Writing Thomas Atkinson out of history

The rapidity with which Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s travels were forgotten by the exploring fraternity sometimes astonishes me. By the beginning of the twentieth century, 40 years after Thomas’ death and less than a decade after that of Lucy, no-one (with a few honourable exceptions) seems to have remembered their achievements.

This point was brought home to me recently when reading Siberia: a record of Travel, Climbing and Exploration (1905) by Samuel Turner. Turner was a butter merchant and amateur climber who spent many summers climbing in the Alps, but took advantage of a butter-buying journey to southern Siberia to go climbing in the beautiful and remote Altai Mountains. His intention was to climb Mount Belukha, the highest in the range at 14,784 ft (4,506m).

Samuel Turner
Samuel Turner, climber and butter merchant

Turner says that he was told in England that there were no mountains in Siberia, but that during a trip to the Royal Geographical Society “I found that all the literature the Society possessed which dealt with the Altai Mountains consisted of a few lines translated from the Russian Geographical Society’s Journal, to the effect that Professor Sapozhnikoff had climbed 13,300 feet of the south side of Belukha and from that elevation had determined the altitude of the mountain to be 14,800 feet, which is the height of the Matterhorn.”

The twin peaks of Mount Belukha

In March 1904 Turner set off on his journey and eventually reached the Belukha massif in mid-April after an arduous journey from Barnaoul involving riverboats, horses and hiking. He soon began his attempt on Belukha itself and congratulated himself on his endeavour:

The indescribable beauty of the view before me and the consciousness that I was gazing upon a scene that had never yet been desecrated by the camera or described by any human being, was one of a lifetime, and amply repaid me for the difficulties and inconveniences I had experienced on my way. Here all was virgin ground. There were not passes known and labelled; no well-trodden routes to be followed; no Mark Twain had ever made the ascent of these peaks in imagination; no telescope had scaled their heights before my Zeiss binocular; no avalanche had hurled its hapless victims to an untimely death; no Alpine hut vulgarised the slopes or rides or obscured the view of the summit; no Baedeker enumerated the guides or reduced the glories of the ascent to a matter of pounds, shillings and pence.

Except, of course, he was not the first person to climb in the Altai. Thomas Atkinson beat him to it by more than 50 years. In his book Oriental and Western Siberia, chapter 23 is entitled ‘Ascent of the Bielouka’. Here Thomas describes a visit he made to the Altai in the late spring of 1852, during which he ascended the valley of the River Katounaia – now called the Katun River – and made an attempt to climb the main peak of Belukha. In fact, he had even made an attempt to conquer the peak on his second visit to the region in 1848, when travelling with Lucy.

According to Thomas’ account of the 1852 attempt, he had ascended the mountain together with a Kalmuck hunter called Yepta, making good progress: “Having proceeded about five versts, we reached the bend in the valley, where Bielouka stood before us in all his grandeur. I lost no time in seeking out a good point whence to sketch this monarch of the Altai chain.

He reached the source of the Katounaia River and the base of the mountain’s twin peaks: “To the west the vast steppes of the Kirghis stretched till lost in hazy distance. To the south were some high peaks and many ridges descending towards the steppes on the east of Nor Zaisan and to the Desert of Gobi. Several lakes were visible in the mountains and on the distant steppes. Innumerable rivers were winding their courses in the deep valleys like a network of silver threads. It was a splendid vista – so many snowy peaks starting up from the purple ridges and green valleys around them.

However, with no mountaineering equipment at all, no maps or guides and the onset of bad weather, Thomas and Yepta decided to abandon their attempt on the summit, although not before accurately describing the route by which the mountain would eventually be climbed. Fifty years later, Turner failed in his attempt and in fact the peak was not climbed until 1914. You can find a more detailed history of the climbing of Belukha here.

Turner’s book, which is worth reading, is only one example of a book written about Central Asia and Siberia that omits any mention of the journeys carried out by the Atkinsons. In fact, Thomas made at least three journeys to the Altai, on one of which he was accompanied by Lucy. Little by little, we will correct the record.

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