From Olympus to Vesuvius, Everest to Kilimanjaro, mountains have held a powerful even intoxicating significance to every culture on earth. They have inspired poets, pilgrims and explorers alike and their ascent has been sought in the name of knowledge, commerce and spiritual illumination. In the 18th century natural philosophers began conducting trips for the purposes of scientific study with the glaciers of the Mont Blanc range being of particular interest. In 1760 the naturalist Horace-Benedict de Saussure offered a reward for whosoever could reach its peak, the tallest in Europe, but it would be some 25 years before the prize was claimed. Ascents for their own sake remained exceptional until the next century.
In 1854 Sir Alfred Wills successfully conquered the Wetterhorn to considerable acclaim in Great Britain as it was assumed he was the first to reach its peak; he was not but the enthusiasm for mountain climbing had taken hold. Two years later John Ruskin, art critic and champion of the then controversial artist J.M.W. Turner, published his Volume IV of Modern Painters with its classification of Mountain landscape within aesthetics, a branch of philosophy that primarily focused on art and nature. His publication profoundly influenced artists and thinkers, establishing an entirely new way of seeing and engaging with mountains, and the natural world. The Golden Age of Alpinism was firmly underway with British adventurers leading the pack and the Alpine Club established in London for the benefit of exploration and art in 1857.
The majority of the Alpine peaks were reached in the following decade culminating in the successful ascent of the Matterhorn by a team led by the English artist and explorer Edward Whymper (his 9th attempt). Tragedy marred their triumph as upon descent Michel Croz, Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson and Douglas Hadow plummeted to their deaths. In his Scrambles Amongst the Alps Whymper remarked ‘remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence… momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime… I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs… I shall always see them’. Shortly thereafter, Whymper went on to tackle the Andes.
From 1870 onwards enthusiasts turned their attentions to the Caucasus and Ruwenzori ranges, the Andes, Rockies, and the most alluring of all, the mighty Himalayas. Local communities living in the Himalayas were privy to many of their secrets, traders and missionaries knew various passes but on the whole to Europeans the Himalayas lay largely undiscovered until the 19th century. In the mid-1840’s the Survey of India organised a systematic program to measure correctly the heights of the Himalayan peaks, and in 1852 peak XV was established as the highest mountain on earth. Within 10 years more than forty peaks with elevations exceeding 5,500 m (18,000 ft) had been climbed for surveying purposes, and in 1864 peak XV was finally named after Sir George Everest, former Surveyor General of India.
Not only were surveying teams taking to the hills but so too those for scientific exploration, and in 1848-49 Joseph Hooker made a pioneering study of the botany of the Sikkim Himalayas. His first expedition was with the naturalist Brian Hodgson who had been cataloguing everything Himalayan since the beginning of the century. On his second tour he was joined by H.M. Superintendent of Darjeeling Archibald Campbell, whose incompetence precipitated their imprisonment by the Rajah of Sikkim. The embarrassing incident was eventually resolved peacefully largely by Britain annexing Darjeeling, and a good portion of Sikkim itself. Hooker published his survey with illustrations by the prolific botanical artist Walter Hood Fitch to great success. Indeed many a rhododendron in England owes its existence to the seeds with which Hooker returned.
By the end of the 19th century European travel to the lower regions of the Himalayas had grown almost pedestrian; Cook’s Tours having been established in 1841 with steamships, railways and better roads assisting in accelerating access to the interior. In 1892 Sir William Conway explored the Karakoram Range, and in 1899 Douglas Freshfield the summits of Sikkim. However, before these men made their way into the annals of history a little known but rather remarkable journey had already been taken nearly thirty years earlier by the first Western woman to see Mount Everest. Sarah Elizabeth Harris Mazuchelli, known as Nina, was an aspiring English artist who arrived in India in the same year as the Indian Mutiny of 1857; her husband Francis having been appointed Assistant Chaplain H.M. Indian Service Calcutta. Ten years later they transferred to Darjeeling in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas where Nina spent a year becoming acquainted with the hills accompanied only by her horse and easel.
Having travelled through most of the ranges of Europe, Nina’s sights were soon set on reaching the ‘nearest point of heaven and earth’ – Mount Everest known in Darjeeling as Deodunga or Holy Mountain. Fuelled in even measure by spiritual longing, artistic fervour and a barely concealed competitive spirit to be the first western woman into the Singalila range, Nina deftly overcame her husband’s less than enthusiastic response and laid her expedition’s route largely based on guesswork – there were no extant maps of the area at the time. Nina’s party had no scientific purpose in their journey, and they did not take any observations on the way as they were seeking only to ‘explore an unknown country’. Having been influenced by the rhetoric of Ruskin, Nina believed that through Nature one could truly engage with the ‘Invisible’. Artistically she sought to emulate Turner whom she considered ‘the greatest of all modern painters’, and convey the feeling a landscape inspired rather than the landscape itself, ultimately believing Art incapable of reproducing Nature or the infinity of God. She was a women very much reflecting her time.
