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Ruttledge, Hugh (1884–1961), mountaineer, was born on 24 October 1884, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Butler Ruttledge, of the Indian Medical Service, and his wife, Alice Dennison. He went to schools in Dresden and Lausanne and to Cheltenham College, before going in 1903 as an exhibitioner to Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1906 he obtained a second-class degree in the classical honours tripos.

Following success in the Indian Civil Service examination in 1908 and an obligatory probationary year at London University studying Indian law, police regulations, and Indian history and languages, Ruttledge sailed for India late in 1909. After assistant postings in Roorkee and Sitapur, he was made city magistrate at Agra, where he married Dorothy Jessie Hair Elder in 1915. He was promoted city magistrate of Lucknow in 1917 and deputy commissioner there in 1921 during a period of turbulence. He enjoyed polo, big game-hunting, and pig-sticking until a serious riding accident in 1915, which left him with a compacted hip bone and spinal curvature. His injuries in no way diminished his love of mountains, however, and his appointment in 1925 as deputy commissioner of Almora district brought him right into the Himalayan foothills, within sight of the great peaks. Determined to get to know every part of his dominion, he embarked, with Mrs Ruttledge, on a rigorous series of explorations of glaciers and peaks on the Tibetan frontier. By the time of his early retirement at the end of 1929, he and his wife had climbed or crossed no fewer than twelve high passes, six of them over 18,000 feet.

The highest peak in the British empire, Nanda Devi, had never been approached at that time, being encircled by a formidable ring of peaks, all above 21,000 feet. Between them, no depression existed lower than 17,000 foot—except in the west, where the Ganges had carved one of the world's most terrific and impenetrable gorges. In 1925, with Colonel R. C. Wilson and Dr T. Howard Somervell (of Everest fame), the Ruttledges reconnoitred the area to the north-east of Nandi Devi, hoping to gain its inner sanctuary via Milam and the Timphu glacier. They saw enough to realize it would be far too hazardous to force a way over the rim here with laden porters.

The following year, with Wilson, on an official trade mission to Tibet, they took the opportunity to complete a circuit of holy Mount Kailas, the first Europeans to perform this ritual pilgrimage, or parikarma. On the way back, they accomplished the first recorded crossing of Traill's Pass between Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot, from the north. In 1927, with Dr T. G. Longstaff and a small band of Sherpas, they reconnoitred glaciers of the Nandakini valley and crossed a 17,500 foot pass between Nanda Ghunti and Trisul. Dr Longstaff remarked afterwards on the great esteem in which the various peoples of Ruttledge's huge district held their deputy commissioner—not least for his devotion to their sacred himachal. His parikarma may have been ‘unblessed by his official superiors’, Longstaff said (Longstaff, 419), but it greatly added to his standing locally. Somervell, too, has remarked on Ruttledge's professional ‘frustrations’, believing these to be a major factor in Ruttledge's premature departure from the Indian Civil Service: ‘He was so tired of making plans that he knew to be right, to find that the Government always thought they knew better than the man on the spot’ (Longland, Somervell, and Wilson, 398).

Ruttledge returned to the UK in 1929 and almost immediately began organizing a further trip to Nanda Devi. In spring 1932, with the alpine guide Emile Rey, he explored the head of the Sundardhunga valley on the southern rim of the sanctuary, only to find once more that the serac-threatened col presented too great a risk for his Sherpas. So ended his quest: a couple of years later mountaineers forced a way into the inner sanctum through the gorge of the Ganges. One of them wrote that Ruttledge's ‘generous and genuine delight’ at their success ‘showed clearly the kind of man he was’ (Shipton, 124).

In 1933 permission was obtained from Tibet for a fresh British attempt to climb Mount Everest, which Ruttledge was invited to lead. Nine years had passed since the last expedition, on which G. L. Mallory and A. C. Irvine had disappeared, and an almost completely new team was called for. Ruttledge consulted widely before putting together a highly talented group. Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton were the most experienced Himalayan mountaineers of the day, to whom were added thrusting young alpinists, mostly of Oxbridge background, confident and opinionated, and a handful of seasoned military campaigners. Jack Longland, one of the younger members, has testified to the delight of travelling with Ruttledge across the Tibetan uplands:
He had a keen interest in the strange topography, in the unusual customs of hospitality and bargaining, and in the animals and birds, whose lack of timidity he revelled in. He had a sure and friendly touch when dealing with the Dzongpens (governors), the muleteers, and the sherpa and other porters, as well as a natural authority, tempered by a real liking for those who lived in wild places. (DNB)
In a more clement season the disparate traditions and disciplines within the party might have caused little friction. As it was, failure to establish Camp V on a rare fair day (20 May) proved disastrous. The three climbers sent up for the task—one of the young thrusters and two military men—dumped their loads and retreated with their porters 1000 feet short of the target. In the ensuing acrimony two vital days were lost and the expedition missed its chance of improving significantly on the height gained by the expedition of 1924.

Upon its return, an inquiry was held by the Mount Everest committee (comprising representatives of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club) into all aspects of organization and leadership. Confidential statements were taken from several expedition members. Though almost unanimous in their expression of affection for Ruttledge, many felt his very niceness prevented him from being a strong leader. Even so, most were not averse to serving under him again in 1936. There was an abortive challenge to his leadership, with Ruttledge resigning the offered post several times before eventually consenting to return. This second trip proved far happier, although the team was squarely defeated by an exceptionally early monsoon.

Ruttledge had arrived on the Everest scene at a time of great change and high aspirations. After several failed attempts and with national pride at stake, the pressure on him to succeed was great. He put heart and soul into organizing an efficient pair of expeditions, bringing together some of the finest climbers for the task. The potential was there, which made the outcome all the more bitter for those involved, but it is worth remembering that no lives were lost in either effort. Still, as Raymond Greene remarked of the Camp V incident several decades later, ‘it may be that we lost not two days but twenty years’ (private information).

In 1932 Ruttledge had purchased the tiny island of Gometra, off the coast of Mull, which he planned to farm. When called upon to prepare for his second Everest expedition, he moved to London, by which time he was coming round to the idea that a life afloat would provide the ideal retirement environment. He bought a 42 foot converted Watson lifeboat, which he replaced with a larger sailing cutter on his return from the Himalaya. In this he made several adventurous voyages, and it remained the family home until the end of the war. Other yachts followed and the Ruttledges were not persuaded ashore until 1950, when they set up home on the edge of Dartmoor. Ruttledge died in Stoke, Plymouth, on 7 November 1961, leaving his wife, one son, and two daughters. He wrote Everest 1933 (1934) and Everest: the Unfinished Adventure (1937).

Audrey Salkeld


J. Longland, T. H. Somervell, and R. Wilson, ‘Hugh Ruttledge, 1884–1961’, Alpine Journal, 67 (1962), 393–9 · E. Shipton, ‘Hugh Ruttledge’, GJ, 128 (1962), 124–5 · The Times (9 Nov 1961) · DNB · private information (2004) · T. G. Longstaff, ‘The Nanda Devi group and the sources of the Nandakgini’, GJ, 71 (1928), 417–30 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1962)


RGS, corresp.  



BFINA, record footage


portraits, RGS

Wealth at death  

£1964 6s. 4d.: probate, 14 Feb 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales