“Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain...far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest, the white summit of Everest appeared......a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world.”
George Mallory - 1921
I remain mesmerized by the eyes of George Herbert Leigh Mallory, a century after his mysterious death. Writer Lytton Strachey described him as having “the mystery of Botticeilli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print.”
Mallory was aware of his beauty and had no inhibition at displaying his naked 6 foot tall, muscular frame for the camera. But he was not a statue, but a living man, possessing “...vivacity and a love of adventure...”. He was also known as impetuous, “charismatic and endearingly absent-minded.” Being the greatest climber of his age, it was inevitable that George Mallory should face the greatest mountain..
“The highest of the world's great mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy...other mountains are visible... giants between 23,000 and 26,000 feet high...beside Everest they escape notice.”
George Mallory - 1922
Sixty million years ago the 1 ½ million square miles of the Indian subcontinent began to plow into the
16 million square miles of Asia at 6 inches a year. This massive slow motion collision shoved the one million square miles of the Tibetan Plateau 14,00 feet into the air, and crumpled the land between into the 1,500 mile long 200 mile wide Himalayan mountains (above). In this crumple zone stand nine of the world's ten tallest peaks, including the highest, over five miles above sea level: Mount Everest..
After service in World War One, George Mallory returned to his passionate loves, his wife, Ruth and their two daughters. But his teaching career was not his passion. As Robert Graves noted, “He was wasted..” In 1921 the lure of the distant Himalayans called to George, and he joined the first expedition to explore the approaches to Everest. But these were different mountains than Mallory had known in Europe.
“In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance.”
Climber Harry Tyndale
George learned his art in the Alps, climbing the highest peak in Europe, Mount Blanc, (White Mountain) at 15, 771 feet (above). It had first been “peaked” in 1788, by local hunter Jacques Balmat escorting physician Michel-Gabrial Paccard, who had been trying for five years to take a barometer reading on the summit. It was “an amazing feat of endurance and sustained courage, carried through by these two men...unroped and without ice axes.” Having accomplished his goal, Dr. Paccard never again challenged the mountains so boldly. The egotist Balmat never stopped. He died at the age of 72, falling off a cliff, while searching for gold.
“Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No. . . and yes.”
Justifiably suspicious of their intentions, the tiny mountainous nation of Nepal refused permission for the British surveyors to cross their border. So the British were forced to measure the Himalayans from 100 miles away, making adjustments for haze, temperature and curvature of the earth. Only in 1852, after thousands of field observations had been compiled and compared in deary offices, did Indian mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, realize the distant blur labeled Peak XV was at 29,000 feet, the tallest mountain in the world. So astonished was Andrew Waugh, British Surveyor General of India, he insisted on more observations. Having confirmed Sikdar's work, Waugh decided to name the mountain after his predecessor, George Everest, giving its height as 29,002 feet, to make clear the measurement was an estimate. Thus Andrew Waugh was the first person to put “two feet on top of Everest.”
“He would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve. Whatever may have happened unseen the while between him and the cliff ... the look, and indeed the result, were always the same – a continuous undulating movement so rapid and so powerful that one felt the rock must yield, or disintegrate.”
Climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young
The 1922 British expedition made two attempts at “summitting” without oxygen, but were forced back each time, reaching only 26, 980 feet. The team physician, Dr. Tom Longstaff, warned the oxygen starved climbers could no longer trust their own judgement. But George Mallory was determined to make a third attempt, and on 7 June, 1922, he lead 4 other Brits and 14 Sherpa porters up the north “col” (a ridge between two peaks) above 27,000 feet. In the still clear air George was breaking a path through the previous night's fresh snow, when he saw a snow slope above him give way.
”He was so rhythmical and harmonious...in any steep place ... that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness.”
Writer and Climber Robert Graves
The avalanche engulfed the first tethered group - Mallory, Colin Crawford and Howard Somervell – but they managed to keep their feet. Behind them nine Sherpa porters were swept 40 feet down the slope and into a 60 foot deep ice crevasse. The Europeans struggled to save two of the Sherpas, but six were found dead, and the seventh was lost forever. Longstaff blamed George's impetuousness for the tragedy, and George agreed. He wrote to Ruth, 'The consequences of my mistake are so incredible. It seems impossible to believe it has happened for ever and that I can do nothing to make good. There is no obligation that I have wanted so much to honor as that of taking care of those men.” The expedition arraigned to pay the family of each Sherpa $13 , in quarterly instalments.
“This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die.”
Author and Climber Jon Krakauer
Decades later Canadian Wade Davis wondered who were these first humans to die on Everest. “Sherpas, “ he wrote, “were not born to climb. In their language there is not even a word for mountain summit. They were farmers, descendants of ethnic Tibetans who had settled...on the southern approaches to Everest, in the 15th century. As Buddhists, the idea of risking one’s life, this vital incarnation, in order to crawl over ice and rock into nothingness was for them the epitome of ignorance and delusion.” The Sherpas were climbing, and are still climbing Everest, to provide for their families - nothing more and nothing less.
“There are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction....Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad.”
Author Walt Unsworth
It proved impossible to raise money for another attempt in 1923, in part because the greatest climber in the world, George Mallory (above), showed little enthusiasm.
