Expedition, and his success in achieving single-handed the mapping of 600 square miles of some of the most mountainous country in the world is sufficient proof of his determination and grit.”

– Major H.T Morshead, D.S.O., R.E.  Senior Surveying Officer, Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1921

Every expedition member contributed to the completion of the Expedition’s objectives.  Major E.O. Wheeler’s cumulative contributions were, arguably, the most significant. He was the first to solve the puzzle of approaching Mount Everest via the East Rongbuk Glacier. He created the first detailed map of the Everest area after spending 41 nights at altitudes of between 18,000 to 22,300ft, in temperatures as low as -34°F. He was one of six climbers and porters to ascend the Chang La (North Col) at 23,000 ft and confirm the North Ridge as the most viable ascent route up Everest from Tibet.

Not bad for someone of whom George Mallory had opined, “…I’ve no hope of him being any use to us,” two months into the five-month expedition.

The circumstances that led to E.O. Wheeler arriving in Darjeeling in April 1921 as an appointed Expedition member were extraordinary.

The official mission of the first Expedition was to complete a reconnaissance of the Everest area for subsequent climbing efforts.  At that time no Westerner had been closer than 60 kilometers to the mountain.  Surveying was central to the effort. Surveyors with plane table experience in the mountains counted for much; candidates with proven photo-topographic experience would be a distinguishing asset.[2]  Oliver Wheeler had this in spades thanks in part to his father’s vocation and avocation, which in turn likely planted the seed for Oliver’s professional surveying development and career.

“It is from this science [photo-topographic surveying] that has sprung the Alpine Club of Canada.”

– Arthur.O. Wheeler, President, Alpine Club of Canada, Canadian Alpine Journal – 1920, p. 75

One source of surveying talent for the Everest Organizing Committee was the India Survey. They had local geographic knowledge, the surveyors and support personnel for the enterprise. The Survey would also come at an attractive price tag – nothing – to the Organizing Committee, a key aspect of their budget-challenged situation.  Consequently, the Survey generally “called the shots” as related to issues of participants and material resources for the surveying component of the Expedition. Major Morshead, DSO RE was the favoured first choice, given his Himalayan experience and time with the Survey. Other candidates included Major Kenneth Mason, who was favoured by the Royal Geographic Society’s Arthur Hinks. Major Wheeler MC, RE was favoured by the Surveyor General of India, Colonel C.H. Ryder. At the time Wheeler was seconded to the India Survey and was planning to perform experiments with the “Canadian method’ of surveying in the Garhwal in 1921. It was decided that the Garhwal experiment could be shifted to Mount Everest and Wheeler won the appointment to the Expedition.

The prevailing ‘old boys club’ dynamic of the Expedition’s sponsor’s (England’s Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society) was critical to the selection of climbers and a factor in the selection of others. That meant being known to or recommended by influencers in The Everest Organizing Committee. Wheeler ‘ticked this box’ too. Organizers noted Wheeler’s membership in the Alpine Club, London, England (he was the youngest ever member to be admitted at the time), with support coming from distinguished Club climbers A. L. Mumm and Dr. T Longstaff.[3]  If that was not enough, both Wheelers (father Arthur and Oliver) were well known to Professor Norman Collie of the Organizing Committee, providing further gravitas to his candidacy.

Demonstrable mountaineering experience was another criterium in the selection process, with high-altitude experience a distinguishing feature.  Like the officially designated ‘climbers,’ Major Wheeler had considerable mountaineering experience[4], which even Mallory grudgingly acknowledged by the time the final assault team was assembled[5]  This was a material fact since, despite being a reconnaissance mission, this did not “debar the mountain party from climbing as high as possible on a favoured route…”  Nor was the surveying party disqualified from being part of the climbing effort.

Oliver Wheeler’s formal appointment to the Expedition in 1921 might not have surprised his parents back in Canada.  Arthur Wheeler had personally witnessed his son’s honing of photo-topographic skills for more than a decade in the mountains and carefully read Oliver’s academic papers on the subject which began as early as 1909.

