Last year a group of American climbers on Everest discovered the body of George Mallory, the British mountaineer who died on the mountain in 1924, close to the summit, which he and his companion, Andrew Irvine, may or may not have reached. Since then there has been an unseemly rush to cash in on the discovery with at least six books, a poor film made by the BBC, several websites and the syndication of photographic rights across the globe. Peter Firstbrook’s book is written from a very English perspective, Ghosts of Everest from a very American one: neither takes up the really important issues. The Last Climb began life as a history of all the early Everest expeditions but, once Mallory’s body was found, the publishers rushed to get it out, ahead of schedule.
By the end of the First World War, exploration had already reached the North and South Poles, and had found the sources of all the major rivers, but no climber had yet got to the top of the world’s highest mountain, or even close to its foot. (The mountain straddles the border between Tibet and Nepal: Tibet was a closed country until 1911, and even then could hardly have been called open; Nepal was closed until after the Second World War.) Before 1921, no one had been above 24,600 feet on any mountain – the summit of Everest was at 29,028 feet – and it was still unclear whether climbers could survive at that height and whether carrying extra oxygen would help. Above that height every step was a step into the physiological unknown. In 1921 there was a reconnaissance and, a year later, a fullblown attempt on the mountain. In June 1924 two English climbers were in a position to make a second attempt on the summit.
George Mallory, now 37 years old and a Charterhouse schoolmaster, had been on the two earlier expeditions. He was acknowledged as one of the better British rock climbers and had proved himself at high altitude. Andrew Irvine was 22 and had no Himalayan experience, but he was adept at repairing oxygen apparatus, or what the expedition’s Sherpas laughingly referred to as ‘English air’. On his earlier attempts, Mallory had felt that oxygen was somehow ‘unsporting’ but he was coming round to the idea that, without it, Everest might never be climbed. For all his agility on the rocks, however, he was mechanically inept and disorganised about even basic equipment (he forgot his camera and had to borrow one from Howard Somervell). Irvine, who was reading for a degree in engineering, was capable of stripping and repairing most mechanical devices. Indeed, at the Everest base-camp he rebuilt the oxygen apparatus, saving weight and improving the flow. Even then, his revised rig weighed about 30 pounds (say, eight volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica) and the bottles were still unreliable.
After two failed attempts on the summit by others in the party, Mallory decided he and Irvine would try one final assault – this time using oxygen. They were last spotted in the early afternoon of 8 June by Noel Odell, himself a strong climber, who was following them in support. He claimed he saw them approach and climb a prominent rock buttress (known as the Second Step) at 28,400 ft – and go ‘strongly’ for the summit. Clouds then gathered and that was the last that was seen of them. Despite his clear recollections and the contemporary notes he made, Odell was bullied by sceptical cross-examiners after he returned home (as he was for the rest of his long life – he died only a decade ago at the age of 99) and felt obliged to alter his story, undermining his own first impressions.
Two reasons why the doubts persisted were that no one could believe that Mallory, let alone Irvine, the weaker climber, could have managed the difficult Second Step (a 40m barrier to the route to the summit which would have been awkward enough at sea level), nor could they imagine that, late in the day as it was, Mallory and Irvine did not have the good sense to turn back well ahead of nightfall. The first doubt was felt to have been corroborated by the evidence of subsequent expeditions in the 1930s, which maintained that the Step was unassailable. (As it happens, a Chinese expedition did climb it in 1960, a feat repeated in 1975, when another Chinese party fixed an aluminium ladder, to the benefit of all expeditions to this day.) More important, in 1988, a British climber, Stephen Venables, lived to tell of the night he spent out on his own after climbing an uncharted route by the East Face, without oxygen.
The second doubt took no account of ‘summit fever’, or the effects of altitude on people’s judgment. Even before the summit bid, John Noel, the cameraman on the 1924 trip, claimed that Mallory’s obsession with Everest amounted to mental illness; against which was the fact that Mallory had a wife and three small children, and had just moved house and begun a new teaching job in Cambridge. On the other hand, perhaps an awareness of the fame and financial reward awaiting them were they to succeed was enough to drive Mallory and Irvine to the limit.
Summit fever aside, one of the biggest difficulties you face in high-altitude climbing is that of making decisions. They can be as basic as whether to put your boots on or not, whether to light the stove, whether to get into your sleeping bag, whether to pee inside or outside the tent – never mind whether to go on to the summit or turn back. In such circumstances, you rely on your instincts to carry you through. Only rarely does logic come into it.
