Alexander Mitchell Kellas could justifiably have laid claim to being the outstanding Himalayan mountaineer of his generation, and he was certainly Scotland's greatest ever Himalayan mountaineer. So how come virtually no-one, even those who think they know a thing or two about Scotland, her mountains and her mountaineers, have ever heard of him?
Prelude to Everest by Ian R. Mitchell and George Rodway is a beautifully illustrated, well written and carefully researched book that sets out to answer that question, within the context of the first ever comprehensive biography of Alexander Kellas. What emerges is the fascinating story of an intensely driven man, who seems to have turned to the mountains in an effort to counter his modest professional success as a chemistry lecturer and author of textbooks, bouts of mental illness, and, reading between the lines, the intense loneliness of a man who never quite seemed at ease in the company of those around him.
At the time of his death in 1921, in the early stages of a major expedition to reconnoitre Everest, Kellas had spent more time above 20,000ft than any man alive; had climbed more summits above that height than anyone else; and had climbed the highest mountain in the world that had been climbed until that point (though tragically without knowing it, as it was wrongly believe at the time that a mountain already climbed by another mountaineer was higher). He also knew the high Himalayas better than any other westerner; pioneered the use of Sherpas as climbing companions; and through rigorous scientific work over many years understood the effects of altitude on the human body better than anyone else.
But perhaps because he didn't fit the typical mould of the gentleman climber of the early 1900s, and perhaps because he was more interested in the mountains themselves than in promoting his own name and image, he was all too quickly forgotten after his death. The better known names of Himalayan climbing in the decades that followed achieved their fame and success in large measure by building on the pioneering work of Kellas: and it is fitting that, thanks to this book, Alexander Kellas can be restored to his rightful place in mountaineering history.