The Second Death of George Mallory
The Enigma and Spirit of Mount Everest
By Reinhold Messner, Tim Carruthers
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 BLV Verlagsgesellschaft mbH
All rights reserved.
THE MAN, THE MOUNTAIN, THE MYTH
I can well picture Mallory, even in that thin air that barely keeps the fires of energy aglow, responding to the challenge of the Second Step. Were there ever so many voices urging a man to accept that challenge? This is the last chance of carrying out what you came these thousands of miles to do. Once above this step, the way is open to the final pyramid. Few places are more likely to drive a man to the extreme limit of what he can climb than a difficult step upon what is regarded as an easy mountain. Mallory's balance was so good that he was accustomed to move on slabs, where the slightest mistake would mean a fall, as if they were on level ground; he seemed to have no consciousness of how small the safety margin was.
— R. L. G. IRVINE
FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I was a young boy, my mother read to me about George L. Mallory and Andrew Irvine. I can never forget the first time I heard their story — by the light of a petroleum lamp in a mountain hut in the Dolomites. Since then, they have fueled my reveries and haunted my dreams. "Perfect weather for the job," Mallory had scribbled on a scrap of paper at the last camp on the afternoon of June 7, 1924. The following morning, he and his twenty-two-year-old partner shouldered their heavy oxygen sets and trudged up the steep scree slopes from Camp VI, heading for the rock steps — and the summit of Mount Everest. They never returned.
Mallory's last climb remains a masterpiece in the annals of high-altitude mountaineering. Whether or not it took him to Everest's summit, it remains the most significant ascent ever made on Mount Everest. It is a story that merits retelling: how a man, a schoolteacher by profession, clad in a tweed jacket, makeshift gaiters wrapped around his legs and hobnailed boots on his feet, and with a head full of Romantic ideals, set out to conquer that bastion of rock that was considered unconquerable.
A survey conducted by James Nicholson in 1849 had established Mount Everest, then known as Peak XV, as the highest mountain on earth. The task was by no means easy, since the survey instrument weighed half a ton and had first to be transported by twelve people across the pathless terrain of the Himalayan foothills and then calibrated before measurements could be taken. After Nicholson had completed his measurements, seven years passed before the business of calculation and evaluation was complete and Andrew Waugh — who had taken over from George Everest as surveyor general of the British India Survey — was able to enter a summit height of 29,002 feet (8,840 meters) on the map. In 1856 the Royal Geographic Society bestowed the name Mount Everest on the peak in honor of Sir George Everest. Only rarely is the ancient Tibetan name Chomolunga or Chomolungma, meaning "goddess mother of the earth," used. The accuracy of the 1849 calculations is astonishing. In September 1992, surveyors using state-of-the-art GPS equipment determined the exact height of Mount Everest to be 8,848 meters, a difference of roughly twenty feet.
After the turn of the twentieth century, Mount Everest was much more than simply the highest mountain on earth. The English, in particular, saw this icy peak as the last great opportunity. Having arrived too late at the north and south poles, they set out for the Himalayas in the 1920s. Equipped with tents, ice axes, and hemp ropes, they doggedly pursued their lofty goal, approaching it from the north, the Tibet side, and tackling prejudice, cold, and hopelessness on the way. An initial reconnaissance expedition, with Mallory as lead climber, got as far as the North Col in 1921. In 1922, Mallory returned to his mountain, this time with steel oxygen bottles in his luggage and a column of porters in his wake — a half dozen of whom were to die in an avalanche. Together with Edward Norton and Howard Somervell, he pushed the route to an unprecedented altitude of well over 8,000 meters. Finally in 1924, Mallory and Irvine made their final ascent.
Their disappearance in the "death zone" rapidly achieved legendary status. For seven and a half decades, geographers, tourists, mountain guides, Sherpas, and most of all mountaineering historians have speculated about whether Mallory attained his goal. Officially, of course, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay first successfully climbed Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, from the southern, Nepalese, side. Their photos, not those of Mallory and Irvine, adorn the history books. Hillary and Tensing returned from the Roof of the World to the stone huts in the valleys of the poor kingdom of Nepal in time for the celebrations to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. They became heroes; Mallory and Irvine remained ghosts.
Over the years, Mallory's disappearance has inspired intense speculation and plentiful rumors. In 1933 an ice ax, undoubtedly belonging to either Irvine or Mallory, was found at over 8,400 meters. In 1960, Chinese climbers reported finding the remains of a rope and some wooden wedges above the steep rock pitch of the Second Step. Shortly before he died, one of the Chinese maintained that he had happened across a dead body with tattered clothing at about 8,300 meters. This report was not taken seriously. A number of climbers have hallucinated meeting the dead man.
