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Mallory with his wife, Ruth Mallory with his wife, Ruth
We have established the way
by George Mallory

After the five-week walk from Darjeeling, the 1921 reconnaissance expedition arrived at the Tibetan village of Tingri, 50 miles north of Everest, at the end of June. It spent the next three months in search of a way on to the mountain, exploring the valleys, glaciers and cols in the northern section of the Everest massif. For George Mallory, the only person to take part in all three British Everest trips of the 1920s, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Since returning from the Great War he had become increasingly frustrated by the petty restrictions of a schoolmaster's life and had resigned to join the expedition, with little thought of what he would do afterwards. He wrote prodigiously - to use one of his own favourite words - of his discoveries to his family and friends, revealing far more of his feelings than in his official expedition bulletins. Most of the following extracts are from letters to his wife Ruth.

Reprinted from Everest: The Best Writings and Pictures from Seventy Years of Human Endeavour Edited by Peter Gillman, Little Brown and Company, 1993. Courtesy of John Mallory.

28 June
First camp under Everest: This is a busier life than might be imagined even on an off day. It is after 9 pm and I have only just finished my lengthy but necessary dispatch to Howard-Bury, and I shall have to be up at 5 am ... I'll tell you about Everest in my next letter. Suffice it to say that it has the most steep ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen, and that all the talk of an easy snow slope is a myth.

We are completely cut off from civilization here. There is a monastery quite close to us; it's rather convenient as supplies come up the valley for the monks and we can arrange for fuel to come for us with theirs, so we shall probably keep the base camp here for some weeks. It's a fairly sheltered spot and just near a beautiful little spring, but the wrong side of the valley for the morning sun. Everest is just a little east of south from us.

Yesterday we made a first mountaineering expedition, started at 3.25 am with five coolies; one and a half hours to the terminal moraine of the glacier; 5.45, crossed a torrent with difficulty; then across a flat basin to the end of the glacier, which is covered with stones and made of enormous hummocks; bore across to the true left bank of the glacier and worked up a dry stream bed. Breakfast at 7 am near a great stone, just as the sun hit us. An hour to a corner where a glacier comes in from the west. We worked round this corner and up on to a shelf on the Mountainside.

I found it pretty hot on the glacier; there is no doubt the sun tends to take the heart out of one, but not unbearably so. I must confess to a degree of tiredness after the glacier work which I have never quite reached in the Alps, but in all I was very pleased with myself from a physical point of view. My darling, this is a thrilling business altogether. I can't tell you how it possesses me, and what a prospect it is. And the beauty of it all!

6 July, climbing Ri-Ring
An early start at 4.15 am, straight up the stony slopes above our camp. After about an hour's going, I took some photos of Everest and some of his neighbours, all looking magnificent in the early sun. It was about 2,500 feet to the crest of our ridge: Bullock and coolies rather tired at this point; 40 minutes' halt and some food. Roped up for snow towards 8 am. A long upwards traverse to a snow col, where we halted, 9.30 to 10.10.

From this point we had to follow a long snow ridge and then rock and snow. Two coolies dropped out here, and the other three after an hour and a half more. Bullock and I plugged on, climbing now and then little steep bits of slaty rock, treading carefully along snow crests, occasionally cutting a few steps in ice to reach the arete again after a short traverse. Our interest was partly in what we saw, partly in the sheer struggle of getting on. We moved very slowly, keeping up muscular energy and overcoming lassitude by breathing fast and deep. It was a colossal labour. We reached the top at 2.45. The aneroid, which reads about 400 feet low, registered 23,500. After a week at our camp I consider this a good performance - a rise of 5,500 feet in the day. I have no doubt when we get better acclimatised and start from a higher camp we shall be able to go a great deal higher. It is a remarkable fact about mountaineering here, so far as our experience goes, that the descent is always very firing. It is only possible to keep oneself going by remembering to puff like a steam-engine.

19 July, to the col between Lingtren and Pumori
An exciting walk. I so much feared the cloud would spoil all. It was just light enough to get on without lanterns after the moon went down. At dawn almost everything was covered, but not by heavy clouds. Like guilty creatures of darkness surprised by the light, they went scattering away as we came up, and the whole scene opened out. The North Ridge of Everest was clear and bright even before sunrise. We reached the col at 5 am, a fantastically beautiful scene; and we looked across into the West Cwm at last, terribly cold and forbidding under the shadow of Everest. It was nearly an hour after sunrise before the sun hit the West Peak.

