“The greatest danger in life is not to take the adventure.” George Leigh Mallory
“From boyhood he belonged to the mountains, as flame belongs to fire. He lived their romance, their simplicity, their open power, their unchanging loveliness. As a mountaineer he was a genius.”-Geoffrey Winthrop Young
George Mallory was the best climber of his day and would without doubt challenge today’s climbing heroes were he alive today. Some of the routes set with his friend Harold Porter were rated by modern English climbers as “very severe” and thought to require “a level of boldness and commitment that would be foreign to most rock climbers today.” His climbing inspired many a lyrical compliment from fellow climbers. Porter said that George climbed with “that miraculous ease and grace which I had already learnt to admire.” Harry Tyndale, who also climbed with Mallory stated that “In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance; so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place… that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness.” Mallory’s close friend Geoffrey Winthrop Young added that “His movement in climbing was entirely his own. It contradicted all theory. 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.”
Clearly Mallory was a master mountaineer. But how did he get there?
The son of a clergyman, Mallory’s first climbing exploit came at the bold age of seven when he succeeded in summiting the roof of his father’s church in his birth village of Mobberley, England. His sister Avie mentioned that “he climbed everything that it was at all possible to climb.” On one occasion, he led his brother Trafford onto the roof of the church, and while George was able to climb down to safety, a ladder was brought to rescue Trafford.
At Winchester College and later at Cambridge, George excelled not only academically, but in sports as well. He played soccer, rowed, was a member of the shooting team, and became the best gymnast at his school. At Cambridge he was eventually elected captain of the boat club.
George said before his first Cambridge exams that he was always “happiest on the eve of the fray- it is a stimulus which suits me,” a statement that carries over well to the thrill of sport and mountaineering.
Mallory was introduced to climbing at Winchester by his “senior master” Graham Irving- a tutor at the school and member of the Alpine Club. Irving took the 17 year old George and another student at the school, Harry Gibson, on a summer climbing holiday in the Alps.
Their first attempt was on Mont Velan, and although it failed as both George and Gibson became altitude sick, they did enjoy an exceptional view of the sunrise over the Mont Blanc. George said of the experience that it “was a perfectly delightful pink; and we watched it spread over a range of peaks with infinite delight.”
They were still able to climb several major peaks including the Mont Blanc. George said of the Mont Blanc: “A great mountain is always greater than we know; it has mysteries, surprises, hidden purposes; it holds always something in store for us.” It was an intense and beautiful introduction to mountaineering for George.
He returned again the following summer with Irving and another group and further developed his mountaineering skills.
During his time at Cambrdige, Charles Sayle, the under-librarian and founding member of the climbing club encouraged George to climb in Wales, a place he would revisit several times in the course of his youth.
In 1909 George climbed with Geoffrey Winthrop Young, one of the era’s greatest mountaineers who had established several new and difficult ascents in the Alps. Young would become one of George’s closest friends. Together they gallivanted through the Alps, accomplishing new and challenging ascents along the way. George also survived a 40 foot fall (which in those days could have easily snapped the rope). Climbing in that era was especially dangerous as equipment and safety techniques were poorly developed. Small mistakes could lead to fatalities.
Back in Birkenhead, England, George broke his right ankle while rock climbing. The injury weakened his ankle for the rest of his life. George was looking at a new route when one of his fellow climbers, as George told “jeered greatly; so of course I obliged to make the attempt at once.” He limped around for months afterwards and as he admitted to Young, the injury was ultimately caused by his unwillingness to back down from a challenge.
Between 1910 and 1912 George spent summers climbing in the Alps and during the year went to Pen y Pass, a popular climbing site in England. In 1912, on his 6th trip to the Alps, he set 3 first ascents, but the poor weather and conditions took the life of four friends (none who he was climbing with, but who were on other exploits).
