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Susan ReedA fascinating, well-told history of the original Mallory expeditions...[it] offers a rich account of Mallory's early life, marriage and climbing career.
— New York Times Book Review
`A Small Margin of Safety'
`There is no doubt that all his life he enjoyed taking risks, or perhaps it would be fairer to say doing things with a small margin of safety.'
David Pye about George Mallory
In the summer of 1909, at the age of 23, George Mallory was invited to go climbing in the Alps. He had just graduated from Cambridge and although he was not a particularly experienced mountaineer, his occasional climbing trips proved that he had a natural talent for the sport. Two events in the mountains that summer give an interesting insight into Mallory as a climber.
The first happened when he and his friends were making a traverse of the Finsteraarhorn by its difficult southerly arête. The conditions were sunny but very cold, and Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a very experienced alpine climber, later recalled: `The cold upon the very high and exposed cone was positively numbing. It seemed to have curdled even the snow-skin upon the rocks ... George gave me an extra shudder by suggesting — possibly in grave joke — that we should cut his business short by glissading down the ghastly ice-infinity of the western flank.'
The climbers reached the summit, but it was not a day to linger, and Mallory took over the lead to guide the party down the north face of the mountain. He had not moved very far along the exposed ridge before the more experienced Young noticed that Mallory had forgotten to `rope up'. Mallory was perched in a very exposed and dangerous position with onlythe tiniest foothold cut into the icy slabs and with no protection should he slip. Nearly 2 kilometres (1 mile) below him lay the Finsteraarhorn glacier.
Young was horrified at the situation. Rather than risk startling Mallory by shouting across to him, he whispered instead for him to stay exactly where he was and not to move an inch. Meanwhile Young motioned to Donald Robertson, the second climber, to climb down carefully and attach the safety rope, which Mallory had clearly forgotten to tie before he started out after their rest on the summit. As Robertson nervously began to move down the ridge, he slipped and made such a racket that Mallory, alarmed at the sudden noise, spun around on the tiny step he had etched into the ice. Young was sure that Mallory would fall, and he could barely bring himself to look at the acrobatics being performed by the climbers perched high above the glacier.
But his anxiety was unnecessary. Mallory kept his balance and showed little concern about the serious situation in which he had recklessly put himself. But it was a chastened party that continued the long descent that afternoon. Afterwards, Young recalled: `My panic was unnecessary, because the reassurance of a rope never meant anything to Mallory, who was as sure-footed and as agile in recovery as the proverbial chamois.'
The second event happened just a few days later, around 6 p.m., at the end of a long day spent making an attempt on the unclimbed south-east ridge of the Nesthorn. Mallory had just taken over as the lead climber of the group and was trying to work his way around the fourth and final vertical pinnacle near the summit. At the time he was about 6 metres (20 feet) above Young; Donald Robertson was out of sight around the corner. On either side, the ridge disappeared below them in the evening gloom.
Mallory was faced with an overhang that was proving to be an awkward obstacle to further progress up the face. He made an energetic swing to get over the obstruction and in doing so he fell backwards off the rock face. He plunged 12 metres (40 feet) before Young realized what had happened and braced himself to check the fall with a belay. In a later account of the climb, Young wrote: `I saw the boots flash from the wall without even a scrape; and, equally soundlessly, a grey streak flickered downward, and past me, out of sight. So much did the wall, to which he had clung so long, overhang that from the instant he lost hold he touched nothing until the rope stopped him in mid-air over the glacier.'
Young was shocked by what had happened: `At first there was nothing to do but hold on, and watch the pendulum movement of a tense cord straining over the edge and down into space. My first cautious shouts were unanswered. Then there came, from nowhere, a tranquil call to let out more rope, and to "lower away" ... He had not even let go of his ice axe during the fall. The whole incident had passed so swiftly and unemotionally — I had almost said with such decorum — that Donald, twenty feet below us, and round the corner on the north face, remained unaware that anything unusual had happened. Nor did we enlighten him at the time.'
Mallory eventually appeared, completely unflustered, and climbed past Young and continued up the pitch. But, despite his nonchalance, it was a lucky escape for the young climber because they later found that the rope had a very low breaking strain. The three friends continued to complete the first ascent of the Nesthorn by this route and they did not return to their hotel until after midnight. Mallory later wrote to his mother: `We were out twenty-one hours and were altogether rather pleased with ourselves, as we started in bad weather which afterwards cleared up beautifully.' He made no mention of his near fatal fall.
