The legacy of Sir Francis Younghusband will always be tied to his tragic 1903 military misadventure in Tibet, when the Victorian explorer led a British diplomatic mission to Lhasa that ultimately left 2,700 Tibetans dead.
But the English adventurer, born in 1863 in the foothills of the Himalayas under the British Raj, left his mark on mountains and mountaineering in more ways than one. His early exploits, including a thousand-mile crossing of the Gobi Desert and being the first European to survey the thin air of Mustagh Pass below K2 along the China-Pakistan border, were feats of exceptional derring-do. By 1890, those epic trips helped earn Younghusband a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in Britain. Later still, after becoming president of the RGS, he championed George Mallory’s ill-fated attempts to conquer Mount Everest in the 1920s.
Younghusband was not only a globetrotting mountaineer but also a daring old-world soldier-spy who his biographer called “the Last Great Imperial Adventurer” and served as inspiration for his countryman Rudyard Kipling’s adventure yarn Kim. Younghusband himself also published more than 20 books, including travelogues and philosophical treatises on Eastern religion, informed by his encounters with the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi. But unlike better-known figures such as Edmund Hillary and John Muir, his name is mostly lost to history because of his nightmarish invasion of Tibet and the problematic legacy of colonialism.
Nonetheless, Younghusband was groomed for greatness from an early age.
Around the dinner table both in his home in Murree, a remote hill station in the northwest province Punjab, and back in England, family discussion often focused on his uncle, Robert Shaw. Shaw was an occasional visitor, and a national hero who earned his fame exploring the far corners of Central Asia before taking over a tea plantation in Sikkim in northeastern India. At the time, swaths of the Subcontinent remained unmapped and unknown to British loyalists, who were engaged in a high-altitude cat-and-mouse game with Tsarist Russia looking for military advantage. As a young man, Younghusband would become a major player in the Great Game, as the proto-Cold War was known in England, heading for the Karakorams and beyond.
Younghusband emerged from military training at Sandhurst Academy outside London an astounding athlete, capable of running 300 yards in 33 seconds – fast enough to set a world record at the time. Coming of age in the mid 19th century, he was also part of a generation of Englishmen that rewrote the rules of alpinism, as the British began to tackle the Alps in earnest; it was a team of UK climbers that first ascended the Matterhorn in 1865. Having returned to India in service of the Royal Dragoons, meanwhile, for his first high-altitude excursion Younghusband took leave from his regimen and climbed the 13,000-foot Rhotang Pass above the Kullu Valley.
That two-week solo trip, which carried the young lieutenant to and over the edge of what the Indians considered the “the edge of the inhabitable world,” paved the way for ever more audacious endeavors. Younghusband described the descent down the back of Rhotang Pass as a freezing slog featuring “the coldest wind I have ever felt,” but the panorama of the snowcapped Pin Prinjals in the distance stuck with him. “I had caught just a glimpse of the other side of the Himalayan range,” he recalled. “But I thirsted for more mountain beauty.”
In the winter of 1885, with Russian forces maneuvering in Afghanistan, Younghhusband hatched a plan that would cement his reputation as a man of action and lead him back over the high passes of his beloved Himalayas.
With the support of the British Quartermaster-General of the Indian Army, 24-year-old Younghusband undertook a 1,200-plus-mile reconnaissance mission that rivaled Laurence of Arabia’s Middle Eastern crossing at the outset of World War I. He sailed to Beijing and then set off across the Gobi Desert before making his way back into Indian Kashmir along the high passes of the Tibetan Plateau. The concern for the British military was that the Russians might discover a hidden pass, or negotiate a treaty with the Chinese that would allow them to sneak through a “back door” into India and challenges the dominance of the Crown in South Asia. In preparation for the trip, Younghusband spent months honing his mapping skills and upped his training with footraces against his fellow soldiers to improve his physical conditioning. “My greatest ambition is gradually being realized,” he wrote his sister.
In June of 1887, having freshly mapped a new overland route across the Gobi Desert, Younghusband and his weather-beaten caravan reached the fourteeners of the Altai Range in Siberia. They bartered for sheep and camels before continuing their way to the Sino-Indian border on foot. When Younghusband finally reached the town of Kashgar, where the savvy Silk Road sultan Yakub Beg had once detained his Uncle Robert, he was met with an official command to attempt to cross Mustagh Pass. This route, rising to 17,638-feet, was rumored to offer a timesaving alternative to continuing around the massive Karakoram Range beyond its western edge.
With the path shrouded in mystery, the risks were so great Younghusband split his crew and set off with just four companions. As they passed beneath the shadow of the second tallest mountain in the world, K2, and set across the Baltoro Glacier, the largest mountain glacier in the world, their ponies struggled in the snow, and Younghusband made the difficult decision to send the livestock back to the village. But the gambit worked, saving him weeks of trekking around the mountains and his team finally reached Srinagar after 20 months in China and Turkestan.
Later on, with uncharacteristic modesty, Younghusband acknowledged that while the climb to Mustagh Pass had been rough, the descent was much rougher. So rough, in fact, that Younghusband admits he let his native Balti guide Wali lead the way. “I freely confess that I myself could never have attempted the descent, and that I – an Englishman – was afraid to go first,” he wrote in Wonders of the Himalayas.
Would that were the end of the story, Younghusband would have gone on to collect his gold medal for the Royal Geological Society – and maybe we could have seen Tony Shalhoub or Paul Giamatti with a walrus mustache playing the man who would thereafter be known as “the father of Karakoram exploration.” But, alas, as the Great Game persisted into the 20th century, Younghusband led a battalion of Sikh and Gurhka fighters into Tibet, leaving behind a trail of bodies on his way to Lhasa.
Younghusband’s experience in Tibet, and the Himalayas, however, left him a changed man. Ironically, after he left the armed forces and his final station in Kashmir, returning to England, he became an outspoken advocate for Indian independence, and embraced a curious amalgam of Eastern and Western religious dogma that held room for a radically non-Victorian endorsement of free love.
He wrote books on open marriage and traveled the world, making his way to the United States in 1934, lecturing on everything from his high-altitude feats to his encounters with South Asian swamis and mystics. His fame was such that when the record-setting American pilot Charles Lindbergh decided he wanted to know more about extrasensory perception, he asked Younghusband to meet him in India.
There’s no way of knowing at this late date whether Younghusband saw the Everest expeditions of George Mallory as a last bid for his own redemption in Asia but he certainly relished a chance to bask in Mallory’s reflected glory. As the president of the Royal Geographical Society, the Great Game veteran founded the RGS Mount Everest Committee and favored all three of Mallory’s attempts on the mountain, including the last in 1924, which cost the climber his life.
Younghusband would pass away in 1942 well before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the peak of the world’s tallest mountain. For all Younghusband’s flaws, he shared their same bold approach to the world.
And that makes his story worth revisiting and remembering.