World War I forced Mallory to take a break from climbing, as he served as a 2nd lieutenant of the Royal Garrison Artillery. But he was back to climbing (at Pen y Pass and in the Alps) immediately after. He set new routes and took some of his students with him. Tragically few of the climbers from the pre-World War I parties had survived the war, and of those who did many were injured. This included Mallory’s good friend Geoffrey Young, who lost one of his legs. He continued to climb despite the handicap, but would never again be able to attempt the difficult climbs of his pre-war years.
In the summer of 1920 George partnered for some climbing in the Alps for the first time with Australian born climber George Finch. Finch would later become a central figure in the attempts on Everest as the greatest proponent of oxygen. He was often criticized for his unconventional methods and “long hair” and ultimately his climbing style and eccentricities led to him not being invited back for the third Everest Expedition.
On the 23rd of January, 1921 George received a letter from Percy Farrar, the secretary and former president of the Alpine Club and now a member of the Mt. Everest Committee. “It looks as though Everest would really be tried this summer. Party would leave early April and get back in October. Any aspirations?”
George hesitated. He had already been separated from Ruth for 16 months during the war and knew of the anxiety this had caused her. He had three children, a wife he loved, and a home.
He was going to say no, but Young (who wished himself he could go) came to talk to him about what a grand opportunity this was and how “the label of Everest” could help him in any profession he chose to pursue afterwards. Ruth heard all of this, and told George to go.
And so the first of three expeditions George would take part in began. Of his first view of Everest, George remarked, “we paused here in sheer astonishment. Perhaps we had half expected to see Mount Everest at this moment. In the back of my mind were a host of questions about it clamouring for answers. But the sight of it now banished every thought. We forgot the stony wastes and regrets for other beauties. We asked no questions and made no comments, but simply looked.” It was, in Mallory’s words, “a prodigious mountain mass… a great bluntly pointed snow peak with a much steeper north face than people have made out.” And it had “the most stupendous ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen… all the talk of easy snow slopes is a myth.”
George would later say of Everest that “it has greatness beyond our guessing- genius, if you like- that indefinable something about a mountain to which we know but one response, the spirit of adventure.”
To find the best route to the summit of Everest, George and his climbing partner Guy Bullock spent weeks exploring the network of glaciers flowing from Everest’s northern and western flank. This included the Rongbuk glacier and its branches which forms the great Rongbuk valley north of Mt. Everest. George and Bullock set up a base camp at the end of the Glacier (16,500 feet ) and an advanced base camp further up the glacier (17,800 feet). George said that the primary difficulty was that the glaciers they were dealing with were far more complex and hazardous than those they had explored in the Alps. This on top of the heat of the sun reflected by the ice and the extreme altitude was absolutely exhausting. George wrote of the matter that “ it was a new sensation to find it an almost impossible exertion to drag oneself up a matter of 150 feet.”
They focused their efforts on a ridge on the eastern side of the Rongbuk Glacier. It came down northwards from Everest to an outlying peak, which they named North Peak (now known as Changtse). At approximately 23,000 feet there was a dip in the ridge, which they dubbed the North Col. The thought that if they reached the North Col they could follow the north ridge to a point where it met Everest’s northeast ridge. And from there, all steps to the summit.
The slopes descending from the North Col to the Rongbuk glacier were full of perilous rifts and crevasses. Bullock and George searched for an alternative. They explored glaciers to the west of the mountain, traveling down a tributary they called the West Rongbuk Glacier. They managed to surmount the Lho La pass, between two lesser peaks, Lingtren and Pumori, and from there gaze into the frozen valley at the foot of Everest’s southwest face. They named it the Western Cwm. George wrote that it was “terribly cold and forbidding.” George thought the southeast ridge provided the best route to the summit, but they could not reach it since the access through Nepal was forbidden, and the access from their vantage point a “hopeless precipice.” It was a foretelling moment, for this was the route Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay would take 32 years later to reach the summit and come back alive.
They continued exploring the network of glaciers, this time from the east. They wanted to see east face, they wanted to find another route to North Col. On top of all of this they had to train the porters to be adept on ice. And eventually, Charles Howard-Bury, the leader of the expedition, reduced the quantities of their supplies for the porters so Bullock and George paid from their own pockets.
