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The British Hero Who Died on Everest

Seventy-five years after trying to conquer Mount Everest in 1924, the perfectly preserved body of George Mallory has been found near the summit. Could it be that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were not, after all, the first to scale the world's highest mountain?

Who was George Mallory?

He was a classic public schoolboy hero, a golden youth feted by the Bloomsbury group while still a Cambridge under-graduate. He possessed, wrote Lytton Strachey, "the mystery of Botticelli, the delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy". His body, which Duncan Grant painted in the nude, was "vast, pink and unbelievable", noted Strachey. "A thing to melt into and die." Mallory went on to teach at Charterhouse, but gave that up to pursue his love of mountaineering. Even before his death in 1924, aged 38, he had acquired the mythic status of the plucky English explorer with a gift for understatement. "We'll have a whack and do ourselves proud," he wrote to his wife from base camp, in his last letter to her. (See: Victorian Values)

Was he any good at mountaneering?

He was certainly unorthodox. On his expeditions to Everest he would stride around the lower altitudes stark naked. And in the manner of the eccentric upper-middle-class amateur, he could be alarmingly forgetful and careless. On several expeditions he would take photos at the summit only to find later that he had left the lens cap on his camera. On his fateful Everest ascent he forgot to pack his torch and magnesium flares, equipment which might have saved his life. But there is no doubt he was also a brilliant mountaineer. "We always regarded him as the ideal climber, light, limber and active," said the expedition leader Lt. Col. Norton. "But the fire within him made him really great... I can hardly picture him ever succumbing to exhaustion."

Was the allure of Everest strong even In the Twenties?

Yes. Once established as the highest point on the earth's surface at 29,028ft, Everest became a peculiarly English obsession. The North and South Poles had been reached: Everest, "the third pole" remained to be conquered. Asked why he wanted to climb the mountain, Mallory famously replied: "Because it is there." In order to conquer it, he knew he would have to make use of newfangled oxygen cylinders, one reason he chose a 22-year-old Oxford graduate called Andrew Irvine to tackle the ascent with him. Irvine, an engineer, knew all about the primitive oxygen sets. He was also a superb athlete and a rowing blue.

When were the two last seen alive?

On 6 June 1924, the two breakfasted on sardines and began their final ascent. Two days later the expedition's geologist, 2,000 feet below, caught a glimpse of them near the summit. As the weather cleared, he wrote "my eyes became fixed on a tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow crest beneath the ridge.., another black spot became apparent and moved to join the other on the crest. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more." That was the last anyone saw of Mallory until last week.

And did the men make it to the top?

That remains a mystery. Some maintain they never made it, others that they were on their way back from the summit when Irvine slipped to his death, leaving Mallory on his own to die of exposure. The answer will only be known if the US team which located Mallory's body can find Irvine's camera. If they do, says Kodak, the freezing cold may well have preserved the film, which could reveal pictures of them at the top.

How was the body found?

In 1975 a Chinese climber called Wang Hongbao signalled that he had seen the body "of an old English dead" near the summit. But a day later Hongbao was killed in an avalanche before the spot could be precisely identified. Patching together this and other pieces of evidence, a German climbing historian worked out where Mallory's body should be and told the US team to search an area of 30 square metres - tiny given the mountain's size. And that is where the US team found him, still wearing his leather boots and his tweed jacket with his name stitched inside it.

How many have climbed Everest since then?

After Mallory's death eight British expeditions made unsuccessful attempts before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally succeeded in 1953. Since then more than 1,000 people have stood on the summit, taking on new challenges as they did so. But this does not diminish Mallory's achievement. Everest is not the most technically difficult mountain to climb but the risks of accident are still huge. Once over 26,000 feet the lack of air pressure creates "a death zone". Apart from the difficulty of breathing there are such hazards as avalanches, hidden crevasses, and ice falls. Even today, one climber dies for every ten who reach the summit. To have climbed so high in the conditions of the Twenties was truly remarkable.

What was so special about those conditions?

In the first place the two men were climbing in uncharted territory whereas today the slopes are well-mapped and dotted with ladders and ropes. And though they might have had primitive oxygen canisters, these were incredibly heavy and unwieldy. But most astonishing was that they made their climb with the most rudimentary equipment and clothing. In contrast to today's hi-tech expeditions, they had no radio, carried a basic cotton tent and wore leather hobnail boots and tweed jackets. Today, as The Independent put it, "only gamekeepers obliged to follow Victorian dress code would go out dressed like that, even on Scottish hills". The only modification Irving insisted on was that special pockets should be fastened on to his jacket which would have a newfangled invention called a "zip fastener".

What was done with Mallory's body?

The team covered him up but didn't want to disturb him. As mountaineer Dave Hahn said of the spot where he found the body: "Take one step away from there and you're not worried about Mallory's life, you're worried about your own."

Published with kind permission of: THE WEEK, 8 May 1999

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