These two incidents just days apart give a valuable insight into Mallory's character. Forgetting to tie on is an alarming lapse of memory for any climber who is attempting an exposed climb. Even more serious is that you endanger your climbing partners as well as yourself.
Admittedly Mallory was still something of a novice climber at the time, but basic safety procedures are drilled into you from your very first lesson, so the event says more about his chronic forgetfulness than his inexperience. He was often vague about practicalities and had to make a conscious effort to remember basic precautionary measures, which normally come naturally to experienced climbers. This problem stayed with him throughout his life and may even have cost him the position of climbing leader in 1924 on Everest, when he was one of the most experienced mountaineers of the day. General Charles Bruce, who led that expedition, once commented wryly: `He is a great dear, but forgets his boots on all occasions.'
However, Mallory's abilities on a mountain far outweighed his limitations. His surefootedness on the icy arête as he swung around to see the cause of the commotion was an unambiguous demonstration of his balance and agility as a climber. As his mountain experience developed and improved over the years, many people were so impressed with his skill that they were convinced he would never fall; others thought he displayed a cavalier attitude at times, or at least that he was rash in some of his judgements.
This is the eternal enigma about Mallory and it perplexed climbers even before his death. Was he impulsive and absent-minded and therefore potentially dangerous on a mountain, or an exceptionally competent climber who rose far above the abilities of most other people?
A couple of years later, Mallory spent Easter at Pen-y-Pass in Wales, a regular spring meeting place for his climbing friends. That year there were several very experienced climbers in the party, including Dr Karl Blodig, a distinguished Austrian climber who had climbed most of the 4000-metre (13,120-foot) peaks in the Alps. On one particularly challenging climb up an ice chimney, Blodig watched Mallory tackle the difficult pitch. He later wrote: `... with the greatest dash and marvellous skill, [he] worked his way up the smooth surface until he disappeared from our view. Unanimous cries of "Hurrah" and "Bravo" hailed this extraordinary performance.' Blodig continued to be impressed with Mallory's skill as a climber, but began to harbour doubts about his prudence and made a prophetic comment one evening when he said: `That young man will not be alive for long!'
Mallory was aghast at this opinion, and his friend, Cottie Sanders, leapt to his defence: `He was prudent, according to his own standards; but his standards were not those of the ordinary medium-good rock climber. The fact was that difficult rocks had become to him a perfectly normal element; his reach, his strength, and his admirable technique, joined to a sort of cat-like agility, made him feel completely secure on rocks so difficult as to fill less competent climbers with a sense of hazardous enterprise ... I never saw him do a reckless or ill-considered thing on steep rocks. He hated the irresponsible folly and ignorance which led incompetent people into dangerous situations.'
George Mallory was born on 18 June 1886 in Mobberley, Cheshire. It was then a leafy village some 24 kilometres (15 miles) south of Manchester. Mallory's father, Herbert, was both clergyman to the local parish church in Mobberley and lord of the manor. He and his wife, Annie, had four children; Mary, George, Victoria (Avie) and Trafford (who later became an air vice-marshal in the Royal Air Force).
Mobberley was a charming and adventurous place for the children to grow up. There were trees to climb and the local brook was always a fascinating place to explore. Mallory's younger sister remembered her childhood there with affection: `It was always fun doing things with George. He had the knack of making things exciting and often rather dangerous. He climbed everything that it was at all possible to climb. I learnt very early that it was fatal to tell him that any tree was impossible for him to get up.'
Life for the Mobberley children was idyllic but undisciplined by the normal standards of late-Victorian England, and Avie recalled that they were unruly and misbehaved. On one occasion, at the age of seven, George was sent to his room for misbehaving in the nursery at teatime. A little later, he was nowhere to be found, until he was noticed climbing on the roof of Mobberley Parish Church. His one defence was that he had gone to his room — to fetch his cap.
Their father was a gentle man, but with a reputation for being rather distant and indifferent towards his parishioners. The Rev. Herbert Leigh Mallory was the youngest of 10 children, all of them born at Manor House in Mobberley. The family was related to the old Cheshire Leigh family of High Leigh, and for over 200 years the Mallorys had given Mobberley their rectors and lords of the manor. Herbert continued the tradition when he succeeded his father as rector of Mobberley parish in 1885. Whether he considered his job a true vocation or simply a convenient way of life is now impossible to tell, but his position in Mobberley seems to have been pre-ordained. What is in little doubt is that George was devoted to his father, who by all accounts was a friendly and compassionate man.
