The Irish contribution to the world of exploration



Rob Mortell

Posted: 30 June, 2017

Having spent a challenging two months on the north side of Mount Everest in 2016, Rob Mortell became the youngest Irish person to reach the summit of the world’s highest peak. For his #LoveIrishResearch blog, Rob looks at the contribution made to the world of exploration by Irish people over the years. 

The Irish contribution to the world of exploration is often understated as a result of our extensive connections with the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, we have proud connections with some of the world’s greatest explorers and ground-breaking expeditions.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean (born in Kildare and Kerry respectively) played an instrumental role in the British expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 1900s. Their infamous survival story of the ‘Endurance’ expedition still inspires generations of adventurers in respect of both the determination and skill demonstrated in ensuring no lives were lost in that disaster.

Shackleton’s passing in 1922, perhaps a symbolic end to the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, came within months of the first British expedition to Mount Everest in 1921. This reconnaissance expedition was led by Colonel Charles Kenneth Howard Bury of Belvedere House in Mullingar, and marks the occasion on which the North East ridge of Mount Everest was identified as a potential route to safely climb to the summit of what was considered the ‘Third Pole’.

The Irish contribution continued in the British 1924 Everest expedition – an expedition which remains perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in the history of Mount Everest. Richard WG Hingston, of Passage West in Cork, worked as the expedition’s medical officer and naturalist and is praised in the diaries of the team leader (Norton) for both his professionalism and ‘confidence of an Alpine guide.’ Ultimately the evidence of a possible first ascent by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924 was inconclusive as both men perished either before or after reaching the summit.

The first confirmed successful mountaineers to reach the highest point on Earth came 29 years later as Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay succeeded with the British expedition to the South side of Everest in 1953.

Nonetheless, it is the North East ridge of Mount Everest, as identified by Mallory in 1921, that saw the first successful Irish mountaineer to reach the summit of Mount Everest at 8,848m above sea level in 1993 – Dawson Stelfox.

To this day, mountaineers from across the globe attempt to follow in the footsteps of these inspirational explorers on Mount Everest. However, despite many successful ascents of this mountain, there are still efforts required to conduct further research studies as to the effects of altitude on humans and how best to manage this.

For example, the use of an ‘altitude chamber’ in pre-expedition training is considered one of the latest innovations in attempting to facilitate early acclimatisation to high altitude and thus reduce the duration of expeditions from two months to one month, or even less. While these chambers appear to show a move in the right direction, there is still great scepticism amongst some mountaineers as to their value when it comes to climbing 8,000m mountains such as Everest.

In parallel, while medical studies are assessing the effects of high altitude, material scientists are developing new materials for mountaineers to prevent frostbite and other cold injuries from occurring. It is by researching the world’s harshest environments that we can prepare ourselves for the future unknowns of climate change and space exploration.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.