Friday 26 January 2018

The Mallory Legend

GL Mallory second left, back row, with leading members of the 1924 expedition

In 1883 W. W. Graham took Swiss guides to India and the history of climbing in the Himalayas began. Previous explorers had penetrated the region as soldiers on military expeditions, with big game hunting on the side, as officers of the Government' Survey Department, medical missionaries or members of diplomatic missions. During the next 72 years, 62 if the war years are left out, to 1955when the late Professor Kenneth Mason published his classic history of the Himalaya, "The Abode of Snow" (Rupert Hart-Davies, two impressions, though now a quarter of a century out of date, the best book of reference to 1955; fairly expensive in the second hand book market) Mason listed (pp. 346/7) 50 peaks over 25,000 ft., only eight of them had by then been conquered.

Surely this speaks for itself and throws the whole pioneer period into true perspective. On Everest three expeditions were mounted by the British in 1921, 22 and 24, aimed at the N.E. ridge from Tibet. The achievement of these expeditions was extremely impressive. Indeed 1922, the first full attack, was a triumph for George Finch and his primitive oxygen equipment; in spite of bad weather, he had he had made an altitude record and had turned back less than 2,000 feet below the summit. In the official record of the expedition Finch wrote a convincing chapter in support of the use of oxygen in Himalayan climbing. He was right in his assertion that it would be use in the conquest of Everest, though this was not a popular view among climbers at that time. However, it convinced Mallory that it enable him to move faster and thus he was more likely to succeed with it with it than without it. He made the summit bid from which he not return on June 8th 1924.

On June 16th, Colonel Norton, the leader was seated in his tent at the Base Camp writing a letter to Irvine's father. *"In my view, he wrote, they had enough oxygen to enable them to reach the summit: they would have had to descend without oxygen, but this has been proved quite feasible." In 1922 it had been thought that a man using oxygen at high altitudes would soon collapse and die if and when his supply ran out or failed. At home Winthrop Young wrote of Mallory "In all probability the first man to tread the world's highest summit". A number of minor prophets raised a chorus of approval. It was so much nicer to believe that victory had come before the fatal fall. This mood of euphoria did not survive the sequence of failures in the 1930's, and it is easy to see that none of the Everesters present at Tilman's lecture to the R.G.S. in 1939 believed that the summit problem had been solved.

Even Odell, who might have been expected to say something about Mallory's chances, seems to have confined himself to contrasting Tilman's Spartan love of cold porridge with memories of the champagne commissariate of 1924. The scepticism is repeated by Lord Hunt in 1953, when, in the early pages of his book, he stresses the great doubt that he and his team faced over the final thousand feet of the climb. A word was soon in use about Mallory's last climb, which, I submit, should now be used no longer. Mystery. There is no longer any mystery, if we understand by that word, something beyond the compass of the human intellect (e.g. The Mystery of the Incarnation). 

Since 1953 many climbers have stood on Everest and no relic of the 1924 expedition has been found near the summit. On June 8th 1924 the two men were seen at 12.50 p.m. high up on the N.E. ridge, they did not return to Camp VI. At that date the shelter of a snow hole had not been discovered in high mountaineering. Mason stated that no man could survive a night in the open at great altitudes. They must have died on the 8th, almost certainly by a fall due to exhaustion.

Compare the experience of Bourdillon and Evans in 1953 on their ascent of the South summit, a climb of some 3,000 feet, not unlike that which Mallory was attempting. I must leave it to readers of my book (the IRVINE DIARIES) to examine the grounds on which I base my belief that the summit was not reached in 1924. I could add two pointers. In his letters to his wife towards the end of May, Mallory was clearly uneasy about his physical fitness to make an effective summit bid—and there was also the doubt about Irvine’s lack of experience if the route became at all difficult.

It cannot escape notice that in the rescue of the porters from Camp IV,Somervell led the very trying and dangerous snow slope below the col which gave success to the operation,this in spite of his acute suffering from a high altitude cough. Norton and Mallory sat below and watched him. Now in 1981 the climbing of giant mountains has become commonplace: it happens every month, all the year round, year after year, all over the world.It is difficult today to realise how primitive was the equipment, how great the lack of knowledge of those gallant and brave men who were the pioneers of the 1920's. We now know that the whole of the N.E. ridge (Mallory's proposed route) can be climbed in a straightforward manner without encountering any passage more difficult than those normally found on the popular route from Nepal.

Mallory's family home in Mobberly, Cheshire as it is today. Currently undergoing restoration after years of dereliction, the house sits under the flightpath of runway 2 at Manchester Airport. 

It would seem that the second step had been given rather too fierce a character both by Wyn Harris and Laurence Wager in 1933 and by the Chinese in 1975. But the Chinese rope ladder pitch would have turned Mallory back. We now know,whatever the Times and Sunday Times journalists may have suggested, there are no frozen corpses to be found anywhere on the mountain to "prove" that the summit was reached in 1924. From the start, fate was against the men of the 1924 expedition, but we can now assess their wonderful achievement at its true worth; they were great heroes of an heroic age.

*Norton had never used the oxygen equipment on a climb and there is no record of any discussion on its capacity to give enough gas for a summit bid. It looks as Mallory thought six hours would be adequate. No man at that time had any experience of movement at the highest altitudes on Everest without oxygen after a prolonged use of an artificial supply. HC

** Note: While on the subject of Everest it is interesting to record that in 1974 a Chinese climber, Wang Kow Po, reported finding the body in a desiccated form at 26.7730ft. He buried the body  and the West did not learn of the discovery until 1979, just before Wang Po lost his life in an avalanche. Leading climbers were certain that it was highly unlikely to be the body of either Mallory or Irvine. Another report said that the Chinese had also found a body at 21.000ft on their 1960 expedition. Even more mysterious was the discovery last year (1980) of a woman’s high heel shoe made of fine brown leather. it was found at 25.000ft amongst the remains of a British camp along with Oxygen gear and tent poles. It dated back to the 1920/30‘s. (HC)

*** Mallory’s body was of course discovered by the ‘Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition’,led by Eric Simonson in 1999. Andrew Irvine’s remains have yet to be discovered and confirmed although the discovery of a body in 1960- as mentioned above- at 21.000ft suggests the possibility that it was indeed Irvine who had possibly fallen on his way down the mountain after falling victim to exhaustion or oedema. Leaving the far stronger and more experienced Mallory to attempt a solo summit bid.(JA)

Herbert Carr. First published as 'Some aspects of the Mallory Legend' in the Climbers Club Journal, 1981