By a year later George had grown aware that at 37, this would probably be his last chance at the peak. He wrote his father, “I have to look at it from the point of view of loyalty to the expedition, and of carrying through a task begun.” . He added, "To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell.”
And so in early 1924, “With faith and hubris, woefully under-equipped for a battle at high altitude, armed with little more than a length of rope, a straight-picked ax and hobnailed boots,” George Mallory left his wife, his young son John and his two daughters, and headed back to Tibet.
“People ask me, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use.' There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever... What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”
George wrote to Ruth from Base camp, “It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shant get to the top...I feel strong for the battle, but I know every ounce of strength will be wanted.” But the first attempt by Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce failed, and while a second managed to get above 28,000 feet, it too was also forced to turn back. Most of the climbers were ill. The Sherpas were exhausted. There was strength and determination for just one more try.
And, of course, George would be in the lead, with 22 year old geologist, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine (above) on his rope.
“If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”
On 7 June, 1924 Mallory and Irvine set out from Camp 5, carrying several canisters of oxygen, to establish camp 6, before trying for the summit the next day. .Irvine carried a camera and Mallory a photo of Ruth to leave behind, as proof they had summited. Noel Odell snapped a photo as they set off (above). He and three Sherpas were to follow, bringing up more oxygen to the 26,000 foot level.
“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.”
Author Jon Krakauer
After a night spent at Camp Six. at the Mushroom Rock, the path to the summit for Mallory and Irvine was a 2, 000 foot vertical climb (above). First there was a steep hike over crumbly yellow limestone slabs on "The Yellow Band". Then there was a 100 foot high vertical wall of harder rock – the First Step. This was followed by a gently sloping ridge, ending in another 100 foot high wall – the Second Step. This led to an easy slope and an easy Third Step, the pyramid and then a walk to the summit itself. Both men had made far more difficult climbs before. But this one was at 28,000 feet above sea level, in the “death zone”.
“One comes to bless the absolute bareness, feeling that here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.”
George Mallory – Letter to Ruth
Just before one in the afternoon of 9 June, before setting out from Camp 5 , Noel Odell would see “...a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge (the Second Step) ; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more. There was but one explanation. It was Mallory and his companion...”
At that moment Mallory and Irvine were within 800 vertical feet of the summit of the world.
"After nearly twenty years' knowledge of Mallory as a mountaineer, I can say that difficult as it would have been for any mountaineer to turn back... to Mallory it would have been an impossibility."
Climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young
Certain Mallory was going to succeed, Odell and the Sherpas set out with the additional oxygen, expecting to celebrate with Mallory and Irvine at Camp 6. After several ardours hours Odell and the Sherpas made it, but found the single tent empty. When a snow squall blew up, Odell ventured 200 feet higher, calling and whistling, trying to lead the summit team back to safety. There was no answer. There never would be. In a few hours Odell and the Sherpas were forced to return to Camp 6, and the next day all the way down to Camp 4. Neither Andrew Irvine nor George Mallory were ever seen alive again.
At 7:30 on the evening of 19 June, 1924 a telegram arrived at Mallory's home in Cambridge. The next morning Ruth (above) invited all three children into her bed, and only then told them together their father had died. They all cried together. No one in that house ever asked the question if Mallory or Irvine had made it to the summit or not. But with time, and with failure after failure to summit Everest, the question would be asked: Had they made it?
Climber Dr. Tom Longstaff
Everest was not challenged again until 1933, when three attempts at the summit were made: all failed. However an empty oxygen tank was found at 27,760 feet, just 200 yards below the First Step, and a distinctive ice axe, known to have belonged to Andrew Irvine, was found nearby. After the Second World War another post war generation was drawn to challenge the mountain. And in 1949, Nepal opened its borders for one expedition each year. Now the far easier southern route to the summit could be attempted.
In May of 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillery and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (above) reached the summit of Mt Everest, “together, as a team.”
Writer Lytton Strachey
The mystery of George Mallory endured for 72 years, until 1 May 1998, when an expedition found George Herbert Leigh Mallory's mummified corpse frozen into the 30 degree broken rock slope, 1,000 feet below where Irvine's ax had been found 60 years earlier. From his injuries it seemed George had fallen while roped to Irvine. In the plunge Mallory broke both bones in his right leg. The rope connecting him to Andrew Irvine had bruised his waist before snapping under the strain.
Mallory's powerful arms were raised above his head, his fingers and ice ax scraping across the broken slope to slow his fall. Then the ax caught on a stone for a moment, before recoiling back, driving the spiked tail into his forehead. His descent slowed and stopped. “Pain and hypothermia rapidly take over. Within minutes, Mallory is dead.” Irving must have died shortly there after, and still lies undiscovered, frozen into the mountain. But we still do not know if Mallory got to the top.
Climber Dr. Tom Longstaff
Everest has become a character of the mountain George Mallory was drawn to challenge. It is now littered with discarded oxygen tanks, abandoned tents, medical waste, trash bags, bags of human poop, the residue of 4,000 climbers, over 700 of whom summit and the bodies of dead on the upper slopes, left where they fell. Until 1987 climbers on Everest had a 37% death rate. But improvements in clothing and equipment, and preparation work on the trails by Sherpas have dropped that death rate to less than 1% in 2012. Over half of all climbers now summit, so that even the rich but untrained can be “guided” to the top of the world. .
“To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don't get down again”.
John Mallory – George Mallory's son