More on Thomas Atkinson’s attempts to climb Mt Belukha in the Altai

In my previous note (5th May) I mentioned that in 1852 Thomas Atkinson made a serious attempt at climbing Mount Belukha, the highest peak in the Altai chain in southern Siberia, which stands at just over 4,500m and is by no means an easy climb. He and his guide Yepta were forced to turn back due to the poor weather and their lack of suitable equipment.

That he took the climb seriously can be established from one of the contemporary documents that survives in the collection of his papers held by his descendant Paul Dahlquist in Hawaii. This is a handwritten translation of a work by Dr Frederic Gebler (1771-1850), a German physician who had moved to Barnaul in the Altai in 1810, where he founded a museum and became a highly-respected correspondent of scientific institutions throughout Europe, particularly for his collection of thousands of insects. He was also inspector of Hospitals in the Altai and travelled extensively in the region, including close the Mount Belukha, where a glacier is now named after him.

Dr Frederick Wilhelm Gebler2
Dr Frederic Gebler

Thomas became a good friend of Dr Gebler following his first visit to the town in 1847. “I spent many happy hours in his company during my first visit to Barnaul,” he says in his book Oriental and Western Siberia and “from him I gathered much information relative to my journey in these regions.” It seems likely that it was Dr Gebler who persuaded Thomas to attempt a climb on the great twin-peaked Belukha, as the handwritten document amongst Thomas’ papers is a translation of Dr Gebler’s 1837 paper on the Katun Mountains and in particular Mount Belukha. It has never been formally translated into English from its original German, but goes by the title Survey of the Katun Mountains; Bielukha, the highest peak of the Russian Altai. Although I cannot be sure, I am almost positive that it was Lucy who did the translation.

An extract from Lucy’s translation of Dr Gebler’s paper on Mt Belukha

Lucy herself comments on Thomas’ two attempts to climb the mountain, in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes. She first saw the mountain when they travelled through the southern Altai in 1848:

It was our intention to have gone to the Bielouka; men, horses, and provisions had been prepared at Ouemonia for that purpose, but after a sojourn of a few days in the mountains, on the morning of the 3rd, my husband was obliged reluctantly to turn his horse’s head, but with a determination to return at some future period. I would gladly have accompanied him had he determined to go on, but I was rejoiced when he said we must not proceed farther; we had travelled over versts of morass, our horses sinking up to their saddle-flaps, and at night encamping on the snowy mountains, with a bleak cutting wind penetrating to the very bones.”

Four years later, in 1852, she had not lost her sense of adventure, regretting the fact that she had not accompanied her husband when he returned to the mountain for his second attempt on the summit:

I have been induced, through the very urgent entreaties of our friends, to allow my husband to go alone this summer to ascend the Bielouka. I consented the more readily, as I had visited the regions round about before; and, besides, Colonel Sokolovsky had intended joining him in this excursion. He was prevented by his departure for Petersburg, which did not take place till the 8th of August, and Mr. Atkinson having remained to see him off, the season was far advanced. Many of our friends thought it too late, as the winter begins in the high regions so early; but he did not seem inclined to defer his journey till another season. He now tells me he regrets much that I did not go, as I have missed some fine scenery; and besides, he says, he missed his companion. He also missed the little arrangements I was able to make for our comfort; I always tried to do this, though scarcely able, at times, to move from fatigue.”

As we know, Thomas’ second attempt on the peak was also unsuccessful, due to his lack of equipment and the bad weather due to the fact he had started out so late in the season. That being said, it is still remarkable that, together with his Kalmuck companion Yepta, he was able to get to the source of the River Katun and the glacier that leads down from the saddle between Belukha’s twin peaks. My guess is that this was about 3-400 metres below the summit. It would be more than 50 years before anyone else got so high and 70 years before the peak was finally conquered.

Thomas’ portrait of Yepta, his climbing companion on Mt Belukha

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