Alone, near the top

Print edition : June 05, 1999

The recent discovery of the body of George Mallory on Everest revives a decades-old debate on the question whether the schoolteacher-turned-mountaineer reached the summit of the world's highest mountain.

In the days of peace, England will always hold some who are not content with humdrum routine and soft living. The spirit which animated the attacks on Everest is the same as that which has prompted Arctic and other expeditions, and in earlier times le d to the formation of the Empire itself. Who shall say that any of its manifestations are not worthwhile? Who shall say that its inspiration has not a far-reaching influence on the race? It is certain that it would go rusty with disuse, and expeditions l ike the attempt to scale Everest serve to whet the sword of ambition and courage.

- The Morning Post, London, on George Mallory and Andrew Irvine's deaths, June 24, 1924.

FROM 1926, two years after George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died on the heights of Everest, a succession of mystical accounts of their death began to emerge. Austrian climber Firdo Kordon, after attending a seance with his son as medium, claimed that bot h had reached the summit of the world's highest mountain. Irvine, he said, had collapsed on the summit, while Mallory fell to his death on the way down. Their colleague on the 1924 expedition and the last man to see them alive, Noel Odell, later heard si milar accounts from both a Canadian mystic and a Scottish artist who had heard the story from a psychic friend.

Many of the claims made about Mallory in the wake of the discovery of his body on Everest in May raise the same discursive questions as the mystical revelations of 1926. The claims come in the wake of the discovery of Mallory's body by the British-Ameri can Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. The team based its search on reports from Chinese climber Wang Hangbao, who in 1975 saw an "old English" body. But why has an excavation of the events of June 8, 1924 come about? Why has the discovery of Mallor y's body led many people to claim that he was indeed the first man to set foot on the summit of Everest? And what ideological purposes does this interrogation of the history of Everest climbs serve?

The answers are, predictably, deeply rooted in history and necessitate engagement with the fact that the conquest of Everest was at its core a colonial enterprise.

George Mallory (extreme right, back row) with the other members of the team that undertook an expedition to Everest in 1921.-

The first tangible step towards its realisation came with the appointment of Lord Curzon as Viceroy of India in 1898. With rumours of the Tibet's Dalai Lama planning an alliance with the Tsar of Russia in the air, Curzon commissioned the adventurer-soldi er Francis Younghusband to lead a military incursion. In 1904, in the wake of a bloody four-month campaign, Younghusband took Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia. The British now focussed their attempts on resisting Chinese efforts to establish sovere ignty in Tibet, by arming local groups. When Chinese troops took Tibet in 1910, the Dalai Lama took refuge in India. An insurrection forced the Chinese out two years later, but a grateful Dalai Lama had evolved a special relationship with Britain, based on its generous arms supplies.

Younghusband had opened a route to Tibet. Secretary of State John Morley, intensely opposed to Curzon's policy in India, resisted the idea of an expedition. Such an expedition to Everest, he argued, would provoke Russian suspicion and endanger the emergi ng entente between the Tsar and imperial Britain. In the wake of the Great War of 1914-18, these equations changed. The Russian empire was in ruins, and the new revolutionary regime had little interest in expansion southwards. China too had seen rebellio n. The expedition through Tibet was now no longer a strategic issue. On April 26, 1920, the first Expedition Committee was set up in London, resolving to send members out with the "principal object" of "the ascent of Mount Everest".

"Where White Man Has Never Trod," proclaimed one British newspaper when the Royal Geographical Society formally announced its first Everest expedition in January 1921. With the Depression having taken hold of Europe, and its working class radicalised by the brutal butchery inflicted by the elite during the War of 1914-18, the expedition appeared a comforting diversion, an assertion of the values that made imperial Britain. Finance was slow to come, but these obstacles were overcome, interestingly, by co mmercial newspaper sponsorship. One observer caustically suggested that the Royal Geographical Society's professional secretary Howard Hinks "go to Lord Leverhume and say, give us 10,000, and we will take a large cake of Sunlight Soap and a flag also wi th Sunlight Soap emblazoned on it, and we will plant them on top of Everest".

The camp of the 1922 expedition team at North Col.-

The 1921 team was in many ways ill-fated: many of its members were unfit. It had few skilled mountaineers, and the members were often at odds with one another. One of them, however, was to be associated in public perception with Everest more than any oth er person until Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary finally reached the summit. George Mallory, a schoolteacher at Charterhouse, was an unlikely candidate for fame. At Cambridge, he had an undistinguished academic record, despite the brilliant company of R upert Brooke and Lytton Strachey. His principal assets were his looks - the homosexual Strachey described him in a letter to the author Virginia Woolf as possessing "a face - oh incredible - the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Ch inese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy."

