California Himalayan Expedition (1954) collection

May 5, 2021
Benjamin Lee Stone

The Stanford Libraries recently acquired a manuscript collection dealing with the planning and preparation for the California Himalayan Expedition of 1954, created by Stanford alumnus Dr. Lawrence Swan (1922-1999)

The California Himalayan Expedition (1954) was the first major American expedition to the Nepalese Himalayas. Its goal was the exploration and first ascent of Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world (27,838 ft). Organized by several well-known young climbers in the Bay Area, including Lawrence Swan (Stanford MA, 1947; Ph.D, 1952), the expedition was sponsored by the Sierra Club and the American Alpine Club (AAC). The party also included scientists, such as Swan, who collected plant and animal specimens and conducted tests on human physiology at high altitude, garnering additional support from the California Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. The Sierra Club solicited individual donations from its members, acted as the repository for the expedition's funding, also provided an advisory board of highly experienced mountaineers, including Francis Farquhar, Bestor Robinson, David Brower, and Lewis Clark.  The expedition rates only a brief mention in Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s 2008 history of Himalayan mountaineering—Fallen Giants; Stanford Librarian emeritus John Rawlings included a more complete description in his 1999 history of the Stanford Alpine Club, in which he noted the key roles played by Stanford Alpine Club climbers Al Baxter, Fritz Lippmann, and Lawrence Swan.  Though the expedition did not reach the summit of Makalu, it achieved an altitude of 23,200', surveyed additional routes and topography and collected a variety of scientific speciens (including numerous insects collected by Swan); the expedition's planning and efforts were summarized in a 1955 article by William W. Dunmire and William Unsoeld, in the journal of the American Alpine Club.  Swan himself recounted various aspects of the expedition (and his lifelong fascination and study of the Himalayas) in his engaging 1999 memoir--Tales of the Himalaya: Adventures of a Naturalist.

As wonderfully summarized by rare book dealer Elizabeth Svendsen of Walkabout Books, from whom we acquired the collection:

“This archive provides considerable insight into a rarely seen aspect of early large-scale Himalayan mountaineering expeditions – the complex and often arduous planning process. Climbing narratives and scientific studies published upon return from such expeditions are numerous, but few have focused on the less "sexy" logistical aspects that are critical to success. This collection of materials was preserved by Dr. Lawrence Swan, a newly minted Stanford PhD who became the expedition's biologist. It includes correspondence and documents from as early as November 1951, when a group of climbers first began tossing around ideas, and continues steadily through February 1954, when final 10-man party—which included Swan, Allan Steck, Fritz Lippmann, Richard Houston, Willi Unsoeld, Bill Dunmire, William Long, Bruce Meyer, Will Siri, and Nello Pace—departed for Nepal.

Detailed meeting minutes and letters exchanged among the climbers document the evolution of the expedition as the group selected an initial destination (26,795-foot Dhaulagiri), established a formal California Himalayan Committee, sought sponsors, received feedback and advice from Sierra Club and AAC members, discussed which climbers should go and why, and started fundraising. The group planned to make their ascent during the 1953 climbing season, and their promotional materials from 1952 boast that, if successful, they will reach the highest point yet achieved by man. That opportunity was lost, however, when their application for a permit was denied by the Nepalese government. They had to re-set their plan for Makalu in 1954 (for which a permit was granted), and in the intervening year Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest.

Additional correspondence records the nitty gritty of testing, selecting, and ordering clothing and equipment, securing maps and photographs to help plan the route into an area that was essentially unknown, seeking the best available literature on the region (one letter includes a recommended reading list), planning a training expedition to Mt. Robson in British Columbia, and securing transportation. (They tried unsuccessfully to enlist a commercial airline as a sponsor, but ultimately convinced the U.S. Army to fly them and their equipment to India in exchange for conducting certain high-altitude studies).

Swan himself was tasked with two of the more complex and important tasks – establishing the expedition's scientific goals and arranging for the services of climbing Sherpas to assist with the ascent, as well as more than 200 porters to help move many tons of food and equipment on the three-week foot trek from the Nepalese border (accessed by train) to base camp. The latter job was assigned to Swan because he had attended school in India and made several previous trips into the Himalayas (though not at such high altitude), and he had some understanding of Hindi, Nepali, Tibetan, and Lepcha. The archive includes several letters from him to people in India asking for assistance in hiring reliable Sherpas and porters.

The expedition's scientific program is laid out in several documents in this archive—including a summary report of the expedition's plans and goals, as well as several appeals by Swan to potential donors or sponsors. The group clearly knew that climbing a mountain was not in itself enough to convince organizations like the National Science Foundation or Ford Foundation to provide financial support, and thus they were careful to emphasize science—despite acknowledging privately that climbing was what really mattered to most of them (Swan excepted). Although early plans included Swan—who was primarily interested in insect collecting—as the sole scientist, ultimately UC Berkeley Professor Nello Pace was added to the roster to study acclimatization at altitude and the body's physiological reactions to stress, and climber Bill Dunmire, a UC zoology student, collected bird and mammal specimens.

Additional materials include fundraising letters and brochures; correspondence with donors and potential institutional and corporate sponsors; letters from museums and laboratories interested in acquiring specimens collected on the expedition; a map of the proposed route; a 7" x 9" photograph of Makalu and the neighboring peaks dating from 1935, which seems to have been the most recent they could obtain; a long list of the clothing and equipment Swan intended to bring; a list of all of the food and beverage items they brought, including the total weight of each (ranging from a half pound of curry powder to 705 pounds of sugar); and climbing resumes for eight of the final expedition members and several people who were on the roster at one time but who did not make the climb. Among these are photographer Ansel Adams (who was an experienced climber and member of the AAC and Sierra Club, but—at age 49—was evidently recruited for his name recognition rather than his climbing prowess); Alfred W. Baxter, Jr., who appears to have been the lead planner of the expedition, but was injured shortly before the departure date; and UC Davis chemistry professor Oscar Cook, who died while climbing in Peru in 1952.

Included with the archive is a copy of an 18-page article published in the American Alpine Journal by Bill Dunmire and Willi Unsoeld upon their return from the Himalaya. To the best of our knowledge, this is the only published account of the expedition. The party made it as high as 23,200 feet, but failed to summit due to unrelenting snowfall. They did, however, succeed in accomplishing their scientific objectives and providing information about the terrain and route options that would aid the next group of climbers (a French team summited in 1955). They also note with pride that "our trip was conceived, planned, and successfully executed according to schedule by a group of novices in the Himalayan field" – a very real accomplishment, the complexity of which is on full display in this archive.

The archive contains approximately 115 pages of correspondence and meeting minutes; 40 pages of reports, resumes, and equipment lists; and 30 items of miscellaneous ephemera (postcards for meetings and lectures, expedition letterhead, Swan's life insurance policy, a price list from a supplier of dehydrated food, etc.).”

Combined with early scrapbooks of the Stanford Alpine Club in University Archives, as well as a number of other allied collections, these materials add to the rich body materials chronicling the history of mountaineering in the Department of Special Collections.  With many thanks to Special Collections colleagues Christy Smith, Gurudarshan Khalsa and Laura Wilsey, for their amazing work in accessioning, processing, and describing collections such as this one!