Mallory's impulsive and daring nature became apparent from quite an early age. One summer, when George was eight or nine, the family took a seaside holiday at St Bees in the English Lake District. The young George wondered what it would be like to be cut off by the tide and left stranded, surrounded by sea, so he climbed up on a large rock at low water and waited for the tide to come in. Unfortunately, he took no account of the fact that the rock itself would become submerged by the incoming tide and he soon found the water rising above his ankles. His grandmother implored a holidaymaker to go and rescue the boy, and the unfortunate volunteer waded out and made repeated attempts before finally being successful. By all accounts young George was quite untroubled by the incident.
On another occasion his mother caught him climbing a high iron pier and waited anxiously for him to climb down, which he apparently did with perfect composure. He once told his sister that it would be quite easy to lie between railway lines and let a steam train run over him (but fortunately he did not try the experiment). Another time he happily climbed up a drainpipe and over the roof of his house with all the skill and ability of a born mountaineer. David Pye, a friend from Cambridge days and Mallory's first biographer, wrote: `There is no doubt that all his life he enjoyed taking risks, or perhaps it would be fairer to say doing things with a small margin of safety. He always caught a train by five seconds rather than five minutes: a trait annoying to his companions, and not less so because he always justified it by not missing the train.'
It was usual at the time for boys from even moderately wealthy middleclass homes to be sent away to boarding school. When the headmaster of his preparatory school in West Kirby died in 1896, George was sent to Glengorse, a boarding school in Eastbourne on the south coast of England. He seemed to be perfectly happy at the school, but he ran away with another boy after a couple of years, apparently for no other reason than that his friend did not want to run away alone. It was not long before an assistant master caught up with the two miscreants and he found the only luggage George had with him were his geometry books, neatly wrapped up in brown paper. It was agreed that if the two boys came back to Glengorse they would not be punished — a promise easily offered but inevitably broken when they returned. George was outraged by the deceit.
In 1900, when George was 14, he won a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College. Within days of arriving, he wrote to his mother: `I like being here very much — ever so much better than Glengorse; and I like the men better, too. (Instead of chaps we always say men.) We have plenty of work to do, and I'm afraid I'm running you up a heavy book bill.'
George was fortunate that his housemaster at Winchester was an experienced climber. Graham Irving climbed regularly with a colleague on the staff at Winchester, but when his friend died Irving looked to some of the more energetic, older boys at the school to train and accompany him on his Alpine excursions. Two boys in particular seemed most suitable — George Mallory and his friend Harry Gibson (who had previously visited the Alps and was an enthusiastic mountain walker). From this point onwards the young Mallory was taught to climb properly, and they called their little climbing group the Winchester Ice Club. Irving was the first president, and the schoolboy members were Harry Gibson, George Mallory, Guy Bullock and Harry Tyndale.
Mallory made his first climbing visit to the Alps in the summer of 1904 when he was 18. The group went to Bourg St-Pierre, intending to climb Mont Vélon, a modest mountain less than 3650 metres (12,000 feet) high and technically not much of a challenge. But it was a big undertaking for complete novices and both boys developed mountain sickness just 180 metres (600 feet) from the summit, forcing them to turn back. Despite this inauspicious start to his Alpine career, Mallory later succeeded in making two further climbs in the mountains with Irving. After they returned from his first successful summit, Mallory wrote to his mother: `We went up the last 700 feet in fine form in half an hour. The Grand Combin is 14,100 feet, and of course the view from the top is perfectly ripping.' Later they made a traverse of Mont Blanc from the Dôme hut to the Grands Mulets after a period of appalling weather, `carried through after long imprisonment by storms on a few biscuits and scrapings of honey'.
For many people, this summer climbing in the Alps might have seemed a baptism of fire. But it was enough of a success for Mallory to return the following year with another party of Winchester schoolboys, which included Guy Bullock, who later joined Mallory on the 1921 reconnaissance expedition to Everest. These two seasons in the Alps were to have an enduring influence on Mallory.
No doubt his housemaster also left a lasting impression on the young man. Graham Irving was an experienced but controversial climber. He was one of the first to advocate guideless climbing in the Alps, which in itself was a radical practice at the time and deplored by many older mountaineers. Even more controversial was Irving's habit of climbing solo on some of the easier routes. This was considered to be even more irresponsible and both of these approaches to climbing ran contrary to conventional wisdom in England at the time.
