On June 6, 1924, two haggard members of the British Everest Expedition, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, left their frozen canvas tent on the wind-whipped side of Mount Everest and made a final push to reach the summit. It was the culmination of months of suffering, unrelenting effort, and danger, and the two men were confident that victory finally lay within their grasp. For Mallory, an experienced and tenacious alpinist, this was his last chance to achieve what had eluded him in previous summit attempts in 1921: to be the first man to reach the peak of the world’s most formidable mountain. Having lost the race to be the first to reach the North and South Poles, British exploratory energy had invested much in Everest expeditions. But Mallory and Irvine never returned. On June 21, 1924, The Times of London published a telegraph from another team member announcing their death. It said only, “Mallory and Irvine killed on last attempt.”
The mystery of what had happened to them would continue to haunt Everest exploration ever since.
George L. Mallory (right). Victory, he felt, was finally within his grasp.
Fast forward to 1998. An American climbing enthusiast, Larry Johnson, emailed a twenty six year old German geology student and amateur climber named Jochen Hemmleb. Hemmleb had an encyclopedic knowledge of Everest expeditions. He had studied the subject intensely for many years and possessed an impressive archive of Everest arcana. He had published some of his writings on Everest exploration on a website for climbers, and had engaged in dialogue with other climbers in the website’s forum section. Johnson and Hemmleb began a regular correspondence and eventually put together the idea of forming a commercial expedition to Everest for the purpose of investigating the fate of Mallory and Irvine. After countless false starts and frustrations, funding was finally secured, team members were selected, and the expedition finally moved forward in 1999. They called it the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition.
As far as was possible, the plan was to retrace the steps of Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 summit attempt. Over the decades, randomly discovered clues from climbers of different nationalities had suggested the presence of Mallory and Irvine in different places near the summit: a tent pole here, an ice axe there. But nothing was known with certainty. How had they perished? Where were they? Beyond these questions lay the tantalizing possibility that the two men had actually reached the summit. If they had, the world would have to acknowledge that Sir Edmund Hillary, reaching the summit in 1953, was not the first.
Mallory had had a formidable reputation among mountaineers; thirty eight years old in 1924, he was generally recognized as the finest climber of his day. Tall, determined, a natural leader with restless energy, and possessed of a powerful physique, he was one of those urbane explorer-adventurers that England seemed to produce in abundance in the 19th and early 20th century. He was of an age where his strength of body was tempered by the practical prudence befitting his years. Readers should remember that this was an era before the high-tech comforts we take for granted: before Gore-Tex, before labor-saving advanced mountaineering communications equipment, before synthetic materials, and before all the other comforts that modern explorers enjoy. Even bottled oxygen, that sine qua non of modern high-altitude mountaineering, was a novelty in 1924: Mallory himself only grudgingly accepted it after long debate.
Mallory and his men climbed Everest wearing woolen sweaters, leather boots, and clothing made from natural fibers. Looking at their “primitive” equipment now, with the knowledge of what climbers now take for granted, one is astonished at the toughness of these men. These were real men, not overgrown boys. And these were cultured men: in the frozen wastes of Everest, they would recite passages to each other from King Lear and MacBeth to pass the time and maintain morale. It was a different age. One can only grimace at the thought of what these men would make of our modern youth, with their marshmallow bodies, hover hands, neckbeards, and acquiescence to feminism. Take a good look at the faces in the header photo for this article, showing the members of the 1924 British expedition. And take a good look at this photo of one of its members, Theodore H. Somervell. Somervell coughed up the lining of his throat during the summit attempt, and kept right on going.
Theodore Howard Somervell, a tough and relentless member of the 1924 British Everest Expedition.
The 1999 expedition had a general idea of how Mallory and Irvine had approached the summit, and were operating on the assumption that they might have fallen somewhere near the Northeast Ridge of Everest. Eventually the expedition members approached the Northeast Ridge, a perilous route from which some climbers over the years had fallen to their deaths. Team member Conrad Anker, acting on intuition, began to search on a low slope near the Rongbuk Glacier, traversing the rocky ground for signs of an ancient corpse. He eventually saw a bleached-white form lying on the rocky ground wearing a hobnailed boot, and approached cautiously. It was a body, it turned out, that had been holding fast to the side of Everest for seventy five years.
The body of George Leigh Mallory as it was discovered in 1999
Most of the clothing had frayed away from the body, but the frozen white flesh had been preserved in Everest’s unique environment. “The clothing was blasted from most of his body, and his skin was bleached white. I felt like I was viewing a Greek or Roman marble statute,” said team member Dave Hahn. An examination of the name tag under the corpse’s sweater revealed the name G. Mallory. The team members stood before the corpse in awe, hardly believing that they were viewing the remains of their fallen hero. What fortitude, what tenacity, in comparison to the over-equipped and pampered climbers of today! There was an inexpressible poignancy to the scene, a sense of kinship with those who had gone before them and participated in the great struggle to conquer the mountain.
With some effort, the team members searched the ground for artifacts and buried the body. The expedition had succeeded in discovering the fate of George Mallory, but the question of whether he or Irvine had actually reached the summit of Everest remained unanswered. No one really knows. Enthusiasts debate the issue with intensity, but it remains an unsettled question.
But what is beyond all dispute is the courage and tenacity of Mallory, Irvine, and the other members of the 1924 expedition. Laboring under conditions of extreme adversity, they set a high-water mark for Everest exploration that would not be matched for decades, until Sir Edmund Hillary achieved the first confirmed ascent of the summit in 1953. Actually reaching the summit has everything to do with raw guts and brute force, combined with favorable weather. The essence of masculine energy is breaking through barriers, overcoming obstacles, and achieving great things through unconquerable willpower and applied skill. To dream great things, to plan great enterprises, and to fight for their realization: are these not the secret flames that burn with unquenchable passion at the core of our being?
Look again, I ask you, at the fallen grandeur of George Mallory. Even in the repose of death, there is a supreme and silent dignity, and a heroic majesty, in this alabaster figure, preserved in startling whiteness and suspended in time, still grasping at the side of the mountain which had claimed his life so long before. He lies there still, every inch a man.
His fallen form chants to us its own regal poetry, to which we can add not a single verse.
Read More: The Return Of A King