Starting behind schedule, the Expedition left Darjeeling in late May 1921. They traversed over 400 miles arriving in Tingri in mid June. The Expedition splintered into subgroups and commenced their appointed tasks: Mallory and Bullock headed toward the valley that led to Mt Everest. Heron, Wheeler and Howard Bury travelled to the Kyetrak valley, west of Everest. All were hampered by what they assumed would remain in Nepal: the monsoon. For the next three months the moisture-laden air fell mostly as snow (above 15,000ft) mid morning to near the end of the day. Opportunities to photograph distinct mountain features – essential to the photo-topographic process – were limited.

For four weeks Mallory and Bullock reconnoitred the north face, west ridge and south (western cwm) climbing routes of Mt. Everest. They deduced that the North Ridge above the Chang La/North Col offered the most likely ascent line up Mt. Everest. But how to get to the base of the Chang La/North Col? Its steep western slopes seemed unassailable. Consequently, they resolved to examine the unexplored eastern approach and so began a return march to Chöbuk. This took them down the west side of the main Rongbuk glacier. They were behind schedule and in their haste they wandered past an eastern side valley (about 1 mile away) that they had also seen from 21,000ft on Ri-Ring earlier in their reconnaissance. Describing this as an unfortunate omission might be an understatement[6]. Wheeler remedied this critical oversight for the Expedition in early August.

“It is simply disgusting, going up these infernal grinds to do nothing, but what can I do? Back home in Canada it would be nothing – a 2 hr grind, nothing at all; but here at these beastly altitudes it literally takes the life out of you.”

Oliver Wheeler, Personal Journal As cited by Davis (2012) p. 286.

For Oliver Wheeler, July was a period when he was alternately exhilarated by the occasional glimpse of soaring peaks, vexed by the growing gap between planned vs. completed work, demoralized by endless 4+ hour ascents to promising photo-topographical stations, – sometimes alone packing 30+lbs of equipment – only to have clouds boil up and be enveloped in snow[7], and challenged by loneliness and ennui. In mid July Wheeler and his Tibetan porters returned with photographic plates to Tingri. There he spent ‘five busy days’ developing and printing images.

As nice as it must have been to return to a solid roof and improved food, it was no holiday.[8] Any errors in this delicate work could weaken a pillar supporting one of the two main objectives of the Expedition.  Furthermore, the film developing process harboured its own potential health consequences.[9]

Howard-Bury turned the Expedition’s attention to Everest’s eastern approaches and headquarters was moved to the Kharta valley. After almost 2 months of reccie work getting one foot up Mt. Everest was proved frustratingly elusive, a sentiment keenly felt by Mallory and Bullock. Wheeler returned to his photo-topographical efforts, starting near the Rongbuk monastery and worked his way south towards the hulking mass of Everest.

What happened next was key to the two Expedition objectives.

Wheeler and his assistants, Gorang, Lagay and Ang Pasang, found their way past a glacial torrent issuing from a side valley east of the main Rongbuk glacier. This was the same side valley others had neglected. They threaded their way through a large area of morainal material, and eventually looked out onto an uncharted glacier that curved up to the south. They were about to solve the mystery of how best to approach Mt. Everest.

Wheeler and his assistants continued to work their way up the glacier. Later described by Walt Unsworth, these glaciers were ‘a maze of melt channels and resemble an icy version of the shell-pocketed battlefields of the First World War. To cross one is purgatory, to go up one almost impossible.’[10] The key was to travel along the moraines, both medial or lateral. They traveled up about 4 miles, parallel to a double-spined line of ice pinnacles, eventually to a camp at 19,500ft.

On August 3rd Wheeler ascended the nearby slope and established a camera station at 20,590ft. The clouds cooperated and six plates (shown in the attached panorama) were made of the complete East Rongbuk Glacier in relation to Mt Everest. Almost all was revealed. Wheeler wrote, “The valley tends a bit to the south and reaches past Everest to a pass at the end of its East ridge – vastly bigger than I had imagined.”[11] The glacial route south was free of any icefalls or tottering seracs. This view all but confirmed that the East Rongbuk Glacier provided access to the eastern slopes of the Chang La[12] Wheeler produced a hand-drawn map of the area and had it delivered by runners to Kharta headquarters on or about August 11. It is unlikely Wheeler expected the expedition to return to the East Rongbuk; time was growing short. For Wheeler and his survey party work remained back near the main Rongbuk glacier and it was to this task that they turned their efforts.

