Behind the picture: Sorting cards on Everest
It’s 60 years today since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to scale Everest, under the scientific supervision of MRC researcher Dr Griffith Pugh. Here, as part of our series exploring the images of the MRC’s past, Katherine Nightingale looks into the research that was happening seven years later in this cigar-shaped hut on a lonely glacier south of Everest.
This picture, taken in 1960, shows the cylindrical ‘Silver Hut’ of the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition of 1960–1961. The expedition was organised and led by Sir Edmund Hillary, who had been the first to scale Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The scientific leader was Dr Griffith Pugh, an MRC researcher and mountaineer.
Perched — to modern eyes at least — somewhat precariously on the Mingbo glacier 5,800 metres above sea level, and about 12 miles south of Everest, the prefabricated hut was set up in November 1960. Produced in England, it was made from silver-painted marine plywood boxed sections, filled with foam insulation. The hut contained bunks, a cooking area and lab space.
“It made a wonderful home and workplace for us for the winter,” says Jim Milledge, an extreme physiology researcher who was on the expedition and took this photo. He lived in the hut along with four to eight other group members over the winter of 1960–1961.
So what were they doing there? The primary focus was to investigate the effects of high altitude and low oxygen on the bodies of ‘lowlanders’ (though some members of the team also looked for traces of the Yeti).
Some of the experiments looked at how the conditions affected the men’s ability to do basic tasks, one of which was identifying the suit of a playing card and putting it into the matching slot in a box as quickly as possible. The experiment and the box, which automatically detected the speed at which the cards were sorted, were designed at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit (now the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit). The overall finding, published in Nature in 1964, was that lowlanders can work accurately at high altitude but tasks take longer.
In the spring of 1961, a group went over to Nepal’s Barun Valley and made an attempt on Mount Makalu (8,481m) continuing physiology experiments up to 7,400m. The whole expedition lasted nine months, most of the time being spent above 4,500m.
Once the expedition was over, the Silver Hut was dismantled and later reassembled as part of the base camp of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, India, where it stands to this day.