There is a further aspect of Mallory’s story – about which Firstbrook could have said more. In 1909, he broke his ankle, an injury that never properly healed and continued to give him trouble, especially during the war. He was in fact rather ashamed of his war record. Charterhouse would not release him until 1916, by which time most of his close friends (he was very well connected) had crossed the Channel: Geoffrey Winthrop Young, George Trevelyan, Geoffrey Keynes, Robert Graves (a former pupil) and Rupert Brooke (a contemporary at Magdalene). Another friend, Lytton Strachey, was renowned for his obsession with Mallory’s good looks (he credited him ‘with the face of a Botticelli’).
In April 1915, Mallory wrote to A.C. Benson, his former tutor: ‘there’s something indecent when so many friends have been enduring so many horrors in just going on at one’s job quite happy and prosperous.’ Eventually, he took a commission in the Royal Artillery and went to France in May 1916, serving as a Forward Observation Officer. However, in August the ankle began to cause trouble and nine months later he was back in London for an operation; it transpired that it had never properly set. Once healed, Mallory returned to his barracks on a motorbike, and managed to hit a pillar at the entrance to the camp, crushing his foot; he was unfit for the rest of the year. He spent most of 1918 working on a new super-gun near Newcastle and although he was back in France towards the end of the war, he wrote to his father shortly before the Armistice: ‘I should have liked to return home, if not a hero, at least a man of arms more tried than I have been ... my instinct is to want more fighting.’
Nor should one underestimate Irvine, young and inexperienced though he was. As a boy at Shrewsbury during the war he was surely moved by the jingoism of the time, and anyone who has rowed twice, as he did, in the Boat Race will have known about pushing himself to the limits. His inexperience as a climber need not have been a handicap: amateurs have a tradition of excelling on Everest. Technically, most of the climbing on the North Face is not hard, though the effects of exposure and altitude demand either strong climbing instincts or what Colonel Norton, the leader of the 1924 expedition who got within 1000ft of the summit without oxygen, described as ‘PBS – pure, bloody sweat’.
So what of the case for Mallory and Irvine having made it to the top? Before last year, this was unproven (but by no means disproved). It remains so still, even now that Mallory has been found, tantalisingly, with his watch and altimeter broken, without a camera, with his goggles in his pocket. Ironically, we may never know more; even if another expedition goes back, as is proposed, to look for Irvine’s body and for the missing camera, according to Odell’s estimation it would almost certainly have been too dark by the time they got to the summit to take a picture, always supposing they had had the energy. (In 1988, the only shot Venables could manage was of lots of oxygen bottles lying in the snow; he quite forgot about the view.)
Ghosts of Everest is a lavishly produced book, with excellent and sometimes moving photographs but a largely superficial text. The one notable exception is the chapter describing the finding and subsequent burial of the body, when the American climbers’ sense of respect and sympathy comes out (this was also caught on the film they made). Another good chapter describes how Conrad Anker climbed the Second Step without oxygen or anyone’s help, thus establishing that Mallory and Irvine could have done the same.
Peter Firstbrook’s book is better written but poorly produced, with disappointing photos. The author spends 162 pages out of 203 retelling the history of Everest exploration; and his text shows more than a passing resemblance to other, better, secondary sources – David Robertson’s George Mallory, Walt Unsworth’s Everest, Peter Hopkirk’s Trespassers on the Roof of the World, Audrey Salkeld and Tom Holzel’s Mystery of Mallory & Irvine.
By contrast, Last Climb is not only well written, it derives authority from the original research that Breashears and Salkeld have done, interviewing not only Odell shortly before his death but also the families and descendants of other expedition members, and sifting through their attics for personal diaries and photograph albums which were never part of the official record. The authors have also drawn heavily on the photographic archive at the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club – some of those they reproduce have never been seen in public before and are truly magnificent, as are the reproductions of Colonel Norton’s evocative watercolours.
There is an assumption that what we wear today at altitude is somehow better than what the likes of Mallory and Irvine wore, but technophilia can cloud common sense: incidents of frostbite are just as frequent today as they were in the 1920s. On big mountains, much depends on the wind. Although appreciative of duck-down, I have worn single layers of underwear at 8200m on a windless sunny day, a modern down-suit being far too hot for carrying loads in. When they found him, Mallory was wearing eight thin, air-trapping layers (the photos in Ghosts show how fluffy all this stuff was). Over them he had on a woollen cardigan and one of the wind-proof smocks of tightly woven cotton, proved by Shackleton on his Antarctic trips and still used today, with affection, by SAS soldiers (who recognise them as being the lightest, quickest drying, longest lasting and most effective protection against wind). Mallory and Irvine also wore fur-lined motorcycle helmets and large woollen mufflers, all eminently practical. And what of tweed? I bitterly regret leaving my own last pair of tweed breeches at 8000m on the West Ridge – they were always warm even when frozen and are now irreplaceable. Their felt boots left lots of room for three or four pairs of socks (in the photos you can still see the impression of loop stitch on the skin of Mallory’s feet, frozen now for sure, but showing no signs of frostbite). The nails on their soles, ‘clinkers’ or ‘tricounis’, were still favoured in the 1940s, and in some ways were better suited than modern crampons for crossing the north slopes of Everest, which are made up of downward sloping loose rocks – it’s like walking across a 35° slate roof, except that if you go over the edge there is a 3000m drop. Climbing in modern crampons on such terrain is like climbing stairs on stilts.
