On the morning of June 6th 1924, at a camp perched at 23,000 feet on an ice ledge above the East Rongbuck Glacier, & just below the lip of Mount Everest’s North Col, expedition leader Lieutenant Colonel Edward Norton made his final personnel selection of the men making a last desperate attempt to reach the summit.
At 37 years of age, George Leigh Mallory was Britain’s most illustrious & capable climber. Sandy Irvine, was a 22 year old Oxford scholar, with little previous mountaineering experience, but with prodigious levels of stamina & engineering skills to coax the ‘Heath Robinson’ oxygen breathing apparatus into functioning at altitude. Time was of the essence. Though the day was clear, to the south skies were darkening with great rolling banks of clouds, confirming that the monsoon had reached Bengal, would soon sweep over the Himalya, and as one of the climbers put it “obliterate everything”. Mallory though characteristically remained cheerfully upbeat. In a letter home to his wife Ruth, penned that morning, he wrote “ We are going to sail to the top this time & God with us, or stamp to the top with the wind in our teeth”.
Norton was less sanguine. “There is no doubt”, he confided to John Noel, a hardy veteran of many previous Himalayan explorations & the expedition’s photographer ,“Mallory knows he is leading a forlorn hope”. Perhaps the memory of previous losses weighed on Norton’s mind: The 7 Sherpas left dead on the mountain in 1922, 2 more this season, the Scottish physician Kellas buried at Kampa Dzong during the approach march & reconnaissance of 1921. Not to mention the near misses : Mallory himself, a climber of stunning power & grace, sans peur et sans reproche, had on Everest already come close to death on 3 occasions. Norton of course knew well the cruel face of the mountain. From the North Col, the route to the summit follows the North Ridge, which rises dramatically in several thousand feet to join the North East Ridge, which in turn leads to the summit. Just the day before, he & Howard Somervell had set out from an advanced camp on the North Ridge at 26,800 feet. Cleverly avoiding the bitter winds that sweep the North East Ridge, they had made an ascending traverse to reach the great couloir that clefts the North Face & falls away from the base of the summit pyramid to the Rongbuk Glacier, some 10,000 feet below. Somervell collapsed at 28,000 feet. Norton pushed on alone, shaking from the cold, shivering so drastically he thought he had succumbed to a repeat bout of malaria. Earlier that morning, when climbing on pitch black rock, he had foolishly removed his goggles. By the time he had reached the couloir he was seeing double & it was all he could do to remain standing. Forced to turn back at 28,126 feet – less than 900 feet below the summit, he was saved by Somervell, who led him back across ice covered slabs. On the retreat to the North Col, Somervell himself suddenly collapsed, unable to breath. He pounded on his own chest, dislodged the obstruction, & coughed up the entire lining of his throat. By morning, Norton had lost his sight, temporarily blinded by the excruciating bright sunlight. In terrible pain, he now pondered Mallory’s plan of attack.
Instead of traversing the face to the couloir, Mallory & Irvine would make for the North East Ridge, where only two obstacles barred the way to the summit pyramid : a distinctive tower of black rock dubbed the First Step, & farther along, The Second Step, a 100 foot bluff that would have to be scaled. Although concerned about Irvine’s lack of experience, Norton was out of options in regard to amending the team for the next attempt. Perhaps he was swayed by Mallory, a formidably direct member of the Expedition, who would not contemplate further delay.
Two days after, Mallory & Irvine set out from their high camp for the summit. The bright light of dawn gave way to softer shadows as luminous banks of cloud passed over the mountain. Noel Odell, a brilliant climber in support, last saw them alive at 12:50pm, faintly from a rocky crag, two small objects moving steadily up the ridge. As the mists rolled in, enveloping their memory in myth, he was the only witness. Mallory & Irvine would not be seen or heard from again. Their disappearance would haunt both the Expedition survivors, & a whole Nation, & giving rise to the greatest mystery in the history of mountaineering. Never once did Odell doubt that Mallory & Irvine had reached the summit before they reached their end. Nor did he or other Expedition members ever doubt or question the sublime purpose that had led them to cross hundreds of miles on foot, from India & across Tibet, just to reach the base of the mountain. Odell penned in his journal of his two lost friends – “My final glimpse of one, whose personality was of that charming character that endeared him to all & whose natural gifts seemed to indicate of such possibilities of both mind & body, was that he was ‘going strong’, sharing with that other fine character who accompanied him such a vision of sublimity that it has been the lot of few mortals to behold ; few while beholding have become merged into such a scene of transcendence”.
In 1999 climbers working on the “Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition” arrived at Everest with the sole purpose of locating the pair. Despite 75 years passing since Mallory and Irvine disappeared, the odds were good. The constantly freezing temperatures and permanent layer of permafrost on Everest preserve almost perfectly the bodies of climbers who perish on its slopes. On May 1, a large, flat, white rock was noticed on the northern slopes of the mountain. Upon closer inspection, it became evident that this was not a rock, but the partly exposed body of George Mallory. Time had degraded most of his clothing, but the parts of his body that had been covered were still well preserved. Irvine’s body was never found, though his climbing axe was located roughly 800 feet above Mallory’s body. Researchers concluded from the location of the axe, and a rope found tied around Mallory’s waist, that Mallory had likely been tied to Irvine, and either fell, dragging Irvine with him, or cut himself free before doing so. The pair’s death was attributed to a fall. According to the survivors of the 1924 climbing expedition, Mallory was carrying both a picture of Ruth, that he intended to leave at the summit & a camera to document his and Irvine’s success. No trace of either has ever been found. Experts from Kodak even said that if a camera was ever located, the film could likely still be developed, though several expeditions in recent years to locate the film have proved to be fruitless
Of the 26 British climbers who, on 3 separate expeditions to the Himalaya (1921-24), had walked over 400 miles off all established maps, 20 had seen the worst of the fighting in Europe during the Great War. 6 had been severely wounded, 2 others nearly killed by disease at the Front, & 1 hospitalised twice with shell shock. 3 as army surgeons had dealt for the duration of hostilities with the agonies of the dying. 2 lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the barking of the guns, the bones, rats, & barbed wire, the white faces of the dead. If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, as redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race for both the North & South Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a Country & People bled white by War.
The question is not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he & Irvine kept climbing on that fateful day. Perhaps the answer lies in the single phrase uttered by one of the survivors as they retreated from the mountain “ The Price of Life is Death’. Mallory walked on because for him, as for many of his generation, Death was but a “frail barrier that men crossed, smiling & gallant every day”. As climbers they accepted a degree of risk unimaginable before the Great War. They were by no means cavalier, but Death was no stranger. They had all seen so much that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. For all of them, Everest became an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky, a symbol of hope in a world gone mad.
© DJM 2019