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Heroism, sacrifice, defeat? The enduring mystery of George Mallory’s final Everest attempt
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Heroism, sacrifice, defeat? The enduring mystery of George Mallory’s final Everest attempt

On the morning of 6 June, 1924, George Mallory – one of the world’s greatest mountaineers – set off with his companion, Sandy Irvine, from a camp on the slopes of Mount Everest and headed for its summit.

A veteran of three British Everest expeditions, Mallory knew the world’s highest mountain better than any other climber at the time. He had come close to death there on three occasions.

Two days later, the pair were seen by fellow climber Noel Odell as two small black dots moving up a ridge thousands of feet above him and near to the top of Everest. Then the mist rolled in. Mallory and Irvine were never seen alive again.

Britain had hoped to celebrate the success of the Everest expedition but was instead consumed with grief when news of the deaths reached home. National mourning culminated in a memorial service at St Paul’s attended by King George V. It was the first and only time in British history that mountaineers had been so honoured, says Wade Davis in his majestic account of the 1924 expedition, Into the Silence.

The loss of Mallory and Irvine – whose 100th anniversary will be marked in a few weeks – provided Britain once more with a powerful legend imbued with heroism, sacrifice and noble defeat, one that is tinged, in this case, with mystery. How did the pair die? Were they descending after a triumphal ascent of Everest or were they caught just short of conquering the mountain?

Mallory and Irvine leaving North Col for the last climb.View image in fullscreen

It is a remarkable story, says Jamie Owen of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). “It represents human struggle against the elements; it means teamwork; working with and understanding other cultures, and it means showing respect for the mountain and the environment, which, I am afraid to say, we have sorely lost touch with today.”

To mark the centenary, RGS events will include an exhibition of photographs and artefacts from the expedition, an anniversary lecture, and the publication of a book, Everest 24: New Views on the 1924 Mount Everest Expedition.

A hundred years ago, Britain’s leaders were keen to show the world that the nation was capable of conquering the planet’s extremities. The country had been beaten by America to the north pole in 1909, in contentious circumstances, and to the south pole in tragic circumstances in 1911 by Norway. Everest was deemed to be the third pole and its conquest viewed as a means of restoring the reputation of British exploration.

As a result, plans were being prepared to conquer the world’s highest peak only a few months after Armistice Day in 1918 with the nation still reeling from the dreadful impact of the first world war. Organised by the Everest committee, a joint organisation set up by the RGS and the Alpine Club, these expeditions were manned by survivors of the trenches, men who had seen friends slaughtered in their hundreds during the Somme, Ypres and other battles and for whom the grim conditions they would experience on Everest were nothing to their suffering in France.

Expeditions were mounted in 1921, 1922 and finally 1924. The 1921 outing surveyed the Himalayas on an unprecedented scale, with 12,000 square miles of unexplored territory being mapped on a quarter-inch scale – laying the foundations for decades to come for future expeditions. “That work is still being used, revised, updated, so it provides a baseline for understanding the region to this day,” says Owen. “It was a tremendous legacy.”

Mallory, climbing with Guy Bullock and Edward Wheeler, made a bid for the summit in 1921 but only reached a height of 23,000ft before being forced back. The 1922 expedition saw Mallory – climbing with Edward Strutt – reach a height of 26,800ft. This was a world record – though it lasted less than a week when fellow expedition members George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, a novice climber, reached a height of over 27,000ft, thanks to their use of oxygen. The expedition ended in tragedy when an avalanche swept seven porters to their death on 7 June.

Finch and Bruce’s success had crucial consequences, however. The use of oxygen had originally been dismissed. “Only rotters would use oxygen,” wrote one Everest committee member at the time. But the fact that it had helped a completely inexperienced climber reach a world record elevation led to its use in 1924, when Mallory and Irvine were both kitted out with cylinders on their final climb.

That whole expedition had been dogged by illness and poor planning, however. “It is 50 to 1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet & do ourselves proud,” Mallory wrote in his last letter to his wife, Ruth. Irvine’s body has never been found but Mallory’s was eventually discovered in May 1999, 75 years after his disappearance, at a height of 26,800ft. His goggles, wristwatch, altimeter and monogrammed handkerchief were also recovered.

However his camera, which might have contained photographic evidence to show the pair did actually reach the summit of Everest, was missing. In addition, a photograph of Ruth, which he had carried throughout his Everest expeditions and which he had pledged to leave on its peak, was also absent.

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So did Mallory and Irvine die on their way up Everest or were they killed during their descent after conquering the mountain? The missing camera and photograph do not rule out the suggestion that they succeeded. In general, most climbers accept that it is possible – but improbable – that they got to the top.

A letter from George Mallory to Captain Noel the day before he disappeared on Everest - ‘Dear Noel, we’ll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won’t be too early to start looking out for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8pm. Yours ever, G MalloryView image in fullscreen

As to the lessons learned from the 1924 expedition, two key points emerge. While early expeditions treated local people as mere porters, their hardiness and mountaineering skills brought them increasing respect so that by 1953 when Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary conquered Everest, they shared the glory for the feat. “The Everest narrative is now gradually falling under the control of Sherpas, both on and off the mountain,” states Tenzing’s son Norbu in the introduction to Everest 24.

The second point concerns the physical changes that have taken place on Everest. These are demonstrated starkly by the photographs that were taken in 1921 as part of the survey work that underpinned the 1922 and 1924 expeditions. The ridges and cols around Everest glisten with snow in these images and vast columns of ice litter the path to its summit.

But not today. Ice has disappeared in staggering amounts and at an astonishing rate since Mallory and Irvine struggled over its glaciers and plateaux, surveys have discovered. The mountain’s great South Col glacier, which sits at about 26,000ft above sea level, is thinning at a rate 80 times faster than it formed – thanks to global heating.

Scientists now predict that the South Col glacier may disappear by 2050, which would mean Everest’s high reaches would be bare, black bedrock by the time the next centenary celebrations take place – to mark the mountain’s final conquest by Hillary and Tenzing in May 1953.

Mallory left one other notable legacy, however. On a fundraising tour of the US, he was bombarded with questions by press and fans for days on end. Why do you want to climb Everest, he was asked endlessly. On one occasion he snapped back: “Because it’s there.”

These have since become the three most famous words in mountaineering and have taken on a meta­physical resonance that has led them to being “inscribed on memorials, quoted in sermons, and cited by princes and presidents”, according to Davis. Yet their origins were almost certainly more prosaic, and they were probably snarled as a put-down in a bar to get rid of “a bore who stood between him and a much needed drink”.

Source: theguardian.com