They returned to the snout of the main Rongbuk glacier for a few days, then headed west to establish a higher camp in now familiar wretched conditions.  “I was in this camp for five days; most of them spent huddled under rocks waiting for the clouds to lift. I had one beautiful day, my only one in six weeks, and got some very nice photographs of Mount Everest and its West ridge.” Time had run out and the eastern approaches demanded surveying attention. Always mission oriented, Wheeler lamented being unable to finish work in the nearby upper Kyetrak Valley.

At the time Wheeler did not appreciate the difficulties Mallory, Bullock and others were having simply trying to view Mt Everest from their positions in and near the Kharta valley, let alone solve the puzzle of how to best access the Chang La/North Col. It was not until August 16th that Mallory got partial views of the Chang La/North Col, but he was, apparently, still baffled by where the glacier to the north debauched.

Oliver arrived at the Kharta valley headquarters on August 26th, after “two months almost wholly alone!”[13] It is hard to imagine just how uplifting it must have been, even if “five days were spent developing and printing” and another seven days taking “indifferent” photographic stations in the Kharta Valley.

Meanwhile, Mallory and Bullock continued to be foiled by weeks of bad weather until near the last feasible day to mount an effort, the weather improved slightly. Plans were drawn up for one last push to camp on the Lhakpa La and hope to find a feasible route down to the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier. Wheeler, three of his survey assistants and Major Morshead joined the group at the 22,300ft Lhakpa La.  They completed another photographic station there, the highest ever for the Survey of India.  From this vantage point the upper East Rongbuk Glacier was visible, trailing off to the north (where Wheeler and his survey party had been 7 weeks earlier). Other expedition members may have begun to better grasp the veracity of Wheeler’s August hand sketched map and the relative ‘ease’ of the northern approach. However, acknowledging this in their personal journals and in official accounts was oblique and padded.  Mallory would only allow that Wheeler’s northern approach was ‘speculative’. The reality is Wheeler had solved the puzzle of accessing Mt Everest weeks earlier; having traversed all but a benign 2.8 mile section of the upper East Rongbuk glacier.

The group on the Lhakpa La suffered the effects of high altitude. A ‘council of war’ was convened and it was decided that Wheeler would join Mallory and Bullock in a last effort to ascend the Chang La/North Col. “I was delighted to get into the ‘final push,’ and enjoyed the few days’ change from surveying to climbing, enormously.”[14] On September 23 the group picked their way down 1,200ft to the East Rongbuk Glacier then crossed 2 miles to the beginning of the slope leading to the Chang La/North Col.  At 21,500 ft the wind was punishing and they struggled to erect 5 tents. The following day Ang Pasang, Gorang and Legay were the only ones from the group of 10 porters who volunteered to carry on.  After a slow start, they post-holed their way up the steepening slope. Ang Pasang and Legay “did wonders in breaking trail through the deep snow.”[15] Four hours of climbing brought the group to the base of the most challenging section where Mallory took the lead and chopped 500 steps to just under the lip of the Chang La/North Col.

In the lee of a cornice, a few feet below the Chang La/North Col, Mallory declared he was good for another 2,000 feet of ascent. Wheeler’s lower legs were “completely numb”, but “I thought I could do another 500 ft”. Bullock was tired, but ready to go on. Winds were howling immediately overhead and the ‘col was smoking’.  They could see the North Ridge of Mount Everest.  Technically, the terrain looked relatively ‘easy’, to at least 28,000 feet.  The last kilometer to the 29,000 ft summit appeared less so.  Ascending out from the lee, possibly one or two hundred yards, they collided with the full force of the westerly wind.  “No one could have existed on that ridge[16],” Wheeler wrote.  Mallory later described the scene as “blown snow endlessly swept over grey slopes, just the grim prospect, no respite, and no hope.[17]” Further progress could not be had.  They turned their back to the mountain and buried their aspirations.