The search for a solution to the Mallory ‘mystery’ was instigated by Tom Holzel, who led the first expedition in 1986. The expedition last year, on the 75th anniversary of Mallory’s death, was the idea of the British mountaineer and BBC producer Graham Hoyland, a nephew of Howard Somervell, the man who lent his camera to the absent-minded Mallory. In a classic drama of rampaging egos, Hoyland then had to watch his idea being taken over by the BBC, who relegated him to a lesser role. On the expedition itself, he suffered a minor stroke and had to go home, leaving the American climbers to take all the credit for finding the body and the BBC that for the film. (There were other expeditions on the mountain at the time: Ukrainians, Belgians, Swiss and a solo Chinese, until by the end of April nearly a dozen teams were vying for space for tents and litter provision.)
Rows between camera crews and climbers are not new; they have beset expeditions since John Noel underwrote the 1924 expedition with speculative funds based on what he thought the eventual footage might make. But the BBC was shameless in trying to stop the climbing team from telling their own stories (thereby losing their first choice of high-altitude cameraman and prejudicing a much better book and film), and the Americans were shameless in cashing in once they had found a film crew prepared to back them (without a film it is notoriously difficult to raise sponsorship). Now that they can no longer seek to be the first to get to the top, climbers have devised ever more distasteful ways to distinguish themselves and raise funds: the first to get there without oxygen, the first to climb solo, the first by the West Ridge, East Face, NE ridge, the oldest woman, the first black, the first vegetarian. Everest has become the site of a kind of existential consumerism. The American group have continued in this unedifying tradition. As Stephen Venables has put it in High magazine,
Not content with broadcasting to the world the details of Mallory’s corpse, the American expedition’s agents saw their chance to make the most of the instant communications of our obsessively visual age and went a step further, flogging the photos to the Mail on Sunday and then all round the world ... there was no consultation with Mallory’s surviving 84-year-old daughter, Clare Millikan, nor his son John nor any of the grandchildren about the sale of the photos.
Someone will have made a fortune from the Mallory photos, little of which for sure will have gone to the families. Ghosts of Everest has to date sold more than 26,000 copies through Amazon.com alone. Of its authors, Jochen Hemmleb is an Everest junkie who collects Mallory marginalia with the obsession of a train-spotter, Larry Johnson is a publishing consultant specialising in the marketing of outdoor books, and Eric Simonson is a professional mountain guide who has led more than seventy high altitude expeditions, seven to Everest. Their book was ghosted by William Northdurft, who has also written books for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Given what they had to gain professionally, what more of a spin did they need?
Both Ghosts of Everest and Lost on Everest are arrogantly insensitive to the country. They might, for instance, have mentioned the negotiations between Lhasa and British India over the prewar expeditions, which were cited by the Tibetans as evidence to the United Nations in support of their claim to independence from China, a fact shabbily ignored by both the British and Indian Governments in 1959. The one mention of the present condition of Tibet is in a diary entry, quoted in Ghosts from the climber Andy Politz, who from the road by the border, noted the public works he could see: hydroelectric installations, housing, roadworks. ‘The Chinese,’ he wrote, ‘are trying to kill the Tibetan culture with kindness by building infrastructure.’ Try telling that to the families of the two million Tibetans who have perished at the hands of the Chinese since 1959, to the monks and nuns of 6500 monasteries which have been dynamited since the Cultural Revolution, to the forced exiles around the nuclear testing sites of Lop Nor, to the hundreds of thousands of exiles around the world and the prisoners of conscience still in Tibet.
The story of Mallory and Irvine will go on being told but in truth it contains no mystery. As Somervell pointed out at the time, ‘there were only two possibilities – accident or benightment.’ Ghosts of Everest and Lost on Everest may both snatch at doubtful clues as to whether they made the summit, but either way, as Edmund Hillary has pointed out, they did not get back. Did the nation mourn at the time? A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in October 1924, attended by the King, the Prince of Wales (both of whom had made modest contributions to expedition funds), members of the Alpine Club and RGS, but the interest soon waned. In recent weeks, I have asked a number of octogenarians who then moved in such circles and I was surprised to learn from them how little the climbers’ deaths registered at the time.