George wrote of the whole process: “we set out to gain a point of view with particular questions to be answered; partial answers and a new point of view stimulated more curiosity, other questions, and again the necessity to reach a particular place whence we imagine they might best be answered.”
After days and days of searching, George became sick, “almost certainly a result of pushing himself too hard”. There was still some exploring to do, but George was too unwell to go. Bullock went instead, leaving George quite frustrated, “it seemed I was to miss the climax- the joy of wresting from the mountain its final secret and to hand over the responsibility of deciding the line of assault to my second in command.”
They finally found the branch of the Rongbuk Glacier (known as the East Rongbuk Glacier) that provided the access to the North Col.
They won the North Col on September 24th. But, the monsoon was upon them already and the members of expedition were suffering from effects of long time at altitude. The North Col was the first key to reaching summit, but Mallory wanted more. George with Bullock and another member of the expedition, E.O. Wheeler, dared venture onto the col to take a few steps towards the summit. However, the wind proved to be too much, and they turned around. The 1921 expedition would go no higher.
The expedition failed to fulfill George’s expectations. He wrote to Geoffrey Young of his dream of “a few determined spirits setting forth from our perched camp on that high pass, crawling up at least to a much higher point where the summit itself would seem almost within reach, and coming down tired but not dispirited-satisfied, rather, just with the effort.” But there was a “terrible difference” between that and “the reality as we had found it, the blown snow endlessly swept over the gray slopes- just the grim prospect, no respite and no hope.”
Nevertheless, George and Bullock had spent three months scouring the best possible route to Everest through every glacier and up every pass. They were at altitude a very long time, experiencing extreme exertion and long days. They not only found access to the mountain, but initiated the route up its desolate slopes. It was undeniably quite a success.
Barely reunited with Ruth, George learned that the 2nd expedition would leave in February of 1922.
This time there would be improvements in equipment, in the training of the Sherpas, and a controversial supplement- oxygen cylinders.
At this time, George thought the oxygen was an “artificial” aid. George related that when he thought of mountaineering “with four cylinders of oxygen on one’s back and a mask over one’s face…well, it loses its charm.”
On the other hand, George Finch, the ‘oxygen officer’, argued the oxygen was not any more artificial an aid than goggles, or boots.
The attack this year was set up differently. The party would establish a series of camps along the route to the summit. Once the camps were established and stocked, the climbers would move through them and then on to the summit.
On the first attempt, they were stopped by cold wind, and fresh snow. The going was slow and they turned around at just under 27,000 feet. This was higher than anyone had ever climbed.
It was on the descent that disaster almost striked. Mallory was in the lead cutting steps when suddenly an exhausted Morshead slipped, dragging Norton and Somervell with him. Mallory responded immediately, plunging his ice axe into the slope and twisting a coil of rope around it, and leaning on it all with his entire weight. The axe held and their lives were saved.
George wrote of this descent, referring to his decision not to glissade “We were not playing with this mountain. It might be playing with us.”
To make matters worse, when they arrived to the tents at the North Col they realized the porters had taken away the pans they needed to melt snow. In their parched state, they could not even drink. The next day when they reached Camp 4 Somervell reportedly drank 17 cups of tea. They were utterly spent and most of them suffered some form of frostbite.
Finch and Bruce then made an attempt with oxygen and reached a height of 27,300 ft.
The expedition could have ended there; the end of May was coming and with that the onset of the monsoon. Signs were that monsoon was arriving early. But, George, Finch, and Somervell were going to make an oxygen attempt. Finch had to abandon last minute as he acquired dysentery. On June 7th George, Somervell, and Crawford (another member of the expedition) set out. They were wary of avalanche danger following the snowfall. They tread cautiously and conducted tests of the snow pack as they went up. But, early in the afternoon George heard a sound like “an explosion of gunpowder”, and an avalanche rushed through. George and his fellow climbers were spared, but seven of nine porters were swept over a cliff and killed. This brought the attempt and the expedition to an abrupt and tragic end.
