Great Journeys: Was he the first man to scale Everest?

November 24, 2011
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By Nimish Dubey

Most people become famous by being the first to do something. Or doing something a certain (record) number of times. And yet one of the most famous names in travel history is a man whose greatest achievement is surrounded in mystery. George Herbert Leigh Mallory was one of the best climbers of his period and had made his first attempt on the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest in 1922. However, it was his attempt on the same mountain two years that made him a legend, even though he did not come back alive from it. Books and theses have been written about that attempt, thousands of dollars spent on finding his body and equipment, almost all of them revolving around one central question, a question that has become on the mysteries of modern travel – did George Mallory make it to the top of Mount Everest almost three decades before Hilary and Tenzing did so?

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What we do know is that George Mallory was one of the best known climbers of his era, attracting attention as much for his climbing prowess as for his striking good looks and academic ability (the poet Robert Graves was one of his students at Charterhouse School).  He had been part of the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition and in 1922, had been a part of Brigadier-General Charles Bruce’s team that had attempted to scale Everest, but had to turn back in the face of bad weather and death of several Sherpas, after having achieved a record height. Mallory, however, was said to be obsessed with Everest and when General Bruce announced his plans for an assault on Everest in 1924, Mallory joined the expedition. Many thought that he felt that at the age of 37, it was his last realistic chance to ascend the world’s tallest mountain.


A bad start
However, it seemed that even this attempt of Mallory was jinxed when the first attempt that he made with Bruce had to be aborted on June 1. The next day Howard Somervell and Edward Norton set out for the peak and while Somervell was unable to continue beyond a point, Norton kept going and set a new world record by going as high as nearly 28,130 feet. However, he gave up at that stage, doubting his own ability to go on, and staggered back to the camp with a seriously ill Somervell in tow. Somervell was coughing badly and Norton would be blindly for more than two days after his ordeal – a consequence of his not wearing snow goggles.

Mallory then decided to make another attempt at the peak on June 5, this time accompanied by Sandy Irvine, a relatively inexperienced climber but a very close friend of Mallory. The choice of Irvine was a controversial one with many members of the expedition thinking that the more experience Noel Odell would have been a better option. However, Mallory was adamant and as often happened (he was the celebrity of the expedition, even if he was not its leader), he got his way. It would be a fateful decision.

Mallory makes his move
On June 4, Mallory and Irvine set off from Advanced Base Camp, which was at a height of about 6500 metres. They made good progress and spent the next day resting near the North Col. On June 6, they set off for the next camp on the peak. They reached there too in good time, and as the weather seemed good, it appeared as if Mallory would finally become the first person to stand on the highest point on earth. On June 7, Mallory send down a note to Odell saying that he and Irvine would be starting out for the summit the next day and that he (Odell) should start looking out for them on the mountain at around 8 am (he actually wrote 8 pm, but given the fact that climbing on the mountain in the night was nothing short of suicide, we can safely assume that he meant 8 pm).

The next morning Odell himself climbed a bit on the mountain but as it was covered in mist, saw no sign of Mallory or Irvine. However, when the mists cleared at 12.50 pm, he said he saw both climbers on the mountain, still heading upwards. Judging by Mallory’s note, they were well behind schedule. A concerned Odell got very worried when a squall hit the mountain two hours later. Terrified that the two climbers – who he assumed would be on their way down from the summit – might get lost in the chaos, he actually stood outside his tent, shouting and whistling. He got no reply.

Missing on Everest…
The weather cleared at around 4 pm. And there was no sign of Mallory or Irvine. They would never be seen alive. Odell and other members of the expedition scanned the mountain at night, looking out for distress flares or any other sign of life. There were none. All their searches came to nought. Finally on June 10, Odell who had climbed to a higher level dragged out the sleeping bags from one of Mallory and Irvine’s camps and laid them out in the form of a T – his signal to those watching from below that both climbers were missing.

The expedition climbed down the mountain the next day. However, the mystery of what happened to Mallory and Irvine persists to this day. There are many who believe, based on Odell’s statements, that the pair would have reached the summit and in all probability have perished on the way down. Irvine’s axe was found by an expedition on 1933, further fuelling speculation but no sign of the two climbers itself was found.

…until 1999
So intense did the argument over Mallory get that in 1999,  an expedition set out to find their remains. On May 1, they stumbled across a body with a rope across its waist. As it was below the location where Irvine’s axe had been found, they assumed that it was Irvine’s body. However, an inspection of the body’s clothes revealed the name tag “G. Mallory.”

Seventy five years after he had gone missing, George Mallory had been found.

The debate over whether he had fallen on his way up or down or had abandoned his summit attempt however has not been resolved. Different pundits have different perspectives of the matter.  Mallory’s supporters however keep pointing out that he always carried a picture of his wife on his person, intending to place it on the summit. No trace of the photograph was found on his body. There was no sign either of the camera that Irvine had carried – a camera that the duo would undoubtedly have used to capture their moment of glory. They also point out that Mallory’s goggles were found in his pocket, indicating that he had been descending in the darkness (after all, had not Norton been blinded just a few days earlier when he had not worn them, so why would Mallory not wear them), which would consequently indicate that he did make the summit as he and Irvine were seen near it at noon.

The cynics have for their part have expressed doubts about every part of the story, be it Odell’s sighting of the pair on the mountain or just how well Irvine and Mallory were equipped for the summit bid. Doubts have even been cast on Irvine’s climbing ability and some have even linked him romantically to the man with whom he perished on the world’s tallest mountain.

“Because it is there”
Did Mallory and Irvine make the top of Mount Everest? We do not know to this day. Irvine’s body perhaps is still somewhere out there on the mountain, waiting to be discovered. Who knows, it might even have the camera that everyone believes will clear the matter once and for all (yes, there are those who say that the film can still be developed in spite of being more than 85 years old! Isn’t technology wonderful?).

But until then (and maybe even after), Mallory and Irvine’s effort at Everest will remain one of the most famous ascents in the history of mountaineering. And indeed in the history of travel.

Mallory, of course, will also be remembered for arguably one of the most famous quotes made about Mount Everest. “Why do you want to climb Everest?” he was once asked.

Pat came the famous reply, “Because it is there.”

It still is. There.

And somewhere on it lies the evidence of just how far George Mallory and Sandy Irvine reached that day in June 1924.

Further reading – online

Further reading – books

  • Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory by David Breashears
  • The Lost Explorer – Finding Mallory on Everest by Conrad Aker and David Roberts
  • Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer
  • Ghosts of Everest: The Authorised Story of the Search for Mallory and Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb, Eric Simonson and Larry Johnson
  • The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine by Audrey Salkeld and Tom Hozel

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