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Rongbuk and Everest 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.

Lighting the juniper 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 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:

Irvine Andrew Irvine

"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.'"

Unanswered Questions (May 25, 1999)
Forty-Eight Yaks (May 21, 1999)
On Top of the World (May 17, 1999)
Summit Team Moves Higher (May 16, 1999)
Still at Camp V (May 15, 1999)
Snow Bound (May 14, 1999)
Outsmarting the Weather (May 13, 1999)
Last Trip Up (May 12, 1999)
Up to ABC/The Rescue (May 11, 1999)
The Image of Mallory (May 8, 1999)
In Extremis (May 7, 1999)
Pieces of the Puzzle (May 6, 1999)
Dearest George (May 5, 1999)
Mallory's Discoverers Return (May 4, 1999)
Mallory Reported Found (May 3, 1999)
Waiting in Silence (May 1, 1999)
Up to the Search Site (April 30, 1999)
To the North Col (April 29, 1999)
Waiting out the Wind (April 28, 1999)
Search About to Begin (April 25, 1999)
Pitching a 1933 Tent (April 23, 1999)
Early Camp Found at 21,750 Feet on Everest (April 20, 1999)
Up to Base Camp (April 23, 1999)

Photos: (1) Peter Tyson; (2-4) Liesl Clark; (5) Salkeld Collection.
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