“Just to lie here in the sun with great white peaks all around me and the biggest glacier in Europe at my feet, to eat from time to time, to sleep a little and dream a great deal- it is a heavenly existence.”-George Leigh Mallory
“His great desire was for the spirit of man to exercise itself as freely and fearlessly and joyously as a climber on a hill.”– Cottie Sanders, close friend of George in his youth
The part of George Mallory that I love the most is George the dreamer. But, as much as I like to think he may be half-mortal, half-divinity, it is also the part of him that conflicts me the most. It is one of the great paradoxes of life that our dreams should so often separate us from our loved ones. For great ambition is an insatiable beast. To what extent should it be fed?
Perhaps George’s least admirable role was as a husband and father. Though he loved his wife and children dearly, he was absent much of the time. Ruth struggled with their long and frequent separations, but she approved and supported all of George’s ventures.
Peter and Leni Gillman, authors of George’s biography The Wildest Dream, said of Ruth that she was “generous and sympathetic, always trying to put herself in other people’s place, and feeling their hurts as if they were her own. She believed in the importance of honesty and of telling the truth. Ruth saw these qualities reflected in George, especially his emotional honesty and his readiness to bare his soul.” David Pye, a friend and biographer of George, said of the couple that “seldom were two people more perfectly adapted to the purpose of modifying, rounding off, and completing each other” and he felt that George’s marriage with Ruth made George a whole person.
Just six days after their marriage, World War One began. “I feel so mixed up when I think of it” George wrote to a friend when he decided to join the British Army, “not wanting perfect safety for my own sake because I prefer adventure and want anyway to share those risks with my friends; but thinking so very differently where Ruth comes in. I’m afraid she’ll feel very sore when I’m out there.” After so many of his students had joined, George felt obliged to go too, but was conflicted about leaving Ruth behind. After World War One, George wrote to Ruth right before returning from France that “the only possible jar to our happiness will be my personal ambitions… You must be patient with me, my dearest one.” He acknowledged that he by nature preferred adventure and risk, but was not sure how to reconcile his personal desires with his relationship with Ruth.
Fortunately for George, Ruth was very patient. Clare, George’s eldest daughter, attested that she was also remarkably good at suppressing her anxieties and hiding her fears. All qualities that enabled George to be less conflicted while on his adventures.
Clearly, the great conflict of George’s life was choosing between pursuing his mountaineering exploits and spending more time with his wife and growing children. George went to Everest, not one, not two, but three times. In his letters from the expeditions it was apparent that George was both thrilled by his adventures and grieved at his separation from Ruth and the children. He ended a letter, “Lord, how I have wanted you to see all this with me.” But, he could not bring them with him. So he went on his own and was well aware of the risks.
George’s close friend Geoffrey Winthrop Young once wrote that “human relations are more precious than mountains.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement in theory, but in practice it becomes delicate. If human relations were more important than mountains, wouldn’t George just stay at home (assuming that he too agreed with the statement)? But, in George’s case, it is apparent that in his relation to Ruth, lay a foundation for the support of his exploits. I have often been perplexed by relationships of this kind because mountaineers with spouses and dependent children repeatedly risk their lives for the personal challenges and euphorias of mountain tops. It seems that it is not that either mountains or relationships are more important than the other, but that the mountains and the experiences they provide are a defining part of the human. And without the human there cannot be a relation. It was in George’s essence to go to the mountains, and though he could have stayed home and not gone to Everest, it would have likely made him quite unhappy. It was in his character to not be held back. George could not be George if he stayed. In all likeliness it would be more conflicting and frustrating for him to stay. But, then what about Ruth? Would not having George at home make her happy? Would having an unhappy George at home make her happy? In the end probably better to bear the separation. But what about the children? Did George rob them of a father figure for most of their lives? Ruth wanted to marry George, but it was not the children’s decision to be born. How can one live out ones dreams without hurting those one loves? In a perfect world, I suppose the people in a relationship of George and Ruth’s nature can let each other be each other to the fullest extent of their ambitions, with minimal suffering on both sides, and still be able to partake in each other’s lives and persons. But, when is it ever a perfect world? Compromise and sacrifice will inevitably have to make an appearance. And I suppose that if they are founded in love, that is not such a bad thing.
