The Second Death of George Mallory: The Enigma and Spirit of Mount Everest

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The world's greatest living climber hauntingly evokes the vision and voice of his legendary predecessor.

As a child, Reinhold Messner's mother read him stories about George Mallory and fellow climber Andrew Irvine; their heroic and tragic attempt to scale the world's tallest peak in 1924 inspired his own unequaled exploits in the Himalayas. To Messner, Mallory was a climber of the purest order, and his final ascent a work of genius, beauty, and unparalleled courage. His ...

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The world's greatest living climber hauntingly evokes the vision and voice of his legendary predecessor.

As a child, Reinhold Messner's mother read him stories about George Mallory and fellow climber Andrew Irvine; their heroic and tragic attempt to scale the world's tallest peak in 1924 inspired his own unequaled exploits in the Himalayas. To Messner, Mallory was a climber of the purest order, and his final ascent a work of genius, beauty, and unparalleled courage. His disappearance haunted and inspired the imagination. Though Mallory's remains were discovered in 1999, the question of whether or not he made it to the top of Everest rests unanswered. Moreover, believes Messner, though we have found Mallory's bones we have lost or destroyed the spirit of amateur adventure that pushed him inexorably higher. Today, climbing Everest has become a mundane media event involving sophisticated equipment and corporate funding. The Second Death of George Mallory is both an investigation into the death of George Mallory and a deeply felt homage—to a mountain, to the spirit of an age, and to the man who inspired those who followed in his footsteps.

About the Author:
Reinhold Messner was the first to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen and the first to climb all 14 of the world's mountains over 8.000 meters. He lives in a castle in the Italian Alps

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The author has had a lifelong obsession with George Mallory's three attempts to, in his hero's own words, "catch the summit by surprise" in 1921, 1922 and on the 1924 quest from which he never returned. In this homage, Messner (My Quest for the Yeti) draws from Mallory's own journal entries to relive those three expeditions, fleshing them out for the reader with his own heroic experiences in climbing Everest. Avid mountaineers will be especially intrigued by the step-by-step detail Messner shares, enabling his readers to see the mountain as Mallory did. What is even more important to Messner is to celebrate Mallory's legacy and "the disappearance of the spirit of amateurism that drove him." Although he believes that Mallory never reached Everest's summit, Messner is adamant that all who came after this pioneer owe him a great debt. Employing Mallory's spirit, the author recounts subsequent expeditions, imagining what Mallory would say about each: the 1933 trip by Wager and Harris, who found an ice ax that could have been left behind only by Mallory or his colleague Irvine nine years before; Hillary and Tensing's triumphant climb in 1953; the expedition sponsored by the Chinese government in 1960 and the subsequent trek in 1975, which was the first time that "artificial climbing aids" (in contrast to Mallory's tweed jacket, hobnailed boots and a book by Keats) were used and have been so ever since; and, finally, the 1999 expedition during which Mallory's remains were found and ceremoniously buried. This tribute will resonate most strongly with veteran climbers, but even armchair enthusiasts will be gripped by Messner's seductive and uplifting narrative. 30 b&w photos; 6 maps. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Legendary Italian climber Messner (My Quest for the Yeti, LJ 5/1/00), whose accomplishments include being the first to climb Mount Everest without bottled oxygen and the first to climb all 14 of the world's peaks over 8000 meters, attempts to trace what he considers the loss of the spirit of amateur adventure in mountaineering. The author quotes Mallory and his contemporaries and reconstructs Mallory's succession of expeditions to Everest from 1922 to 1924 through evidence found via the 1999 discovery of Mallory's body. This approach is useful for understanding the changes in motivation and attitudes toward climbing over the years. It gets a bit odd, however, when Messner attempts to comment on the current state of affairs by using Mallory's imagined voice, rendered in italics. All told, however, this is an interesting take on the evolution of climbing, adding perspective to the body of works on Mallory and the unsolved question of the circumstances surrounding his death. With its useful bibliography and 30 black-and-white photos, this would be a good acquisition, after David Breashears's Last Climb (National Geographic, 1999), especially for larger public libraries and those with extensive mountaineering/adventure collections. Tim Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
Praise for The Second Death of George Mallory

“[A] passionate telling of man’s quest for the summit.”—Rocky Mountain News

“Like a detective, Reinhold Messner studies all angles of Mallory’s final climb in 1924 and comes up with conclusions that honor the subject, and both move and enlighten the reader.”—Paul Pritchard, author of The Totem Pole: And a Whole New Adventure and two-time winner of the Boardman Tasker Award

“[A] compelling book that conveys the dangers, frustrations and exhilaration of high-altitude mountaineering . . . Messner expertly leads readers on a thrilling expedition into a freezing, treacherous world.”—Tampa Tribune

“This tribute will resonate most strongly with veteran climbers, but even armchair enthusiasts will be gripped by Messner's seductive and uplifting narrative.”—Publishers Weekly

“An utterly engrossing portrait of a climber and a spirit no longer with us.” —Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312268060
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1st U.S. Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Reinhold Messner is known as one of history’s greatest Himalayan mountaineers. He was the first person to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, many of them solo. Climber, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Messner has published more than thirty books. His most recent is My Quest for the Yeti.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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, sevenyears 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.

The Girl in the Face of the Clock

By Charles Mathes

Thomas Dunne Books
St. Martin's Minotaur

Copyright © 2001 Charles Mathes. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Man, the Mountain, the Myth 1
Chapter Two: 1921 Heading East 11
Chapter Three: 1922 The Assault from the North 53
Chapter Four: 1924 The Second Step 83
Chapter Five: 1933 The Ice Ax 109
Chapter Six: 1953 The Ascent from the South 121
Chapter Seven: 1960 Oracle at Midnight 133
Chapter Eight: 1975 Telephones and Human Chains 141
Chapter Nine: 1924 The Last Climb 153
Chapter Ten: 1999 Hobnailed Boots and the Internet 171
Afterword 181
Notes on Sources 187
Bibliography 189
Index 195
About the Author 203
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