Few climbers today have heard of the Scotish mountaineer, Alexander Mitchell Kellas (pic, above). But decades before Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Sherpa summitted Everest in 1953, Kellas was championing the mountaineering abilities of the Sherpas.
A chemist by profession, Kellas quickly recognised the unique physiological qualities of the Sherpas in climbing high-altitude peaks. While climbing the Himalayas in the beginning of the 20th century, Kellas treated Sherpas not simply as porters but true companions. He also marvelled at their sense of humour and ability to work hard while battling immense adversity. Recent scientific findings suggest Sherpas may be protected against altitude sickness, confirming the Scot’s intuition.
Alexander Kellas was a pioneering high-altitude physiologist of his day. He carried out ground-breaking research on hypoxia (low oxygen) at high altitude and how it impacts the body. During an era when many scientists challenged the notion that the world’s tallest peak could be climbed at all, Kellas, based on observations from his own studies and calculations, went on record to say that Everest could certainly be climbed with supplemental oxygen. He even went a step further and remarked that climbing Sagarmatha may be possible even without supplemental oxygen. Few believed him.
Kellas’ reputation was based on a number of Himalayan climbs which he carried out in lightweight style instead of having a whole army engaged to climb a mountain as was customary in those days. Kellas thoroughly travelled around Kanchenjunga and because of his explorations, mapping, and photography of that region, it was eventually possible to climb that mountain.
In his famous treatise on A consideration of the possibility of ascending Mount Everest (written around 1912), Kellas notes that for the last 1,000ft of the climb, the ascent rate would be around 300ft per hour. In fact, the rate of ascent of the first two mountaineers who climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978—Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler—was similar to what Kellas had predicted decades ago.
One of the most important explorations that Kellas carried out was the 1921 reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest with George Mallory and his team from the Tibet side. Mallory’s description of Kellas in a letter to his wife is vivid: “Kellas is beyond description Scotch and uncouth in his speech. He is very slight in build, short, thin, stooping and narrow chested. His appearance would form an ideal model for an alchemist …”.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1868 Kellas had enormous stamina. He could keep going without food and adequate shelter for days at a time when he journeyed through the Scottish Cairngorm Mountains. He led a lonely life away from social contact and appears to have had bouts of psychosis later in life. Climbing in the Himalayas with locals and performing high altitude studies clearly offered him tremendous relief.
Kellas fell ill with the diarrhoea in Tibet (in a place called Tinki Dzong) during the reconnaissance expedition to Sagarmatha in 1921. Unfortunately even though he was strong and fit, the disease was very severe and unrelenting. This was before the era of effective antibiotics which can easily treat travellers’ diarrhoea today. He succumbed to the illness even as he was about to consolidate both his scientific and climbing achievements.