Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Homage to George Mallory

Homage to George Mallory

Homage to George Mallory (2000)

From NOVA Online:

George Leigh Mallory was the only climber to take part in all three of the British pioneering expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1920s. Born in 1886, he died a few days short of his 38th birthday, while making a summit attempt with his young companion, Andrew Irvine.


Those who set off on the reconnaissance trip of 1921 had no idea what they were up against. But as Mallory put it, "to refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell." They were walking off the known map, with high hopes of scaling a mountain no Westerner had ever seen at close quarters, venturing into atmospheres thinner than anyone had climbed into before. For its day, going to Everest was like going to the moon. The small, poorly equipped little band, dressed in an assortment of tweeds and home-knits, challenged Himalayan heights with little to assist them beyond the indomitable spirit of Empire.


By the mid 1920s the farthest corners of the Earth had already been explored: the North and South Poles had been reached, the sources of the world's major rivers had been discovered. All that remained to be claimed was the "Third Pole," the summit of the highest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest. In 1924 a British expedition was poised to make that claim. At the time of their first Everest attempt, in 1921, no climber had ventured above 24,600 feet. It was unclear whether climbers could go higher and still survive, and whether supplemental oxygen would help. Each step higher on Everest was new territory, the physiological unknown, and in June of 1924, two climbers were in position at their high camp on the mountain, ready to make a bid for the summit.

Thirty-eight year old George Leigh Mallory had been on the two previous British expeditions to Everest in the 1920s. He was celebrated as one of Britain's ablest rock climbers, and he had proven himself as a strong high-altitude climber on the Everest expeditions of 1921 and 1922. Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, only 22 at the time, had no Himalayan or high-altitude climbing experience. But he was adept at repairing the controversial oxygen apparatus used by the British climbers at high elevations. The local Tibetans and Sherpas laughed at the strange bottles containing what they referred to as "English Air."


Mallory and Irvine were last spotted, through mist, in the early afternoon of June 8 by geologist Noel Odell, who was following behind in support. He saw two black figures -- no more than dots -- approach and climb a rock step, called the Second Step, on the mountain's skyline, "nearing the base of the summit pyramid." To Odell, they seemed to be going strong and, although lower than he expected, he felt sure they should make it to the summit. Then clouds swirled in once more and Odell's tantalizing vision was lost forever.

Mallory's fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered in 1999. From maybe you can trust us in 75 years Wikipedia:

On 1 May 1999 Conrad Anker of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, sponsored in part by Nova and the BBC, arrived at Mt. Everest and commenced searching for the lost pair. Finally, the frozen body of George Mallory was found at 8,155 m (26,760 ft) on the north face of Mt. Everest. However, they could not locate either of the two cameras that Mallory and Irvine had apparently carried with them. Experts from Kodak have stated that if one of the cameras is ever found, there is a good chance that the film could be developed to produce "printable images." This is thanks to the nature of the black and white film that was used and the fact that it has been in continual "deep freeze" for over three-quarters of a century.

When Mallory's body was discovered, two fascinating -- although inconclusive -- observations were made:

Firstly, Mallory's daughter has always said that Mallory carried a photograph of his wife on his person with the intention of leaving it on the summit. This photo was not found on Mallory's body. Given the excellent preservation of the body and its garments, this points to the possibility that he may have reached the summit and deposited the photo there.

Secondly, Mallory's snow goggles were found in his pocket, indicating that he died at night. This suggests that he and Irvine had made a push for the summit and were descending very late in the day. Given their known departure time and movements, had they not made the summit, it is unlikely that they would have still been out by nightfall.

We may never know if Mallory and/or Irvine reached the summit. Moreover, there seems to be some debate in the climbing community whether claiming a first ascent necessitates also achieving a successful descent. Indeed, Mallory's son, John Mallory, posed this very question when he exclaimed:

To me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don't get down again.

But he was only three-years-old when his father died. Perhaps the son would have preferred to have known his father rather than to have lived in the myth of his father's legend.

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