With difficulty and risk the six descended the slope.  They observed point release avalanches but carried down as best they could and eventually found refuge in their tents.  Mallory worked on and warmed Oliver’s leg’s under difficult conditions, which Wheeler credited for both saving his lower legs and his life. The next day the party of ten recrossed the upper East Rongbuk Glacier, laboured up to the Lhakpa La, and then down to advance base camp in the Kharta valley.   That there was no loss of life was a testament to their collective grit and luck.

The climbing elements of the Expedition had ended; Wheeler’s work had not.  He re-dedicated himself to surveying and headed into the adjacent Kama Valley in the company of Colonel Bury and Wollaston.  More stations were made.  Consistent with the theme of the previous four months, “…we only had two clear days there, and I had to leave it without covering as much ground as I should have liked, though – as usual – I spent my days in snowstorms, hoping for breaks in the clouds.”[18] Wheeler’s dedication was consistently impressive.

With Hinks and the Organizing Committee insisting – verging on a demand – for a map, Wheeler, Howard-Bury, Heron and Raeburn journeyed back to Darjeeling.

On October 19, after more than 5 months away, Wheeler arrived in the Darjeeling area and spent November drafting a sketch survey. In December he moved to Dehra Dun to complete the detailed map.

The expedition delivered on virtually every detail of its objectives.  But it had been an exhausting affair.

One can read many things into one of Wheeler’s summary comments about the 1921 Expedition:

“I enjoyed the Expedition and my work with it, thoroughly; but in my opinion, Tibet, at any rate that portion of it in which we were, is a place to have been, rather than one to go to![19]

‘… acknowledgment of our debt to the labours of the First Expedition and in particular to Wheeler’s admirable survey, accomplished as it was under conditions of such extreme difficulty and continuous hardship”.

–  Dr. T Longstaff, Member, 1922 Everest Expedition.   CAJ, Vol XIII, p.38.

When approached to participate in the Everest Expedition for the following year Wheeler politely demurred[20].

At the start of the 1921 Expedition Oliver Wheeler may have seemed a good, though unproven, fit. By the end he had exceeded everyone’s expectations and earned their respect. In so doing he brought distinction to himself and his country[21]. In 1953 Oliver Wheeler began his 4th, and final year as President of the Alpine Club of Canada. That spring Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest/Sagarmatha/Chomolungma, 32 years after the path finder efforts of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. The floodgates of nostalgia surely opened for Brigadier Sir Edward Oliver Wheeler, K.B., M.C., LdH (Fr), R.E.


[1] Wheeler’s distinction extended into many realms.  Militarily, at Canada’s Royal Military College “Teddy” was the top graduate in his last year and was awarded both the Governor General’s Award and the Sword of Honour.   During WWI he served with the Bengal (Roorkee) Sappers and Miners, fighting (including hand-to-hand combat), in the blood-soaked trenches of the Western Front and later in Mesopotamia.  He was awarded the Miliary Cross (and Bar) for conspicuous gallantry, mentioned in Despatches seven times and received the Légion d’Honneur, Chevaliere Class. His personal war experiences were unimaginable, save the other survivors.

[2] Captain Ryder, Surveyor General of the Indian Survey was keen to test the ‘Canadian’ method.  The ‘Canadian method’, was far quicker, less expensive and bespoke for work in the mountains, compared to alternative techniques.  The India Survey acquired equipment (purchased by E.O. Wheeler) based on the original designs of Dr. E. Deville, Surveyor-General of Canada (the acknowledged originator and promoter of the science in Canada).

[3] Relationships with these climbers was multipronged.  E. Oliver Wheeler’s father, A.O. Wheeler, was regarded as a dear friend of both these recommenders.  Arthur Wheeler and Longstaff spent weeks together in The Rockies, Purcells and Selkirks over many years.  E. Oliver Wheeler had also roped up with Mumm and Longstaff.  In 1910, 20 year old Oliver and 35 year old Longstaff teamed up to climb Chimney Peak in the Lake Louise Group.  Oliver took the lead on the crux (low 5th class) pitch.  These climbs would have solidified Longstaff’s view of the lad’s technical skills.  The Wheeler – Longstaff family ties proved to be deep and enduring.

