Wales and medals at the Winter Olympics do not make a lengthy list, but they do have a disputed history. Rob Cole salutes Brigadier Charles Granville Bruce and Captain Geoff Bruce, who were honoured for reaching the highest climb of all.
Wales may still be waiting for its first gold medal at the Winter Olympics, but 94 years ago the founding father of the Modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, did honour a British team that contained two high-profile Welshmen.
The jury is still out on whether or not the award given to the British team that led the 1922 Mount Everest expedition at the closing ceremony of the inaugural winter Games in Chamonix in 1924 qualifies as an official Olympic gold.
In the Olympic Museum records the achievement is entered as “Merit for Alpinism”. But there can be no doubting the fact the International Olympic Committee (IOC) singled out the expedition team, led by Welshman Brigadier Charles Granville Bruce, for the highest praise and that a medal was presented to mark their bold attempt to scale the world’s highest peak.
In three attempts the expedition failed to reach the summit. On the third attempt, seven Sherpas died in an avalanche. In his speech at the closing ceremony in Chamonix, De Coubertin said: “For the first time a gold medal is awarded for alpinism, and it is awarded to the glorious expedition to the Mount Everest. Not content with having almost succeeded, they are preparing a renewed effort to finish the ascent.
“Mr Representative of the mission (Lt Col Strutt), we welcome your presence for the beautiful heroism displayed. At the foot of the highest mountain in Europe, we present you and your wonderful companions with this small testimony of the admiration with which all nations have followed your journey towards the untouched peaks of the highest mountain in the world.
“We accompany this gesture by prayers for the completion of a work that will honour not only your country but all humanity.”
It was Lt Col Bill Strutt, the deputy leader, who picked up the medal on behalf of the team as Brig Bruce was unavailable due to preparations for another expedition, starting later that month. The second attempt to climb the 8,448m mountain would also fail and would lead to the disappearance and death of George Mallory.
Since the 1894 Olympic Congress, during which the IOC was founded, it had been planned to award an Olympic gold medal for alpinism or mountaineering. But it wasn’t until 30 years later, when the first winter games festival took place in the shadow of Mont Blanc, that it was decided to award a gold medal to the most notable mountaineering feat in the past Olympiad.
Nobody knows how many medals were presented – there were 160 members of the British team – but the two Welshmen were prominent members. Although born in London, Brigadier Charles Bruce was the third son, and eighth of nine children, of the first Lord Aberdare, Henry Austin Bruce.
His father became a Liberal politician, representing the Merthyr constituency for 14 years, became Home Secretary in William Gladstone’s cabinet and was one of the founding fathers of the University of Wales.
Charles Bruce became a professional soldier who was highly decorated in campaigns in Burma, Afghanistan, Egypt, Gallipoli and India. He gained the rank of honorary Brigadier-General in 1920 in the service of the Indian Army and was made commander of the Everest expeditions in 1922 and 1924.
In the 1920s, Everest was the final frontier for explorers. Both Poles had been reached, but nobody had reached the top of the world’s biggest mountain.
Expeditions in those days were arranged and run by the British Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club in a joint Mount Everest Committee. Brig Charles Bruce was president of the Alpine clubs between 1923-1925 and, because of his experience in the Himalaya, he was appointed leader of the first attempt to summit Everest.
Joining him on both adventures in 1922 and 1924 was his cousin, Geoff Bruce, who was born in St Hilary, near Cowbridge. He, too, was a professional soldier, a Captain in the army, and went on the initial trip as a translator and general organiser.
However, he was roped into an assault on the peak and went to within 122m of the top of Everest in conjunction with George Finch, reaching 8,326m on May 27. The two men used oxygen bottles to aid their effort, but two years later Bruce created a world record by reaching 8,170m with Mallory without the use of oxygen.
Meanwhile the Bruce family’s Olympic connections would continue with another relative – Charles Napier Bruce, who would become the 3rd Lord Aberdare. He became an IOC member and was on the organising committee of the 1948 Games in London.