Alexander Kellas

On 10th August 1912, Alexander Kellas was descending from the summit of Kangchenjhau in the Sikkim Himalaya.   He was roped up to two Sherpas, Nema and Anderkyow, and they were making slow progress.  Their legs were tired, but they had every reason to be pleased with themselves:  that morning they had made the first ascent of a difficult 22,680-foot peak.  They had stayed on the summit plateau for about an hour and a half, walking around to keep warm and admiring the fleeting views through gaps in the mist. 

As they started back down, they found that the sun had melted the overnight snow that was lying on an ice-slope, leaving behind a smooth sheet of ice.  It was so steep that they had to cut steps in it, taking turns to move downhill.  About 300 feet below the summit they paused to consider their route… and then, with a startled cry, Anderkyow slipped from his footing, bringing Nema and Kellas down with him.  In an instant they were all hurtling down the mountain at the speed of an express train. 

Kellas was thrown onto his side, but with a huge effort he managed to turn himself into a more upright position as he fell.  He could do no more.  Long seconds passed in free-fall down the ice, but eventually they slowed down and came to a halt.  Instinctively, they scrambled out of the avalanche they had created, and anchored themselves as best they could.  They were bruised, but otherwise unhurt.  Gazing around, Kellas saw with astonishment that they were only 400 feet above their last camp.  He felt flushed and exhilarated.  They had fallen 1,000 feet, and survived.

Born in 1868 in Regent Quay, Aberdeen, Alexander (‘Alec’) Mitchell Kellas is the Himalayan mountaineer no one has ever heard of.  His father, James, was Secretary to the Mercantile Marine Board, and his mother, Mary Mitchell, hailed from Ballater.  He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh;  he obtained a degree in chemistry at University College, London, and was employed there for a time as laboratory assistant to Professor William Ramsay, the chemist who discovered the inert gases.  He then spent a year in Germany, gaining a PhD at Heidelberg University.

Aberdeen Grammar School

Alongside his scientific career, Kellas had a passion for the mountains that seemed to run in his blood.  With one or other of his brothers he would head off into the Cairngorms, often walking long distances in winter weather and sheltering overnight in caves that were known to climbers.  He joined the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and after he had bagged an impressive number of Highland peaks he progressed to bigger goals in the Alps.  Although only slightly built, he had a tough physical resilience combined with a highly logical approach to climbing. 

Exactly what first sparked his interest in the Himalayas is unclear:  it could have been a colleague at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, where he held a teaching post.  In 1907 Kellas organised his first expedition, in which he focused on the Pir Panjal range;  he quickly became more ambitious, and in 1911 he made three first ascents of peaks over 20,000 feet:   Chumiumo, Sentinel Peak and Pauhunri.  Of these, Pauhunri (23,386 feet) was the highest peak ever climbed at that date, although Kellas was unaware of this fact because its height had been under-estimated.

Pir Panjal range

At a time when the potential of the Himalayas had yet to be properly explored, a couple of things set Kellas apart from his peers.  Firstly, instead of joining large parties consisting mostly of Europeans, he chose to climb with just a handful of Nepalese Sherpas, having noticed their speed and stamina at high altitudes.  He was a shy, intensely private man who preferred to make his own decisions;  in return, the Sherpas liked his quiet, respectful attitude, and loyal friendships were forged. 

Secondly, as he set his sights on ever-higher peaks, Kellas realised that he could bring his scientific expertise to bear on one of the biggest questions of his era:  whether it was physically possible for humans to breathe at altitudes above 25,000 feet.  European nations were beginning to view the ‘conquest’ of Everest as a desirable goal, and Kellas was uniquely placed to conduct experiments and design equipment that would allow climbers to get there.  Reflecting on his ascent of Pauhunri, he wrote:  “I am confident that there would have been no difficulty in carrying out moderately complicated experiments, such as estimating the number of red corpuscles in the blood… Samples of air were taken and estimations of carbon dioxide started.”

Kellas was asked by Colonel C G Rawling, whose military surveys had established Everest as the world’s highest mountain, to draft a proposal for an expedition to Everest.  The plan was for a reconnaissance in 1915 and a summit attempt, if feasible, a year later.  But the First World War made it impossible to travel to the Himalayas so Kellas continued his research in Britain.  He developed plenty of ideas for gathering information:  one of these was a plan for airmen to fly through the Himalayan gorges, carrying out survey work in the summer months.  The findings would, he argued, assist in developing a route by which climbers could approach and ascend Everest.  Although his proposal was supported by the distinguished mountaineer and geographer Douglas Freshfield, it was received with scepticism by aviators and never put into practice.  

In his correspondence with A F R (‘Sandy’) Wollaston, a physician and climber, Kellas discussed an experiment which he would like to conduct, whereby several individuals camped at an altitude of 23,000 feet for about a month in order to see how their bodies adapted.  He proposed the summit of Kangchenjhau as a possible location.  At the same time, he was interested to know whether different foods could improve climbers’ performance.  To the medical researcher Arthur Landsborough Thomson, he wrote:  “The dietary of high altitudes is of primary importance in connection with acclimatisation above 20,000 feet, and a satisfactory diet has not so far been devised.”

In 1919, Kellas and the Scottish physician John Scott Haldane conducted experiments on themselves in a hypobaric chamber at the Lister Institute in London.  As they exercised, the air pressure was reduced gradually over four successive days, equating to an altitude of 25,000 feet on day four.  After studying the results, Kellas collaborated with the Oxygen Research Committee of the British Admiralty to design the oxygen apparatus which he carried on an attempt to climb Kamet (25,447 feet) with the surveyor Henry Morshead in 1920.  The pair failed to reach the summit, but came back with detailed evidence that proved the efficacy of their new equipment.

Kamet and neighbouring mountains

By this time, Kellas was not just the most experienced Himalayan climber in Britain;  he was also the leading authority on the effects of altitude on the human body, and his research had convinced him that an ascent of Everest was physically possible.  In a paper submitted to the Alpine Congress in Monaco, he made a clear prediction:   “Mount Everest could be ascended by a man of excellent physical and mental constitution in first rate training, without adventitious aids [i.e. supplemental oxygen] if the physical difficulties of the mountain are not too great, and with the use of [supplemental] oxygen even if the mountain can be classified as difficult from the climbing point of view.”

Mount Everest

For several years Kellas had cherished his own dreams of climbing Everest, and he mapped out a potential approach route.  The climber John Noel quickly realised that behind his modesty, Kellas was supremely competent and ambitious.  Together, he and Kellas planned a “furtive private raid” on Everest, but they never had a chance to carry it out.  Noel wrote:  “Kellas did not advertise;  few people knew about him.  He would emerge each year from his chemical research work at the hospital.  He did not tell the newspapers when he set out to climb a mountain higher than any climber had ever tackled before.  He just went unobserved…”

An Everest Reconnaissance Expedition was planned for 1921, and the Mount Everest Committee invited Kellas to join the team.  In fact, Douglas Freshfield had proposed him as leader, but in the end the explorer and military officer Charles Howard-Bury was appointed instead.  Having spent the previous winter in India, Kellas was able to greet the other team members when they assembled in Darjeeling in May.  Among them were George Mallory, Sandy Wollaston, Guy Bullock and Henry Morshead.  In a letter to his wife, Mallory recalled his first impression of Kellas at a dinner hosted by the Governor of Bengal:  “Kellas I love already…  He is very slight in build, short, thin, stooping and narrow-chested;  his head… made grotesque by veritable gig-lamps of spectacles and a long pointed moustache.  He is an absolutely devoted and disinterested person.”