[4] “Von leedle Swiss Guide” was how Edouard Feuz Sr. described eight-year-old Oliver when they were on the Illecillewaet Glacier.  He was 13 when he ascended Mt. Hector, 19 when he and Val Flynn climbed Mt. Hungabee, and 20 when he stood on the summit of Sir Donald in 1910.  Add to that, a list of first ascents.

[5] When faced with the choice of Wheeler, Morshead, Wollaston and Howard-Bury “only Wheeler had sufficient mountaineering experience, and it was decided that he alone should accompany Bullock and myself on our first attempt to reach the col.”  George Mallory, cited in Into The Silence, Wade Davis (2012), p. 351

[6] “…there is but a single cleft that opens to the east.  Mallory and Bullock had walked right by the narrow mouth of the valley on their first day on the ice.  Its outlet stream, a torrent of meltwater, had forced them to detour onto the glacier.  From the summit of Ri-Ring they had seen the drainage again and remarked upon it.  Their achievements on the mountain had been considerable, even noble, but given that their primary task was reconnaissance, their failure to explore this opening, given the ease of access, was a remarkable oversight, if not dereliction of duty………” Into the Silence, Wade Davis (2012) p. 292

[7] By his count only 1 day in 6 provided any opportunity to perform work.  This must have been a crushing experience for someone accustomed to more action and results.

[8] The process of working with photo plates and developing images was solitary and demanded precision.   Wheeler described the sometimes exasperating process of changing photographic plates by one of his ‘teachers’, Canadian M.P. Bridgland …‘in the dark entirely by feel (with a stuffy dark tent thrown over the head and body) left him unperturbed and like all his work was done with great care and thoroughness.  I can remember as a youngster dropping off to sleep with ‘Bridge’ still struggling with plate changing.”  Mapper of Mountains, M.P. Bridgland in the Canadian Rockies 1902-1930,I.S. MacLaren, University of Alberta Press, 2005, p. 65

[9] Colonel Howard-Bury – the Expedition Leader was laid up for several days after being exposed to toxic fumes from the darkroom in Tingri.

[10] Walt Unsworth description of glaciers in the eastern Himalaya.  Walt Unsworth, Everest, Penguin Books ltd, 1982 p. 53.

[11] Wheeler Personal Journal, cited by Wade Davis, Into the Silence, p. 331

[12]Wheeler wrote “…I had a glimpse of a big peak – Makalu, I thought – over the pass at the head of the southerly branch of the glacier: and this gave me the idea that there must be a comparatively low pass from here to the Kama Valley.”  Major E.O. Wheeler, M.C., R.E. “The Photographic Survey” Appendix II Mount Everest The Reconnaissance, 1921, Edward Arnold, London.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Major E.O. Wheeler “Climbing Mount Everest,” Manitoba Free Press, March 4, 1922

[16] Wheeler Personal Journal, cited in Into the Silence, Wade Davis (2012), p. 359.

[17] George Mallory letter to Geoffrey Young, November 11, 2021 cited in First on Everest: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, Henry Holt and Company Ltd., 1986, p. 81

[18] Wheeler Personal Journal cited in Into the Silence, Davis (2012), p. 357

[19] Major E.O. Wheeler, MC, RE, “The Photographic Survey”, Appendix II, Mount Everest The Reconnaissance, 1921.

[20] Newspapers reported that the Surveyor General of India Col Ryder had invited him back as a climber and correspondent for the Associated Press for the 1922 Expedition, and that Wheeler ‘declined citing the completion of the original objective of map making’. On the face of it there is more to this aspect of the story, given that Major Morshead (who was the lead surveyor for the 1921 Expedition) had also completed the original objective, yet returned officially as one of the climbers for the 1922 Expedition.

[21] It is doubtful Oliver Wheeler would boast about his achievements.  That would be uncharacteristic.  “Very thorough in anything he attempted, he was modest to an extreme in what he achieved. His enthusiasm was stimulating to his friends to whom he offered a warm comradeship……”  “In Memoriam”, Canadian Alpine Journal 1962, pp. 159-62.


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