In May 1999, a search party led by American climber Eric Simonson followed Mallory's ascent. Near the spot where the ice ax had been found in 1933, another American, Conrad Anker, saw something out of the ordinary — on a rock ledge at 8,250 meters. What looked like a "strange patch of white" was soon identified as the body of George L. Mallory.
Although remarkably well preserved, Mallory's corpse gave no clue as to the manner of death. Did Mallory die of hypothermia, suffocation, or as a result of injuries? Mallory's snow goggles were in his pocket, suggesting that something had happened as darkness fell. Or during a whiteout. Or even while he was in the throes of delirium. Nor does the location of the body prove or disprove that Mallory and Irvine climbed the Second Step. When death found them, they might have turned back and been attempting to descend directly to their camp. Or they might have reached the summit and died on the way down. Finding their camera, with photographs taken from the highest point on earth, would provide proof positive. To this day, of course, the camera remains lost.
Mallory's disappearance on Mount Everest was never the only tragedy as far as I was concerned. I have long mourned what I call his "second death" — the disappearance of the spirit of amateurism that drove him. Today's modern speed climber is well prepared and pre-equipped. In 1975, Chinese climbers carted long aluminum ladders up to the Second Step, attached them to the steep rock wall, and gave themselves a "bunk up." Pitons were hammered into the rock, the ladders fixed in place, ropes tensioned off. All subsequent Everest expeditions have used these artificial climbing aids, replacing when necessary rotten ropes with new ones. Although the Second Step has in the meantime been "free"-climbed by Conrad Anker — with fixed ropes and ladders within easy reach — no one has yet mastered this obstacle by what I consider "fair means." Mallory had climbed into the unknown, outfitted only with his nailed boots and determination. No one would today attempt the ascent with the kind of equipment Mallory used. He approached Everest on his terms, hoping, as he said, to "catch the summit by surprise." He did not attempt to climb Everest to set a record or make headlines. He did it simply "because it is there."
Since 1980, when I solo-climbed Mount Everest, I have harbored the suspicion that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit. I am also convinced that they risked everything to get there. Their pioneering deed overshadows all subsequent mountaineering achievements, my own included. I felt Mallory's presence during my solo ascent of the north-face route. Sometimes, when looking at photographs from his era, I can hear his voice. I know of course that it is my own. Yet I believe that only by trying to see events through Mallory's eyes can we truly rediscover him. Therefore in these pages I will not only quote from Mallory's journals and writings, but imagine what he would have thought about those who followed in his footsteps — whether they have sought merely to climb Everest or, like him, to capture its spirit.
1921: HEADING EAST
Fate cannot impress me. I have always avoided such indolent things. Even symbols hold no fears for me. I simply enjoy traveling onwards in such an uncertain direction. Up and away, to the Himalayas. Maybe it is your direct ion too, good sir. It is certainly my goal.
— ARNOLT BRONNEN
The mission of the 1921 Reconnaissance had been fulfilled, every doubt removed. The Spur which rises from the North Col to the Shoulder of Everest's South-East Ridge was nothing but easy slabs and moderate snow-slopes. The expedition could withdraw with a clear conscience.
— GÜNTER OSKAR DYHRENFURTH
THE NORTH AND SOUTH poles had both been reached. All that now remained was the "east pole," around which British mountaineering was henceforth to revolve. For four years that is what occupied Mallory too. It was as if Mount Everest remained the only goal left, and his small world focused on it, and on it alone. In 1921 he could not yet imagine that this mountain had only one summit, one attraction, and one price. Its true value lay in the secret of its being as yet unclimbed.
Mount Everest had already been recognized as the highest mountain in the world and its summit height had already been accurately surveyed when, in 1904, after a gruesome military action, Sir Francis Younghusband succeeded in securing permission from the Dalai Lama in Lhasa for British mountaineers to climb in the Tibetan part of the Himalaya. But it was only in 1921 that they were ready to mount a reconnaissance expedition.
When we started our travels in 1921, it was a triangulated peak with a position on the map; but from the mountaineer's point of view almost nothing was known. Mount Everest had been seen and photographed from various points on the Singalila ridge as well as from Kampa Dzong; from these photographs it may be dimly made out that snow lies on the upper part of the Eastern face at no very steep angle, while the arête bounding this face on the North comes down gently for a considerable distance.... The North-west sides of the mountain had never been photographed and nothing was known of its lower parts anywhere. Perhaps the distant view most valuable to a mountaineer is that from Sandakphu, because it suggests gigantic precipices on the South side of the mountain so that he need have no regrets that access is barred in that direction for political reasons.