I don’t mean to say what is wrong or what is right, but merely to attempt to discuss and decipher this paradox of the human condition…I would love to hear your input!
Originally Ruth and George had decided that after his 1923 lecture tour in America, George would come home and find a steady job. But the plan for a third Everest expedition was already in the works and George was in high demand to participate.
George’s indecision was no different than it had been before he joined the British Army for World War One. He wrote to Arthur Hinks, secretary of the Mount Everest Committee that he was “having a horrible time on a tight rope.” To Ruth he said “It is wretched not being able to talk to you about this, darling. You must tell me if you can’t bear the idea of my going again and that will settle it anyway.” He wanted the decision to be made for him. He could stay home with his family, new home, and a teaching position at Cambridge or leave again for Everest, suffer another separation, and risk it all.
Clare, George’s daughter said of Ruth that “she was very uneasy about him going for the last time. She had premonitions. Financially it was very worrying. But she also felt he should finish the job. My father had made an emotional investment in the mountain. If someone else had got to the top… She told me it was partly because of the porters being killed. He had always felt so guilty about that and he had learned so much more about snow conditions as a result.” She said Ruth was “always proud of what he [George] had done, how he had done what he thought was the best thing possible. In a very honourable sense, he had done what he thought was right.”
Before the expedition of 1924, George reportedly asked to see Kathleen Scott, widow of Captain Robert Scott the Antarctic explorer. He was clearly distraught after the meeting and told the Youngs that he didn’t want to return to Everest. Geoffrey Keynes said George told him the expedition would be “more like war than adventure, and that he did not believe he would return alive.” These statements are a stark contrast to George’s more frequent exaltations of mountain adventure.
But, if George decided not to go on the third expedition, he would have probably regretted it for the rest of his life. Ruth knew that and George knew that Ruth knew.
George himself said that “I suppose we go to Mount Everest, granted the opportunity, because – in a word – we can’t help it.”
In 1923 on a lecture tour in America George answered a reporter’s question of “Why do you want to climb Everest?” with his infamous “Because it is there.” Some debate the reporter’s accuracy in reporting this quote, but George went on to say that “its [Everest’s] existence is a challenge.” And in George’s lexicon a challenge was no different than an invitation.
Peter and Leni Gillman argued that “If he went back to Ruth with Everest unclimbed, he could face the anguish of wondering whether he should leave her and his children and their home for yet another try. He could not see how he could inflict that on her again. It was only by making another attempt now that he could be true to Ruth and all they had gone through together, and to the ideals of honesty and integrity they had expressed that were embodied in their love. It was also the only way he knew of redeeming the suffering he had caused Ruth: if he climbed Everest, the conflict at the core of their marriage, the conflict between his dreams and their love, would be reconciled.”
I take this argument to mean that George could not give himself wholly to his family without giving himself wholly to the task of Everest first. How could George bear the haunting thought of “I could have” the rest of his life? But, is that wanting too much? Is it right? Is it the way things should be? Could the relation be right with the pull of the mountain still looming?
I cannot answer these questions, and I suppose that the means of dealing with these conflicts is variable in the many contexts in which they surface. George and Ruth are simply an example of one such circumstance.
In the end, the certainty is that George died chasing his dreams and that the loss of such a resplendent being was a tragic one. He graced the lives of many, and as I can attest, still does today. One could say Mallory was in love with too much, but I think his unquenchable desire to live is a true inspiration.
“I wanted to get to know him so much,” said George’s eldest daughter Clare, “he was such an interesting person.”
Ruth and Geoffrey Young suffered enormously and helped each other cope with George’s death. Geoffrey wrote that George had been his “mountain sunlight, the light of almost passionate hope and reassurance” and that he was now “alone left in the twilight of my gradual surrender of the radiant life we both loved.”