But another disappointment: it is a big drop, about 1,500 feet down to the glacier, and a hopeless precipice. I was hoping to get away to the left and traverse into the cwm - that, too, was quite hopeless. However, we have seen this western glacier and are not, sorry we have not to go up it. It is terribly steep and broken. In any case, work on this side could only be carried out from a base in Nepal, so we have done with the western side. It was not a very likely chance that the gap between Everest and the South Peak could be reached from the west. From what we have seen now, I do not much fancy it would be possible, even could one get up the glacier.

28 July, to Kharta
I have been half the time in ecstasy. My first thought on coming down was that the world was green again. A month had made all the difference to the appearance of the hillsides. As we have come down lower, and nearer to the Arun valley, the appearance of greenness has steadily increased. We have crossed two passes on the way, and we have slept near two clear bubbling streams; and all that we have seen of snow mountains has been of interest, but none of that counts with me. To see things grow again as though they liked growing, enjoying rain and sun - that has been the real joy.

I collected in a beautiful ramble a lovely bunch of wild flowers. The commonest were a pink geranium and a yellow potentilla and a little flower that looked for all the world like a violet but turned out from its leaf to be something quite different; and there was grass of Parnassus, which I really love, and in places a carpet of a little button flower, a brilliant pink, which I think must belong to the garlic tribe. But most of all I was delighted to find kingcups, a delicate variety rather smaller than ours at home, but somehow especially reminding me of you - you wrote of wading deeply through them in the first letter I had from you in Rome.

7 August, to the summit of Kartse
We walked for about three-quarters of an hour by candlelight up a moraine. Even before the first glimmer of dawn, the white mountains were somehow touched to life by a faint blue light - a light that changed, as the day grew, to a rich yellow on Everest and then a bright grey blue before it blazed all golden when the sun hit it, while Makalu, even more beautiful, gave us the redder shades, the flush of pink and purple shadows. But I'm altogether beaten for words. The whole range of peaks from Makalu to Everest far exceeds any mountain scenery that ever I saw before.

Then we plugged on over the glacier, well covered with fresh snow, till we took off our snow shoes and for the first time the party (four coolies) found themselves on steep rocks - not a very formidable precipice, but enough to give us all some pleasure. The rocks took us to a pass which was our first objective. Below on the far side was a big glacier but we couldn't yet see whether it led to the North Col of our desire.

We had already taken time to observe the great Eastern Face of Mount Everest, and more particularly the lower edge of the hanging glacier; it required but little further gazing to know that almost everywhere the rocks below must be exposed to ice falling from this glacier; that if, elsewhere, it might be possible to climb up, the performance would be too arduous, would take too much time and would lead to no convenient platform; that, in short, other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but emphatically, it was not for us.

We now wanted to see over a high ridge to the col itself. The next section was exceedingly steep. Bullock thought it would prove impossible and it was stiff work; I had a longish bit of cutting in good snow. We then reached a flat plateau, put on snow shoes, and hurried across the far edge. The party then lay down and slept in various postures while I took photographs and examined the North Peak through my glass. It was clearly visible down to the level of the col, but no more than that - so that, though the view was in many ways wonderful, the one thing we really wanted to see was still hidden. Eventually I asked for volunteers to come on to the top, and two coolies offered to come with me. It was only a matter of 500 feet, but the snow was very deep and lying at a terribly steep angle. One coolie refused to come on after a time; the other struggled on with me.

And then suddenly we were on the summit. As the wind blew rifts in the snow I had glimpses of what I wanted to see, glimpses only, but enough to suggest a high snow cwm under this North-east Face of Everest, finding its outlet somehow to the north. It is this outlet that we have now to find - the way in and the way up. We are going back to the valley junction, the glacier stream we left, with the idea that at the head of one of its branches we shall find the glacier we want.

