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Luke Hughes

  • Ghosts of Everest: The Authorised Story of the Search for Mallory & Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb and Larry Johnson
    Macmillan, 206 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 333 78314 X
  • Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine by Peter Firstbrook
    BBC, 244 pp, £16.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 563 55129 1
  • The Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory by David Breashears and Audrey Salkeld
    National Geographic, 240 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 7922 7538 1

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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