George Leigh Mallory was the only climber to take part in all three of the
British pioneering expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1920s. Born in 1886, he
died a few days short of his 38th birthday, while making a summit attempt with
his young companion, Andrew Irvine.
Mallory was the son of a clergyman, an idealist and a romantic, and he
was married with three small children. A schoolmaster by profession, he
switched in 1923 from teaching boys to teaching adults, which he found very
rewarding. During the Great War of 1914-18 he had served at the front as a
gunner. He was a neat and bold rock climber and a competent ice climber, but
his greatest assets were vivacity and a love of adventure. He would seize the
moment and encourage his fellow climbers to follow. If he had a weakness, it
was the failure to recognize when he had given enough. He was charismatic and
endearingly absent-minded, though this could have proved a fatal flaw.
Those who set off on the reconnaissance trip of 1921 had no idea what they were
up against. But as Mallory put it, "to refuse the adventure is to run the risk
of drying up like a pea in its shell." They were walking off the known map,
with high hopes of scaling a mountain no Westerner had ever seen at close
quarters, venturing into atmospheres thinner than anyone had climbed into
before. For its day, going to Everest was like going to the moon. The small,
poorly equipped little band, dressed in an assortment of tweeds and
home-knits, challenged Himalayan heights with little to assist them beyond
the indomitable spirit of Empire.
Though visible as a small bump on the horizon from the Indian hill
station of Darjeeling, Everest had remained remote because it straddled the
border between Tibet and Nepal and both countries were at the time strictly out
of bounds to travelers. Having at last negotiated permission to enter Tibet,
the expedition set off on a six-week approach march, exploring and surveying as
they went, and carrying out a "photographic offensive" on the mountains and
medieval culture of rural Tibet.
Return from First Summit Attempt, 1922; Morshead, Mallory, Somervell, Norton (L to R).
With his friend Guy Bullock, Mallory shouldered the lion's share of
exploration. The two tramped prodigious distances, up peaks and glaciers; they
waded torrents and inspected valleys in their quest to unlock the secrets of
the Everest region. They were prepared to leave the mighty East Face of Everest
with its thundering avalanches for "other men, less wise" and, peering over Lho
La into the Western Cwm and the broken Khumbu Icefall, they were relieved that
this dangerous and laborious-looking possibility of a route lay across the
border in forbidden Nepal. It was the North Col which held the key, of that
they were sure, although strangely their peregrinations had not revealed the
easiest way to approach it. (It fell to E.O. Wheeler, one of the Survey of
India officers accompanying the expedition, to discover that a small,
insignificant-looking side stream flowing into the main Rongbuk Valley was in
fact the outlet of the East Rongbuk Glacier, coming down in a great arc from
Instead, Mallory and Bullock led a small group to the North Col by a long route
from the east, over the Lakpa La. They breasted the col in a fierce gale and
were soon forced back the way they had come, but although conditions were
unfavorable for a proper attempt on the mountain that year, Mallory was
convinced that a clear route existed all the way to the summit.
Mallory with his wife, Ruth
The following year a stronger climbing team, approaching along the East Rongbuk
valley, was able to push on to a height of 27,000 feet, higher than anyone had
climbed anywhere, but still 2,000 vertical feet short of the highest summit in
the world. Mallory decided on one last attempt before the expedition left for
home, but he set off up the slopes of the North Col too soon after fresh snow
and a massive avalanche swept away nine men, killing seven of them, all Sherpa.
The loss of "these brave men" left him crushed with guilt for they were, he
felt, "ignorant of mountain dangers, like children in our care."
When plans were formulated for a third attempt in 1924 Mallory was unsure
whether he wanted to go again to Everest. He had just started a new job in
Cambridge, which suited him very well, and his family had joined him there. In
ten years of marriage he and his wife Ruth had found themselves apart as much
as they had been together, separated first by war and then by repeated Everest
trips and lecture tours. It was a wrench to leave home again, but in the end
Mallory thought it would be rather grim to see others, without him, engaged in
conquering the summit.
"I have to look at it from the point of view of loyalty to the expedition," he
wrote to his father as he vacillated, "and of carrying through a task begun."
After his disappearance on Everest close friends would say that Mallory
had taken the decision to return with foreboding, telling them that what he
would have to face this time would be "more like war than adventure" and that
he doubted he would return. He knew that no one would criticize him if he
refused to go, but he felt it a compulsion. It is impossible to say now whether
these were more than fleeting moments of guilt at having to leave his wife Ruth
yet again with all responsibility for their young children. Be that as it may,
once on the road to Tibet again, Mallory was his usual energetic self. "I feel
strong for the battle," he wrote to Ruth from Base Camp, "but I know every
ounce of strength will be wanted."