1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition

It would take them at least a month just to arrive at Everest.  With its porters and mules, the expedition left Darjeeling and crossed the Jelep La, a high mountain pass into Tibet.  Before they reached Kampa Dzong they were all suffering from acute stomach trouble, in particular Kellas who was unable to walk or ride, so he was carried by porters in a chair.   To his companions Kellas kept up a cheerful demeanour, so it was with immense shock that, on 5th June, they learned that he had died. 

With his experience and knowledge, his modesty and his good humour, Kellas had won the respect of all the expedition members.  His loss was deeply felt, not least by four Sherpas who had been with him on previous expeditions, and whom he had persuaded to climb with him again.  Mallory wrote:  “It was an extraordinarily affecting little ceremony burying Kellas on a stony hillside… I shan’t easily forget the four boys, his own trained mountainmen, children of nature, seated in wonder on a great stone while Bury read out the passage from the Corinthians…”  The Sherpas wove a beautiful wreath of flowers and laid it on his grave. 

Mallory was so moved by Kellas’s death that when he and Guy Bullock climbed an unnamed mountain later in the expedition, he wanted to call it Mount Kellas.  The Mount Everest Committee disliked the practice of naming mountains after people, and refused his request;  nevertheless, the team was successful in naming another summit in his honour (Kellas Rock Peak, 23,190 feet).  The awful irony is that the names of Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine would be inscribed alongside that of Alexander Kellas on a memorial cairn at the Rongbuk Glacier, after the 1924 expedition in which Mallory and Irvine died.

What might have happened if Kellas had lived?  He would certainly have made a significant contribution to the Reconnaissance Expedition;  after his death, none of the other team members fully understood how to operate the oxygen equipment, and as a result it was barely used.  A year later, in 1922, during the first official bid to reach the summit of Everest, Kellas’s experience of climbing in the Himalayas would have been invaluable.  He might even have attempted to reach the summit himself.  In 1927, John Noel wrote:  “I, who knew Kellas well, believe that if he had not died, Everest would have been conquered by now, and by nothing other than this - the combination of Kellas’s Himalayan knowledge and Mallory’s dash.”  (‘Through Tibet to Everest’, 1927)



It doesn’t seem as if Kellas had any personal connection with RSGS.  It is evident, however, from reading newspaper reports of Mallory’s lectures about the Reconnaissance Expedition, that Kellas was well known to RSGS members, especially in Aberdeen, where his loss was sorely felt.   Opening his lecture to RSGS in February 1922, Mallory said that Kellas was “not only a delightful and helpful companion, but a very experienced mountaineer, of rare enthusiasm, and one whose services could not possibly be replaced in the party.”  (Aberdeen Free Press, 9 February 1922).

Throughout his life, Kellas was unaware that he held the summit height record by climbing Pauhunri, along with two Sherpas called Sona and Tuny.  This record was held for several years after his death.  

The modern spelling of Kangchenjhau is Khangchengyao;  Chumiumo is Chomo Yummo.

Reference, quotes and further reading:

Ian R Mitchell and George W Rodway, ‘Prelude to Everest’ (2011)

Peter and Leni Gillman, ‘The Wildest Dream’ (2000)

John Noel, ‘Through Tibet to Everest’ (1927)

John B West, ‘A M Kellas: Pioneer Himalayan Physiologist and Mountaineer’, The Alpine Journal (1989)

Alexander Kellas, ‘A Consideration of the Possibility of Ascending Mount Everest’, Alpine Congress (1920)

Alexander Kellas, Letter to A Landsborough Thomson, 20th Nov 1919

“The most modest man that ever travelled the Himalaya” - quote about Kellas by climber Geoffrey Bruce.


With many thanks to David L Walker for additional information



1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition.  Standing (left to right):  Sandy Wollaston, Charles Howard-Bury, Alexander Heron, Harold Raeburn.  Seated: George Mallory, Oliver Wheeler, Guy Bullock, Henry Morshead.  The photograph was taken after Kellas’s death.