George felt guilty and responsible. He wrote: “The consequences of my mistake are so terrible, it seems almost impossible to believe that it has happened for ever and that I can do nothing to make good. There is no obligation I have so much wanted to honour as that of taking care of these men. They are children where mountain dangers are concerned, and they do so much for us; and now through my fault seven of them have been killed.”
George attributed the mistake to a lack of snow condition knowledge, but in retrospect, could not see what he could have done differently in the moment. He did his best; he conducted tests that he thought would apply to the entire slope. But, in looking back he remarked that “one generalizes from too few observations.”
The decision to go a third time was difficult one. George could stay with his wife, children, a new home, and a teaching position at Cambridge or endure the separation from it all once more. Ruth was anxious about his going again, and with good reason. Nonetheless, she felt he should see the task through because he had an “emotional investment in the mountain.”
Sandy Irvine, whose name was destined to be heard with Mallory’s for the rest of time, was chosen as the last climber of the chosen five. He was 21 years old, and the youngest selected in any of three expeditions. He was as athletic and inexperienced as his youth would suggest. As a bonus, he was an excellent chemist and engineer, which proved very useful for the maintenance and improvement of the oxygen apparatus.
George enjoyed the company of this expedition the best. His only worry was that now, at age 38, his fitness was not that of his youth.
Originally a separate oxygen and oxygen-less attempt were planned, but George suggested both go at the same time, with the oxygen-less party leaving from higher up on the mountain. The idea was that the two parties would meet at the summit. George would have rather gone without oxygen, as expressed in letter to Ruth, but he thought that to have all the chances of reaching the summit oxygen should be used “It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shan’t get to the top; I can’t see myself coming down defeated.” And he wanted to lead the oxygen party. George had to choose a partner. It was between Odell and Irvine, since both had knowledge of the oxygen apparatus.
Irvine was continually repairing and adjusting the oxygen apparatuses. Perhaps, because of his enthusiasm and athleticism, he was to George a reflection of his younger self. In addition to being very practical with the oxygen sets he repaired a plethora of other things- cameras, crampons, and stoves among them. Irvine took about five pounds off of the apparatus and made it more comfortable for carrying.
Unforeseen days of bad weather, worse than any in 1922 slowed their progress. Once, the thermometer dropped down to -21.5 degree Fahrenheit. George, Somervell, Irvine, and Odell spent a day in a tent sheltered from the storm at Camp 3 reading poems to each other.
Many of the porters quit because of the extreme weather. They suffered from frostbite, injuries from falls, and snow-blindness. The prospective summit dates were pushed back.
John Noel noted, that during the inactivity due to the storm George “seemed ill at ease, always scheming and planning. It was obvious to me he felt this setback more acutely than any of us.”
Norton said of George that “the energy and fire of the man were reflected in his every gesture, and none doubted his fitness to go as high as any.”
When they were finally able to set out, they got to Camp 3, but no further. The storms and terrible temperatures returned. Out of 55 porters, 15 were fit enough to go the North Col and above. No supplies had been carried above Camp 3. Somervell, Irvine, and George had extremely sore throats and hacking coughs. All odds seemed against them. But, they were still going to give it a go.
In his last letter to Ruth, George wrote: “I look back on tremendous efforts and exhaustion and dismay looking out of a tent door on to a world of snow and vanishing hopes- and yet, and yet, and yet there have been a good many thanks to set on the other side. The party has played up wonderfully.”
He described events and setbacks of the previous weeks, his fall into a crevasse, and ended with: “the candle is burning out and I must stop. Darling I wish you the best I can- that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this- with the best news, which will also be the quickest. It is 50 to 1 against but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud.
Great love to you, ever your loving George.”
It was now decided that their energy would be focused on oxygen-less attempts. The first team consisting of Bruce and George, the second of Norton and Somervell. George and Bruce’s attempt ended in disappointment as the porters would go no further when a strong wind confronted them. They were never able to establish a Camp 5 or 6 (around 27,000 feet) which would be necessary for the assault on the summit. Unable to persuade the exhausted porters they turned around. They met up with Norton and Somervell on their way up.