Some years later, in December 1908, Irving went to London to give a talk at the prestigious Alpine Club — the world's oldest mountaineering club, founded in 1857. His presentation was called `Five Years with Recruits'. He knew that his climbing opinions were contentious and he expected criticism from the assembled ranks. His talk was later published in the Alpine Journal, and he wrote: `To some of you it may seem sheer impudence to usurp the functions of the professional experts of Meiringen and Zermatt. It may even be that I shall be accused of corrupting the youth ...'
As he had anticipated, his talk at the Alpine Club caused a storm of protest, and 14 members of the organization signed a disclaimer, denying responsibility `... for any encouragement which publication ... may give to expeditions undertaken after the manner therein described'.
Back in England in the autumn of 1905, Mallory was determined not to lose the new skills he had acquired with Irving. His family had moved to a new parish in Birkenhead the previous year, and during one of his home visits he asked Harold Porter, a school friend, to help him climb on to the roof of the vicarage. Their plan was for Mallory to climb out of an upstairs window where he could get a grip on the overhanging eaves. Then, with an energetic kick, he intended to hoist himself up on to the roof of the house.
Unfortunately, as he swung his legs upwards, he kicked in a windowpane with a resounding crash and woke his mother who was resting in the adjacent bedroom. Annie Mallory rushed into her son's room to find his embarrassed young friend frantically paying out a rope. The other end of the rope was connected to her son, who by this time had taken off across the roof of the family house. Harold Porter later recalled: `... George sped over the roof to a known route of descent on the far side, leaving to me the embarrassing task of pacifying his agitated parent until his reappearance.'
Once he returned to boarding school at Winchester, Mallory continued his extra-curricular exploits. On one occasion he climbed the tower of an old church in Romsey. On another, to celebrate his last day of the summer term, he scaled a tower by working his way up with his feet against the brickwork and bracing his shoulders against an adjacent chimney. There was a vertical drop of 15 metres (50 feet) to the paving stones below, and inevitably a group of schoolboys gathered to watch his exploits. One of the enthralled observers later recalled that seeing Mallory perched so high made him feel almost sick — another wrote that the ascent looked to him `like magic'.
It is intriguing to speculate what effect Graham Irving's unconventional approach had on the young Winchester schoolboy. Here was an older man with great experience of the mountains and a passion for climbing them. He introduced Mallory to the Alps at an impressionable age and left him with a lifelong love of climbing. But Irving's style and technique were far in advance of the accepted wisdom of the day and he could only have fuelled Mallory's natural inclination to be an adventurous and unorthodox climber.
After Mallory's death, Irving speculated as to whether he was right to have introduced him to the mountains, and whether by doing so he might have contributed in some unforeseen way to his death. He wondered whether there was an inevitability that Mallory should climb mountains, but concluded that such a talented and energetic man could most certainly have excelled at any number of sports.
In October 1905 George Mallory went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, to study history. In those days Magdalene was a small and friendly college of about 50 undergraduates, set apart from the other colleges on the opposite side of the River Cam. One of the first things Mallory did on arrival was to visit Arthur Benson, his tutor at Magdalene. Benson later wrote in his diary: `... a simpler, more ingenuous, more unaffected, more genuinely interested boy, I never saw. He is to be under me, and I rejoice in the thought. He seemed full of admiration for all good things, and yet with no touch of priggishness.'
Mallory and his tutor became close friends. Benson encouraged his protégé to work hard and to read, among other things, Boswell's Life of Johnson. This started Mallory's fascination with the 18th-century biographer of Samuel Johnson. The new undergraduate worked hard on his essays but frequently failed to finish them on time. He also rowed for his college but, despite throwing himself into all the work and recreation that was on offer, he was not particularly happy in his first year. When he compared Magdalene with his time at Winchester, he found Cambridge `shallow'.
But things began to look up for Mallory during his second year, when he started to make more friends. Many of these new acquaintances later proved to be very influential and they included Charles Darwin (whose grandfather wrote On The Origin of Species), the zoologist A.E. Shipley, the gifted young poet Rupert Brooke, the economist Maynard Keynes and his brother Geoffrey.
