The Discovery of the Body of George Mallory
- 1st May 1999 –
“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 live. That is what life means and what life is for.” George Mallory wrote these words in 1924 shortly before he set off for his third, final and fatal expedition to conquer Everest and hoping to be the first man to do so. Also, when asked by a reporter from the New York Times why he was going, he replied famously, “Because it is there!”
One of the great mysteries that still has to be solved is whether George Mallory and his partner Andrew, “Sandy”, Irvine reached the summit on 8th/9th June 1924, 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
The son of a clergyman and having been educated at a prep school in Eastbourne Mallory went on to win a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College in 1899 at the age of 13. It was while he was in his final year there in 1904 that he was introduced to mountaineering by a teacher named Graham Irving, also a former pupil of the school who went on to become the Master of the College. They went with a group, called the “Winchester Ice Club, to the Alps. So began his love affair with climbing. Irving and Mallory were to continue climbing together after he had left school and conquered, amongst others, Mont Blanc. After studying History at Magdalene College, Cambridge he went on to teach at Charterhouse School where he met his wife, Ruth. They were married six days before World War One broke out. He also met the poet Robert Graves whilst he was a pupil at the school and was best man at Graves’ wedding. Graves said of Mallory that, “Mallory was wasted at Charterhouse.” Mallory joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant and saw action at the Somme in 1916. After the war he returned to Charterhouse but resigned in order to pursue his dream of conquering Everest and joined an expedition in 1921.
This first trip did not go well but a second trip in 1922 reached 27,300 feet (Everest being 29, 029 feet or 8,848m) before bad weather and lack of light forced their return. At this stage he was not using oxygen as he felt this was against the spirit of mountaineering. Mallory arranged a third trip but an avalanche swept away seven sherpas and the trip was soon abandoned.
In 1924 Mallory joined the expedition led by General Charles Bruce, thinking this was his last chance to defeat the mountain. At 12.50pm on 8th June the two men were seen by teammate Noel Odell less than 1000 feet from the top before they disappeared into a pre-monsoon snow squall never to be seen again.
So did they reach the summit? In 1975 a Chinese climber Wang Hung-bao stumbled across “An English dead” at 26, 570 feet and reported it to his climbing partner before he himself was swept away by an avalanche. In the spring of 1999 Eric Simonsen founded the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition to find the bodies of the two climbers. Two of the other members were Conrad Anker and Jake Norton. On 1st May Anker was exploring a wide snow terrace about the size of twelve football pitches, with ledges tilted at all angles when he spotted a body sticking out of the ice. They had known the route taken by Mallory and this was one of the possible areas they thought he might be found. The body lay face down, facing up the slope, welded to the scree and ice, the still muscular arms outstretched above his head, the tibia and fibula of his right leg broken and the right elbow dislocated. The rope was still tight around his ribcage and his nametag was still around his neck; G. Mallory.
One of the pieces of evidence that could prove one way or the other was the camera. This has never been found despite numerous other attempts. They did find his tin of metal stock cubes, savoury meat lozenges, a brass altimeter, pocketknife and undamaged sun goggles. The latter of these finds has led to a theory that he would not have dispensed with wearing these if he had still been in daylight, that they had completed the final push for the summit and died on the way down in the gathering gloom or darkness. They also found an envelope with several numbers on it. These referred to the bottle pressures of the oxygen canisters that Mallory had used on this trip. Many thought they did not have enough to get to the top but the numbers suggest they had five or six, more than enough to get them there and back. Other than the missing camera the other significant item missing was a photograph of his wife, Ruth, which he said he was going to leave at the summit if he reached it. His wallet and other papers were found intact but there is no sign of the photograph. Sandy Irvine’s body has never been recovered either or his camera.
Jake Norton, a member of the team that found the body in 1999 feels that he did make it. He has retraced Mallory’s steps and thinks that “Summit fever” took over as he was so tantalizingly close to the top. “Fame, fortune, glory, security – all wrapped up in that summit. The only way home is via the top of the world.” Against all his experience the fact that this was probably his last chance and he was so close meant that despite the exhaustion and the lack of light available to them they pushed on. They had left their head torches at camp and the idea was to scale the last part quickly and get down again before dark, a rapid assault. Norton thinks that one of the climbers slipped on the way down in the gloom, probably Mallory, crashing into the rocks dislocating the elbow. The rope broke dropping Mallory down into the ledge where he broke his leg and continued to slide. A head wound also suggests he hit a rock hard and he would soon have died from hypothermia.
Mallory’s son, George, though is not so certain. He was only 3 when his father died. “To me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” Unless more evidence is uncovered, and this is still possible as Kodak still believe that some of the pictures could be developed, we will never know for sure whether Mallory was indeed the first man to conquer the top of the world. On a tour of Winchester College you are shown a memorial to Mallory in the cloister. Although not saying directly what they think you are left in little doubt that one of their old boys did indeed achieve this feat.