Nina’s expedition set forth in November of 1870. Accompanying her and Francis were ‘C’, a rather inept district officer, and about 70 servants – porters, sappers to cut the way, cooks, attendants, and bearers to make and break a substantial camp of iron bedsteads, chairs, tables, carpets, stoves, cutlery, china, livestock, a cow for fresh milk for tea, and the all essential easel. They travelled west through the valleys to the summit of the Singalila Range then along the crest toward Mount Kanchenjunga in Sikkim and Nepal until they reached Junno Mountain. Whilst the men walked Nina, strictly adhering to Victorian decorum in lady’s dress with her only concession being the ‘moccasins’ her husband had designed for her, rode in a Bareilly dandy (a seat with poles carried by four porters) or strapped to a porter’s back in a chair (for steeper climbs).
Upon reaching Mount Junno, the provisions they’d arranged through the Soubah (a viceroy) of Sikkim did not materialise, and it seemed their adventure would fail before it could really begin. Nina, Francis and ‘C’ were apparently oblivious of Sikkim’s fraught relationship with the British Empire, and Nina’s dreams seemed to slip away under the taunting shadows of the very peaks she longed to reach. Then unexpectedly supplies arrived, and with a guide provided by the Soubah to lead them to Everest and the promise of further provisions delivered by the Kajee (a minister of state) of Sikkim, the party continued at a good pace and in good spirits. Finally Nina had her first glimpse of Everest, the ‘stupendous barrier, shutting out the west, with austere sublimity’, but it was here too that the journey took a more sinister turn.
Faithfully the party followed the guide the Soubah had provided deeper and deeper into the range, sending back the most burdensome items and the least able bodied. As they ascended the treacherous icy terrain temperatures dropped, the weather became unpredictable and they suffered the effects of altitude sickness with the debilitating condition further exacerbated by dwindling supplies. The Kajee then failed to send additional provisions; days passed, the meagre rations were further reduced and servants began slipping away in the night. It was at this point that the guide provided by the Soubah announced he was lost, an expectant panic ensued, and then he too vanished in the night. Abandoned they had no choice but to turn back on the path they had taken, Nina walking with the men and the remaining servants, many of whom were openly hostile though too exhausted to act.
When it seemed all hope was truly lost and Nina giving considerations to the practicalities of burial in the snow, provisions from the Kajee suddenly arrived. Now revived, the expedition was able to make a detour at Singalila to the Buddhist monastery at Pemionchi to acquire ponies, even passing through the Kajee’s village to enjoy their saviour’s hospitality with all protocol and pleasantry. It is conceivable, such were the extraordinary machinations taking place at the time, that the officers of Sikkim had thought Nina and her party were spies then changed their mind, or even manufactured the entire drama in order for Sikkim to play rescuer and gain British favour. With ponies to carry them from Pemionchi they made their way back to Darjeeling following the Great Rangit river. All along their route villagers came out to hail them ‘for we had been over into Sikkim and left our footprints on the mighty snows’.
A few short years after her tremendous adventure and after nearly twenty years in India, Nina returned to England in 1875. The following year Queen Victoria became Empress of India, and Nina published The Indian Alps and how we crossed them for a small circle. It was highly unusual for a woman to publish an autobiographical account, and although she did so only as A Lady Pioneer, she did so nonetheless. Nina wistfully wrote in her preface ‘I’m seized with a spirit of unrest and long to be far away and once more in their midst’ but she never returned to India nor saw the Himalayas again. One can only speculate what further explorations in the region she might have pursued.
More than fifty years after Nina’s journey and ten years after her death, the 1924 British Everest Expedition’s George Mallory and Andrew Irvine would disappear on descent without confirming they’d reached Everest’s peak, and yet another thirty years would pass before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary could claim success. Numerous are the fabulous tales recorded and repeated of Himalayan adventures, and today men and women continue to be drawn to the mesmerising peaks. Yet rarely does one hear of the extraordinary Nina Mazuchilli, who traversed a perilous 600 miles in two months whilst maintaining a standard of decorum of which any English Victorian lady would be proud, to become the very first western woman to set eyes upon the ‘Holy Mountain’ and the first European artist to depict the Eastern Himalayas.
S.A. Obolensky 2018
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