These university friendships became very important to Mallory, and one of his climbing friends, Cottie Sanders, once wrote that George and his friends: `... held personal relationships as so important that they held only a few other things as being of any importance whatever. Conventional inessentials simply had no meaning for them. They were extraordinarily attached to one another; they stuck closer than brothers; there was, literally, nothing they wouldn't do for one another.'
Politically, these young men tended towards the liberal left, and Mallory joined the Cambridge Union Fabian Society, much to the concern of his father. But Mallory's main political interest was in support of votes for women, and he became college secretary on the committee of the University Women's Suffrage Association.
In his second year Mallory did poorly in his examinations, achieving only a third class in the History Tripos Part I; he called it `a worthless performance'. Despite his poor results he developed a wide interest in poetry, literature and painting. He also grew his hair long and dressed strangely in `black flannel shirts and coloured ties' — but he was not a complete aesthete and he never lost his love of the outdoor life.
Most vacations saw Mallory climbing with his brother Trafford, Geoffrey Keynes and others, usually in Wales or the Lake District. But he still retained his interest in rowing and became captain of the Magdalene Boat Club in 1907-8, a year in which the college did particularly well. His academic work also improved and he was awarded a second in his History Tripos part II.
Mallory enjoyed his final year at Cambridge, and in the spring the subject for the Member's Prize Essay was announced: it was to be on James Boswell. This was one of Mallory's favourite topics and he decided to enter the competition. In his essay he analysed Boswell's character writing: `Herein lay the essence of his genius. The story of Boswell's life is the story of a struggle between influences and ambitions which led him towards the commonplace, and the rare qualities grafted deeply within him, which bore him steadily in an opposite direction.' He concluded that, despite Boswell's formidable abilities, the biographer could very easily have slipped into a state of indifference had he not had the determination and aspiration to rise above mediocrity. Mallory's conclusions on Boswell are an interesting reflection on his own life and ambitions.
It was also in early 1909 that Mallory first met the experienced mountaineer Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Although a decade older than Mallory, Young was to become a lifelong friend and climbing mentor to the young undergraduate, and within weeks of meeting they were climbing together in Wales. It was during these meets at Pen-y-Pass that Mallory was introduced to some of the great pioneers of mountaineering, many already in their middle age. Among them was Oscar Eckenstein, who had twice been to the Karakorams, the first time in 1892 with the great English Himalayan explorer Martin Conway. Another climbing partner was Percy Farrar, who had 17 seasons of Alpine experience. He was later to become president of the Alpine Club, and it was Farrar who proposed that Mallory be included on the first expedition to Everest. Clearly, Mallory was beginning to get himself known in very influential circles.
During the summer of 1909 Mallory began to consider what he would do with his life. He wanted to write, but he realized there was little chance of earning a living this way. At one time he had considered following in his father's footsteps and going into the Church. In 1907 he wrote to Edmund Morgan, a friend from Winchester who later became a bishop: `For me, whatever else I may believe, the personality of Christ will live ... That there is a God I have never doubted. That conviction seems to be part of every feeling that I have.'
However, during his time at Cambridge he began to question traditional religious ideology. He always continued to believe in the fundamentals of Christianity, but he began to have doubts about his suitability for ordination and confided in Benson, his tutor: `... I'm at variance with so many parsons that I meet. They're excessively good, most of them, much better than I can ever hope to be; but their sense of goodness seems sometimes to displace their reason.'
His dilemma over his future continued, but for the moment there was a more pressing opportunity. Geoffrey Young was planning another summer excursion to the Alps, and not for the last time Mallory put his life on hold for the chance to go climbing.
|CHAPTER ONE `A Small Margin of Safety'||21|
|CHAPTER TWO `Any Aspirations?'||33|
|CHAPTER THREE `Higher in the Sky than Imagination'||45|
|CHAPTER FOUR `The Game is Well Worth the Candle'||53|
|CHAPTER FIVE `An Adventurous Aspect Altogether'||71|
|CHAPTER SIX `It's an Infernal Mountain'||89|
|CHAPTER SEVEN `A Dismal World of Snow and Vanishing Hopes'||113|
|CHAPTER EIGHT `A Mountain of Beautiful Remembrance'||139|
|CHAPTER NINE `A Mandatory Group Meeting'||163|
|CHAPTER TEN `Because Mallory was Mallory'||189|
|APPENDIX I Glossary||204|
|APPENDIX II People||207|
Posted December 24, 2013
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