Mallory's climbing credentials were poor. His colleague on Everest, Geoffrey Young, said that Mallory, compared with his contemporaries, was the "greatest in unfulfilled achievement". None of his climbs before the fateful 1924 expedition is remembered by climbers, and Mallory himself showed little interest in the project. He described Tibet as "a hateful country inhabited by hateful people." In his letters, he insisted on describing the 1921 expedition's Sherpa porters as "coolies", and on one occassion was evidently surprised that one, though "slightly built", could keep up with him uphill.

In the end, though beaten by the onset of the monsoon, the 1921 expedition made significant gains. It surveyed the mountain from each side and discovered a practical route to it from the north. But Mallory himself seemed little interested in a second att empt. "Never mind Everest and its unfriendly glories," he wrote to his friend David Pye. "I'm tired of travelling and travellers, far countries and uncouth people, trains and ships and shimmering mausoleums, foreign ports, dark-skinned faces and a garish sun." This unsavoury and blatantly racist attitude, albeit common to the British ruling class of the period, has largely been censored out of media accounts of Mallory's character.

However, the schoolteacher chose to go up again, in 1922. This time, learning from its experiences, the expedition did better. George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, the latter a military officer with no previous climbing experience, made it to 27,000 feet. Th at was the only time a climber has set a new world altitude record on his first attempt. The 1922 expedition used oxygen for the first time, an idea initially Mallory rejected because it went against his romantic ideas about mountain conquest. His record on the expedition was marred by a tragic incident, when seven Sherpas lost their lives in an avalanche below the North Col after being ordered to climb in bad snow conditions.

Back in England, Mallory found himself out on a financial limb. Without a job and with a family to support, he tried unsuccessfully to make a living giving lectures on his expeditions in the United States. On his return he did land a job but was raring t o go to Everest again. His opportunity came in 1924. "We are going to sail to the top this time and God with us," he wrote to his friend Tom Longstaff, "or stamp to the top with our teeth in the wind." A first attempt by Geoffrey Bruce and Mallory was be aten back by the weather, while Edward Norton made it to a confirmed 28,126 feet, a record that would stand for 30 years. Now, Mallory chose Irvine for a final crack at the summit.

Odell, on a geological reconnaissance trip, was the sole eyewitness to what happened next. "I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approa ching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud once more, and I could not actually be certain that I saw the sec ond figure join the first. It was, of course, none other than Mallory and Irvine." Odell first believed that he had seen the two on the second step on Everest, a wall of rock near the summit.

The 1992 expedition on its way to Tibet.-

On reflection, however, Odell concluded that Mallory and Irvine must have been on the first step, much lower down the mountain. This, Walt Unsworth points out in his exhaustive discussion of the issue in his book Everest, was affirmed when Chinese climbe rs took five hours to climb the sheer face of the second step for the first time in 1960. "Even allowing for the many inconsistencies of the Chinese report," Unsworth points out, "it is obvious that the second step could not have been climbed in five min utes, as Odell suggested. " Given that an ice axe belonging to either Mallory or Irvine was discovered in 1933 near the first step, as the body has been now, it seems likely that was indeed the scene of the accident. Mallory's body was still roped, sugge sting Irvine must have fallen with him.

"OBTERRAS LONDON - MALLORY IRVINE NOVE REMAINDER ALCEDO - NORTON RONGBUK," read the telegram despatched when all hope was lost. But did the two make it to the summit? Mallory's admirers insisted he had, as they have done after the discovery of his body. But if Mallory was on the first step, he would have had no time to make it to the summit and back before night made movement near-impossible. Then, although Mallory's sunglasses were in his pocket, which some have used to claim that the fall must have ta ken place at night on the way down the ridge, it could equally well suggest that he simply took them off while waiting to die after the fall.

Authorities like Hillary have made clear their scepticism of claims, provoked by the discovery of the body, that Irvine or Mallory made it to the top. This opinion may have to be revised if photographs of Mallory on the summit are indeed found in his cam era, a profoundly unlikely possibility. But why should such claims have resurfaced in the first place, when evidence clearly does not exist to revise already-known expert beliefs?

In some senses, it matters not at all whether Mallory made it to the top or not. The rediscovery of Mallory's climb in Western mass imagination, and the privileging of his achievement over that of Norgay and Hillary, seeks again to invest with romance th e failed imperial climbing project of the pre-Second World War period. That a brown subject and a colonial were the first to reach the top of Everest sits uncomfortably with renewed claims of imperial cultural supremacy. Perhaps not coincidentally, the e nterprise has come when the projection of Western imperialist values has acquired a renewed political immediacy. Wangbao's 1975 discovery, after all, launched no great revivalist searches. Mallory's body is merely a pretext: the real story lies, as in th e early 1920s, not on the heights of Everest but in distant wars, this time in Iraq and Bosnia.