17 August, to the Lhakpa La
When we started at 3 am, our hope was to reach our snow col while the snow was still hard, in four or five hours from the camp. It was a dim hope, because we knew fresh snow had fallen. After a few steps on the glacier, we found it necessary to put on our snow shoes - blessed snow shoes in that they save one sinking in more than a few inches, but a dismal weight to carry about on one's feet on a long march.

We reached the col at 12.30 pm. Apart from a couple of hours on snow-covered rocks above the icefall, this time was all spent in the heavy grind on soft snow. It is no use pretending that this was an agreeable way of passing time. Once we had the glacier from the rocks and eaten at about 8.15 am, we were enveloped in thin mist which obscured the view and made one world of snow and sky - a scorching mist, if you can imagine such a thing, more burning than bright sunshine and indescribably breathless. One seemed literally at times to be walking in a white furnace. Morshead, who knows the hottest heat of the plains in India, said that he had never felt any heat so intolerable as this. It was only possible to keep plodding on by a tremendous and continually conscious effort of the lungs; and up the steep final slopes I found it necessary to stop and breathe as hard as I could for a short space in order to gain sufficient energy to push up a few more steps.

The clouds of course hid the peaks when we got there, but in the most important sense the expedition was a success: we saw what we came to see. There, sure enough, was the suspected glacier running north from a cwm under the North-east Face of Everest. How we wished it had been possible to follow it down and find out the secret of its exit! There we were baffled. But the head of this glacier was only a little way below us, perhaps 700 feet at most; and across it lay our way, across easy snow up into the other side of the cwm, where the approach to the North Col, the long-wished-for goal, could not be difficult nor even long. And so, whatever may happen to the glacier whose exit we have yet to find, we have found our way to the great mountain. In such conditions as we found it, it cannot of course be used; but there it is, revealed for our use when the weather clears and the snow hardens.

15 September
Pour out your pity, dearest, pull it up from your deep wells - and be pleased to hear that I read myself agreeably to sleep, and slept, slept bountifully, deeply, sweetly from 9 pm to 6 am and woke to see the roof of my tent bulging ominously inwards and a white world outside. It was easy enough to make out that conditions for climbing were entirely hopeless. Every visible mountain face was hung with snow, incredibly more so often than we last were there three weeks ago. The glacier presented an even surface of soft snow and everything confirmed what everybody had previously said - that it was useless to attempt carrying loads up to our col until we had a spell of real fair weather.

I ordered the whole party to pack up and go down. We were still pulling down tents and covering stores when the clouds came up with a rush and the sizzle of hard-driving snow was about us again. We sped down the hillside, facing wind and snow, down the long valley, dancing over the stones half-snow-covered and leaping the grey waters of many streams, and so at length to the humpy grass in the flat hollow where the big tents are pitched ...

Just now we are all just drifting as the clouds drift, forgetting to number the days so as to avoid painful thoughts of the hurrying month. For my part I'm happy enough; the month is too late already for the great venture; we shall have to face great cold, I've no doubt; and the longer the delay, the colder it will be. But the fine weather will come at last. My chance, the chance of a lifetime, I suppose, will be sadly shrunk by then; and all my hopes and plans for seeing something of India on the way back will be blown to wherever the monsoon blows. I would willingly spend a few weeks longer here, if only for the sake of seeing Everest and Makalu and the excitement of new points of view. I would like to undertake a few other ascents, less ambitious but perhaps more delightful. And it will be a loss not to see again that strangely beautiful valley over the hills, and the green meadows dominated by the two greatest mountains.

Of the pull the other way I needn't tell you. If I picture the blue Mediterranean and the crisp foam hurrying by as the ship speeds on to Marseilles or Gibraltar where I shall expect to see you smiling in the sunshine on the quayside - my dear one, when such pictures fill my mind, as often enough they do, I'm drawn clean out of this tent into a world not only more lovely, more beautifully lit, but signifying something.