Somervell, suffering from a hacking cough had to stop 1000 feet below the summit, while Norton was able to continue one more hour to reach a point 800-900 feet under the summit. Here he turned around knowing he would not reach the summit and come back before nightfall.
On his return to camp 3, George had already decided he would make one more attempt. This time, as he had planned before the setbacks, with Irvine and the oxygen.
Norton thought George should take Odell who was fitter, better acclimatized, and more experienced. While Irvine, Norton argued, was inexperienced and still suffering from a parched throat and sunburned face. George said he picked Irvine because of his familiarity with and trust in the oxygen equipment.
On June 6th, 1924 George and Irvine set off in clear weather from Camp 4 after a breakfast of fried sardines, biscuits, chocolate, and tea. Eight porters climbed with them, carrying food, bedding, and oxygen cylinders. They stayed at Camp 5 that night and continued to Camp 6 on June 7th. George wrote two notes that were delivered by the porters on their descent- one for John Noel and one for Noel Odell.
To John Noel: “We’ll probably start early tomorrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won’t be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8pm. Yours ever, G. Mallory.”
Most people agree that Mallory meant to write 8 a.m. instead of p.m, which would agree in timing with an early morning start.
To Noel Odell: “We’re awfully sorry to have left things in such a mess-our Unna Cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment. Be sure of getting back to IV to-morrow in time to evacuate by dark, as I hope to. In the tent I must have left a compass- for the Lord’s sake rescue it: we are here without. To here on 90 atmospheres for the 2 days- we’ll probably go on 2 cylinders- but it’s a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job! Yours ever, G. Mallory”
Odell climbed in support of George and Irvine from camp five to six. At 12:50 p.m. Odell sighted them from a crag at around 26,000 feet.
He noted in his diary: “At 12.50 saw M & I on ridge nearing base of final pyramide.”
(See my previous entry for discussion of what Odell saw: https://itisalwayssunrisesomewhere.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/george-mallory-the-mystery/.)
“The entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled,” Odell wrote to the Times a week after Mallory and Irvine had disappeared. “My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black dot moved. Another black dot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The firs 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.”
Odell went further up the face, but clouds prevented him from seeing George and Irvine again. At 4:30 p.m. he went back down to the North Col. There was still no sign of the two climbers.
For 48 hours the members of the expedition waited for Mallory and Irvine.
Around noon on the 9th Odell started a search with two porters. They found camps five and six as they had been left exactly two days before. Odell searched a couple more hours, but finally accepted there was no more hope of finding the two men.
Odell had established a system of signals to communicate the outcome of his search to lower camps. He made a “t” out of sleeping bags to signify: “no trace can be found- given up hope.” Hazard saw this from the North Col and made a cross with six blankets to communicate to those waiting at camp three. John Noel said “we all looked, we all tried to make it different. But it was plainly a cross on the white snow.”
On the 19th of June, Ruth received a telegram with the dreadful news. She waited to tell the children, who were already in bed, until the following day. When they woke, she gathered them in her bed and told them. They all cried together.
George’s close friend, Geoffrey Winthrop Young was convinced that he had conquered Everest. He wrote: “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, with the only difficulty past, to Mallory it would have been an impossibility.”
George Mallory’s contribution to mountaineering was enormous, in all the routes he set, the difficulties he managed with grace and poise, his survey and attempts of Everest, and most notably in his indomitable spirit- his thirst for adventure, his passion for pushing boundaries,and his undertaking of mountaineering as more than just a sport, but an art form and a way of life.
“In the ordinary way I find a close correspondence between the intensity of the struggle and the keenness of enjoyment.”-George Leigh Mallory
“We will stomp to the top with the wind in our teeth.” –George Leigh Mallory
The Wildest Dream by Peter and Leni Gilman and Climbing Everest by George Leigh Mallory