Rongbuk Monastery and its great Chorten precede the Abode of Snows.
The Image of Mallory
by Liesl Clark
May 8, 1999
When you haven't been in a car for six weeks, what strikes you most as
wheels begin to turn is how much you are at the vehicle's mercy. We bumped
our way over the stones of the moraine and swayed across the mud-laden
glacial streams to Rongbuk monastery.
Jake Norton had a letter to
deliver to the Abbott and we had heard that there was a little-known
photograph of George Leigh Mallory at the monastery.
An old woman wearing fingerless gloves turned a prayerwheel just outside the
monastery entrance, a brass bell ringing with each revolution. "Om mani
padme hum" were the words she repeated over and over in a low hum. The wheel
churned, the bell clanged and time seemed to stop briefly in the thin air.
At 16,340 feet Rongbuk is the highest monastery in the world, an assembly
of brown square buildings with red, green, blue and yellow wooden frames
around the doors and windows. Mani stones inscribed with prayers and mantras
were stacked high against juniper poles strung with prayer flags blowing in
the sacred directions.
A monk and nun light a juniper branch as a sacred offering at Rongbuk monastery.
We set up our camera crane just outside the entrance to get a sweeping boom
shot—one of hundreds we are filming for the upcoming NOVA program—of
the climbers walking inside. Two young monks helped us put the 19-foot jib
arm together, giggling and wondering if we were setting up a huge catapult
for flinging our film gear into the monastery's courtyard. Ned Johnston, our
cameraman, placed the 16mm camera on the end of the boom and the climbers
made their entrance.
Inside was the Abbott, Norbu, who was happy to show Norton the photograph of
Mallory from 1924, which had been presented to him by Edward Norton's son
(no relation to Jake Norton) in 1998. In the photograph, Mallory sat between
teammate Geoffrey Bruce and expedition leader Edward Norton within the mud
brick walls of Rongbuk, in the very same courtyard where we stood. The bell
resounded outside, and the old woman spinned and prayed. Coolies stood
behind Mallory and his companions, laughing, while Bruce and Norton had
traditional serious poses about them. They were on their way to Base Camp to
begin their climb up Everest.
Boom shots for the upcoming NOVA program; Rongbuk Monastery (L), climbing Everest (R).
It was the image of Mallory that struck us all. The man we have spent the
past week trying to understand, the climber buried by Norton, Richards,
Politz, Hahn, and Anker,
sat amongst his mates with his mouth half
open in mid sentence, eyes turning toward the men behind him, as if to
silence them. "I've never seen Mallory look so energetic," said Hemmleb,
who has analyzed every photograph ever published of Mallory. "The pictures
that are around of Mallory are in most cases very staged, but this one is
taken right out of his life. I will always have an image of him as this
marble-like figure, frozen into the mountainside. But here he is, in
everyday expedition life. You can see his vigor and strength."
On our drive back from the monastery, we sat in silence, as the dry
colorless landscape strobed by. "You know, Odell had received several
letters from people who had tried to determine what happened to Mallory and
Irvine through paranormal means," Hemmleb said, cutting through the silence.
"I'll show you the reference in the Salkeld and Holzel book when we return
to Base Camp." And there, on page 251 in The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine,
was the construction we were all considering in silence:
"Long after 1924, Odell was contacted by a man from the Shetland Islands, a
retired artist called Williamson, whom he knew only slightly, with news of
the ultimate fate of Mallory and Irvine. It appeared that Williamson had a
psychic friend who had just died and had been 'in touch' with Sandy Irvine.
For what it was worth, he wished to pass on Irvine's message from 'the other
side' which told of his last climb with Mallory. They had reached the summit
of Everest, the story went, though very late, and were utterly exhausted
when they tried to pick their way back down again in the gathering darkness.
They were unroped. On the way, Mallory slipped to his death, leaving Irvine
to continue alone. He had gone only a short distance before he was so
overwhelmed with fatigue that he sank down to rest on a rock not far below
the ridge, setting down his ice axe on the slabs beside him. Huddled there
in the bitter cold, the image of Mallory floated before him. 'Come on, old
chap,' Mallory said. 'It's time for us to be getting along.'"