17 September
Wonder of wonders! We had indication that the weather intended to change. We woke and found the sky clear and remaining clear, no dense white clouds drifting up the valley, but a chill wind driving high clouds from the north. I had a good walk yesterday with Morshead and Bullock and I started at 2 am to ascend a snow peak on the boundary ridge between this valley and the next one to the south. We had a glorious view, unimaginably splendid - Kangchenjunga and all the higher mountains to the East were standing up over a sea of fleecy cloud: Makalu straight opposite across the valley was gigantic, and Everest at the head of the valley - very fine too. But the snow was in bad condition and it's not melting as it should; above 20,000 feet or so it was powdery under a thin crust and it was impossible to get along without snow shoes, and if it doesn't melt properly on the glacier we might as well pack up our traps at once. In addition to this cause of despair, Morshead was going badly and I must admit to feeling the height a good deal. I'm clearly far from being as fit as I ought to be. It's very distressing, my dear, just at this moment and altogether my hopes are at zero.

After ten weeks' exploration, culminating in a frustrating three weeks pinned down by bad weather, Mallory believed he had finally found a way. His goal was the North Col, on Everest's North-east Ridge, which he believed would open the way to the summit. On 22 September he and his colleagues crossed the Lhakpa La and descended to pitch their tents on the Rongbuk Glacier, ready to attempt to reach the col and perhaps even to push on for the summit - the next morning.

23 September
After a late start and a very slow march we pitched our tents on the open snow up towards the col. It might have been supposed that in so deep a cwm and sheltered on three sides by steep mountain slopes, we should find a tranquil air and the soothing, though chilly calm of undisturbed frost. Night came clearly indeed, but no gentle intentions. Fierce squalls of wind visited our tents and shook and worried them with the disagreeable threat of tearing them away from their moorings, and then scurried off, leaving us in wonder at the change and asking what next to expect. It was a cold wind at an altitude of 22,000 feet, and however little one may have suffered, the atmosphere discouraged sleep. Again I believe I was more fortunate than my companions, but Bullock and Wheeler fared badly. It was an hour or so after sunrise when we left the camp and half an hour later we were breaking the crust on the first slopes under the wall. We had taken three coolies who were sufficiently fit and competent, and proceeded to use them for the hardest work. Apart from one brief spell of cutting when we passed the corner of a bergschrund it was a matter of straightforward plugging, firstly slanting up to the right on partially frozen avalanche snow and then left in one long upward traverse to the summit. Only one passage shortly below the col caused either anxiety or trouble; here the snow was lying at a very steep angle and was deep enough to be disagreeable. About 500 steps of very hard work covered all the worst of the traverse and we were on the col shortly before 11.30 am.

By this time two coolies were distinctly tired, though by no means incapable of coming on; the third, who had been in front, was comparatively fresh. Wheeler thought he might be good for some further effort, but had lost all feeling in his feet. Bullock was tired, but by sheer will power would evidently come on - how far, one couldn't say. For my part I had had the wonderful good fortune of sleeping tolerably well at both high camps and was now finding my best form; I supposed I might be capable of another 2,000 feet,- and there would be no time for more. But what lay ahead of us? My eyes had often strayed, as we came up, to the rounded edge above the col and the final rocks below the North-east Arete. If ever we had doubted whether the arete were accessible, it was impossible to doubt any longer. For a long way up those easy rock and snow slopes was neither danger nor difficulty. But at present there was wind. Even where we stood under the lee of a little ice cliff it came in fierce gusts at frequent intervals, blowing up the powdery snow in a suffocating tourbillion.

On the col beyond it was blowing a gale. And higher was a more fearful sight. The powdery fresh snow on the great face of Everest was being swept along in unbroken spindrift and the very ridge where our route lay was marked out to receive its unmitigated fury. We could see the blown snow deflected upwards for a moment where the wind met the ridge, only to rush violently down in a frightful blizzard on the leeward side. To see, in fact, was enough; the wind had settled the question; it would have been folly to go on. Nevertheless, some little discussion took place as to what might be possible, and we struggled a few steps further to put the matter to the test. For a few moments we exposed ourselves on the col to feel the full strength of the blast, then struggled back to shelter. Nothing more was said about pushing our assault any further.

29 September
My dearest Ruth,
This is a mere line at the earliest moment, in the midst of packing and arrangements to tell you that all is well. It is a disappointment that the end should seem so much tamer than I hoped. But it wasn't tame in reality; it was no joke getting to the North Col. I doubt if any big mountain venture has ever been made with a smaller margin of strength. I carried the whole party on my shoulders to the end, and we were turned back by a wind in which no man could live an hour. As it is we have established the way to the summit for anyone who cares to try the highest adventure.

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