Ruth wrote to Geoffrey: “A lot of the time I feel numbed and quite unable to realize, there is only just a pain. It is no use talking of it. It has only just happened and one has to go through with it. It is not difficult for me to believe that George’s spirit was ready for another life and his way of going to it was very beautiful… I don’t think all this pain matters at all. I have always had far more than my share of joy and always shall have had. Isn’t it queer how all the time what matters most is to get hold of the rightness of things. Then some sort of peace comes.”
She continued: “I don’t know if you think there is a future life I instinctively believe in. I don’t feel annoyed when people don’t. George didn’t like I do. He said he didn’t feel it mattered much for this life whether there is or not. I rather think that is the most sublime view of all but it is not mine. I don’t feel in touch with George at all but I do feel that he loves me more than he ever did before and so long as I keep spiritually right he will be able to go on doing so. So most of the time I am saved from the awful dispare feeling that there is nothing left to live for. Then you see I also think it very possible that although this life was undoubtedly very good for George there is something better that he was ready for. So if I love him entirely I must try to be content that he should have it. I know one thing I never knew before, though I had been told, that happiness or unhappiness are very unimportant, it is the getting right with each that matters.”
To go on a bit of a tangent- the last line is particularly striking to me. I have struggled to make sense of it, but I have interpreted it as such: More often than not we do not control our emotions, or at least their arrival – they come to us in the mixture of our personality and the events we partake in and are surrounded by. Could Ruth be anything but sad when George died? No, of course not. But she could “get right” with the sadness, so to speak. She could feel her way through it and manage it in the best way possible. It doesn’t mean there won’t be pain, but perhaps that a sort flow can be achieved from one emotional state to the next.
Focusing again on Ruth, I think George was certainly luck to marry someone like her, whose sacrifices and character were pivotal in encouraging rather than denying the pursuit of his dreams.
One manner in which Ruth kept George’s spirit alive is by not holding their children back. She taught them to drive, and to change spark plugs and tires. They ran around the lawn naked, swam, canoed, cycled, and even learned to climb. John, George and Ruth’s youngest, recalled that Ruth “made a conscious decision not to over protect us.”
The first thing I found out about George Mallory was that he died in a potentially successful Everest summit attempt. I was first drawn to Mallory’s story by the mystery of his final earthly moments. But the more I read about him, the more captivated I was by this human who lived fully and exuberantly, who exercised his mind and body to a maximum, who was always enthralled by the world around him, who struggled and who dreamed unrestrained, who was not afraid to feel and to push, and who was so utterly invested in his passions. The second time I read about his death, it was not just an event in a summit attempt, but a tragic loss of a remarkable being.
He seems so much more intricate to me now than when he was just a player in an intriguing historical mystery. I don’t think I’ll never know him completely – which of course would be impossible even if he were alive today. I know I split this series into “Mallory- the Mystery”, “Mallory- the Mountaineer”, “Mallory- the Artist,” and “Mallory- the Dreamer,” but in the end it seems very wrong to me to split such a complete human into parts. It is a reminder that we mostly see the surfaces of those around us, sometimes several aspects, and in the rarest of cases whether by great luck or by our own efforts or a combination of the two – we can come to know each other profoundly- in all our shadows and delights. There are such things as boring acquaintances, but I don’t think there is such a thing as a boring human. We are all fluctuating in our varied convolutions and sophistications. If we can find a passion like George’s to add to this mixture, life is sure to be a grand adventure. We may find our own Everest, and more. George Mallory is a great reminder. Let us be moved by our entire being, let us be ever passionate, and ever striving for more and new experiences.
In the face of George Mallory, the human, the debate over whether or not he summited Everest, becomes a detail at the end of his story, almost drowned in the depths and dimensions of his torrential life. I will conclude with the words of George’s beloved Ruth. To her it did not matter whether he made it to the top, “It is his life that I loved and love.”
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, 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. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” –George Herbert Leigh Mallory
If you would like to find out more about George I highly recommend reading The Wildest Dream by Peter and Leni Gillman and Climbing Everest by George Mallory. You are also welcome to borrow my copies (as long as I get them back, seeing as I am very attached to them!).