The reconnaissance begins in Khamba Dzong, when they are still seventy-five miles from the mountain. From the start, the expedition is plagued by a series of misfortunes. The most tragic is the sudden death in Khamba Dzong of the expedition doctor, Dr. Kellas, from a heart attack. As a result, only Bullock and Mallory remain as the sole representatives of the Alpine Club and the reconnaissance team. Mallory is moved to write:
It may seem an irony of fate that actually on the day after the distressing event of Dr. Kellas' death we experienced the strange elation of seeing Everest for the first time. It was a perfect early morning as we plodded up the barren slopes above our camp and rising behind the old rugged fort which is itself a singularly impressive and dramatic spectacle; we had mounted perhaps a thousand feet when we stayed and turned, and saw what we came to see. There was no mistaking the two great peaks in the West: that to the left must be Makalu, grey, severe and yet distinctly graceful, and the other away to the right — who could doubt its identity? It was a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world. We saw Mount Everest not quite sharply defined on account of a slight haze in that direction; this circumstance added a touch of mystery and grandeur; we were satisfied that the highest of mountains would not disappoint us.
Heading west from Khamba Dzong, they lose sight of Mount Everest as the tip of the summit disappears behind the Gyanka Mountains.
From Gyanka Nangpa, which lies under a rocky summit over 20,000 feet high, Bullock and I, on June 11, made an early start and proceeded down the gorge. It was a perfect morning and for once we had tolerably swift animals to ride; we were fortunate in choosing the right place to ford the river and our spirits were high. How could they be otherwise? Ever since we had lost sight of Everest the Gyanka Mountains had been our ultimate horizon to the West. Day by day as we had approached them our thoughts had concentrated more and more upon what lay beyond. On the far side was a new country.
For Mallory, his first sight of Mount Everest is a defining moment. From now on his life acquires a new direction. Mallory frequently reflects in his journals on the effect the mountain has on him.
It is possible that even Bullock quaked at this sight; everyone did in his own way. I just a little more. For it depended entirely on me as to whether the myth of the mountain was to be transformed and the path found between the supernatural and reality. It was in me that all expectations were vested.
We were now able to make out almost exactly where Everest should be; but the clouds were dark in that direction. We gazed at them intently through field glasses as though by some miracle we might pierce the veil. Presently the miracle happened. We caught the gleam of snow behind the grey mists. A whole group of mountains began to appear in gigantic fragments. Mountain shapes are often fantastic seen through a mist; these were like the wildest creation of a dream. A preposterous triangular lump rose out of the depths; its edge came leaping up at an angle of about 70 degrees and ended nowhere. To the left a black serrated crest was hanging in the sky incredibly. Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain sides and glaciers and arêtes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared.
Looking at the mountain from a northeasterly direction, they can make out a long ridge running down toward them. Not far below the summit the ridge forms a black shoulder, which Mallory believes is unclimbable. To the right, a section of the ridge is visible in profile against the sky, and this part at least is not unduly steep.
The task before us was not likely to prove a simple and straightforward matter, and we had no expectation that it would be quickly concluded. It would be necessary in the first place to find the mountain.... And there would be more than one approach to be found. We should have to explore a number of valleys radiating from Everest and separated by high ridges which would make lateral communication extremely difficult; we must learn from which direction various parts of the mountain could most conveniently be reached.
And beyond all investigation of the approaches we should have to scrutinize Mount Everest itself. Our reconnaissance must aim at a complete knowledge of the various faces and arêtes, a correct understanding of the whole form and structure of the mountain.
I was fully aware of the size of the task I had set myself. My opponent was a giant! Where was his Achilles' heel, the chink in the armor? Where could I find a glimmer of hope? For only there did I wish to risk my luck. The summit assault was another matter, a matter for me alone.
It turns out that Mount Everest is not all that hard to find:
[W]e chose the Northern approach. We learned from local knowledge that in two days we might reach a village and monastery called Chöbuk, and from there could follow a long valley to Everest. And so it proved. Chöbuk was not reached without some difficulty, but this was occasioned not by obstacles in the country but by the manners of the Tibetans. In Tingri we had hired four pack animals. We had proceeded 2 or 3 miles across the plain when we perceived they were heading in the wrong direction. We were trusting to the guidance of their local drivers and felt very uncertain as to where exactly we should be aiming; but their line was about 60 degrees to the South of our objective according to a guesswork compass bearing. An almost interminable three-cornered argument followed. It appeared that our guides intended to take five days to Chöbuk. They knew all about "ca' canny." In the end we decided to take the risk of a separation; Gyalzen went with the bullocks and our tents to change transport at the village where we were intended to stay the night, while the rest of us made a bee line for a bridge where we should have to cross the Rongbuk stream. At the foot of a vast moraine we waited on the edge of the "maidan," anxiously hoping that we should see some sign of fresh animals approaching; and at length we saw them. It was a late camp that evening on a strip of meadow beside the stream, but we had the comfort of reflecting that we had foiled the natives, whose aim was to retard our progress, and in the sequel we reached our destination with no further trouble. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Second Death of George Mallory by Reinhold Messner, Tim Carruthers. Copyright © 2000 BLV Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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