His story begins three centuries ago, when mountains were feared as the forbidding abodes of dragons and other mysterious beasts. In the mid-1700s the attentions of both science and poetry sparked a passion for mountains; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron extolled the sublime experiences to be had on high; and by 1924 the death on Mt Everest of an Englishman named George Mallory came to symbolize the heroic ideals of his day. Macfarlane also reflects on fear, risk, and the shattering beauty of ice and snow, the competition and contemplation of the climb, and the strange alternate reality of high altitude, magically enveloping us in the allure of mountains at every level.
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2nd March 1922 -- the cry of gulls, wheeling on their wing-points around the quayside of the East India docks. Mallory striding up the railed gangplank of the SS Caledonia, bound for Bombay. The other Everesters are already on board. A new team, a new game. The Caledonia slips through the grey water and sea-mists of the English channel, skirts the Iberian peninsula, then rounds the rock of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. They thread the needle of the Suez Canal at night: the water so still and dark it seems more like a geological feature, a seam of graphite clamped between the layers of the desert. Then out into the hot air of the Red Sea, where the ocean is as calm as a reservoir and the ship moves across it leaving barely a wake on the water.
During the day the sky is flawless, like a cupola of glass, but each evening the greens and blues and yellows of a Middle Eastern sunset congregate in the air, and kaleidoscope together on the passing water. Flying fish scoot out of the sea, executing their stiff skimming little leaps and occasionally thunking into the ship's side. And dolphins chaperone the ship, leaping in and out of the water to port and starboard.
Life on board is pleasant enough. In the mornings Finch, a New Zealander, talks the team through the oxygen equipment they have brought, demonstrating valves, carrying-frames, flow rates. Mallory is sceptical of this ironmongery, all 900 lbs of it. To him it seems a way of cheating the mountain; like carrying your own atmosphere with you. But Finch is persuasive about its advantages, if a little monomaniacal. During the afternoons, when the heat lies heavy and still as a blanket upon them, there is deck-tennis and sometimes deck-cricket, and at 7pm sharp a bugle signals dinner. After dark, from the stern, Mallory likes to watch the phosphorescent path left by the ship. He casts his mind back to Ruth, of course, but mostly he thinks forward, to the "great work ahead".
They dock at Bombay this time, and with their 2 ½ tons of luggage -- which includes cases of champagne, tins of quail-in-aspic, and hundreds of Ginger Nut biscuits -- take a protracted, hot train journey across India to Calcutta. The track passes over baked khaki plains and through dark sycamore forests, the old trees rising up on either side like the sides of a gorge. From Calcutta, the train chugs them up to Darjeeling, where there is an orgy of packing. The team is already pulling together well. It seems a much happier combination of people than last time. There is a new leader, General Bruce, always laughing at something and always wearing his bow-tie, tweed-jacket, and pith-helmet, and carrying a field stick. Under the tweed are scars -- bullet wounds from Gallipoli and elsewhere, and inside him teems malaria. Mallory likes Bruce much better than the insufferable Howard-Bury. There is Strutt who, despite his polka-dotted socks and constant whinging, is tolerable. There is John Noel, the photographer and cinematographer of the trip, and a handy climber to boot. And there is Somervell, Mallory's climbing partner and intellectual confrère on the trip, a man with a prodigious brain and strange jug ears.
They leave from Darjeeling in two parties, planning to reunite at Phari, and pool their three hundred pack animals. It is earlier in the year this time round, and the Sikkim jungle is not as profuse or as beautiful as the last time Mallory ventured through it. There are fewer flowers, and "the sense of bursting growth is absent". Nevertheless, it feels good to be on the move, to feel the high air of the hills in the lungs, and to be getting closer to what Mallory now regularly calls just "the mountain".
Mallory, in the first group, reaches Phari on 6th April, and although there is an inch of snow on the ground and he has to sit huddled in his sleeping bag after dark, he tells Ruth that he has experienced an unforeseen burst of excitement to be back in Tibet; an unexpected fondness for the bleak landscape. From Phari, they have a new route to Kampa Dzong -- higher, but shorter by two days than the version of 1921. It takes them over the Donka La. As they approach the pass, the air becomes violently cold, and it begins to snow. It snows all night on 8th April. Mallory is concerned for the animals, and in the darkness he walks over the soft, sticky snow from his tent to where the yaks and mules are tethered. They are standing in untidy rows with snow lying like rugs on their backs. They shift unhappily from foot to foot, and from their nostrils snort out jets of wet white breath into the dark air. The mule-men are squatting in a circle behind a shelter of rocks. They seem happy enough despite the brutal cold, and not too concerned for their animals, so Mallory goes back to his tent, and falls asleep to the quiet carillon of yak bells.
The next day it is too cold to ride and everyone, even Mallory, who is suffering from enteritis, chooses to walk beside the animals in an effort to stay warm. It is an arduous day, with twenty-two miles of rough-walking, all above 16 000 feet, and only a couple of short stops for tiffin. Just before nightfall they pitch a "queer little camp" under an outcrop of rock. A gravel plain stretches away from them, and showing above its eastern rim are the three peaks Kellas climbed.
The next day is a rest day. Mallory sits outside and reads Balzac for the few hours it is warm enough to do so. Despite the hardihoods, he reflects, there is still a beauty to be found in the landscape: the shadows of clouds smudging the plains, the blueness of the far distance, and the subtle shades of red, yellow and brown on the nearer hillsides. But then the wind gets up, and Mallory is forced back into the mess-tent for warmth. There he tries to write to Ruth, though the ink in the pot keeps freezing. "We have had a taste of the diabolical in Tibet", he writes. "I feel withered up by the absence of all the circumstances that lead to enjoyment." He is wearing five layers of clothing and even so is "just sufficiently warm except in the fingertips which touch the paper". But the chill to his fingers is worth it, because the letter feels like a connection with Ruth: "I am conscious of you at the other end; and very often dearest one I summon up your image & have your presence in some way near me."
For days they follow the same rhythm; march and camp, march and camp. It is hard to drive tent-pegs into this icy ground. At breakfast time, around the trestle table, they sit on up-turned tea-chests and wear herringbone tweed and fisherman's jumpers, hands thrust into armpits, hunched over against the cold with their heads tamped down into their bodies. On the wastelands near Kampa Dzong, a blizzard hustles in and softly overwhelms them, filling in their tracks as soon as they have been made, clearing up after them like a diligent housekeeper, abolishing all signs of their presence or progress. The plateau becomes a polar tundra. The snow clings to their stubble. Behind them for miles across the white plain are strung out the black battalions of the yaks and mules.
The cold is demoralising, and physically draining. For a while they forget about their ulterior purpose, and just concentrate on getting from camp in the morning to camp at night. But then, arriving finally at Shekar Dzong, the White Glass Fort, "we had a clear view of Everest across the plain -- it was more wonderful even than I remember & all the party were delighted by it -- which of course appealed to my proprietary feelings." In a way it is Mallory's mountain. He is the only member of the 1921 expedition who has come back for another try.
After Shekar Dzong they strike off south; a quicker route in to the East Rongbuk Glacier and thence to the North Col. By the first day of May they have established a Base Camp on the terminal moraine of the glacier. From a distance the pale tents are indistinguishable from the jumble of pale tent-sized boulders which the glacier has bulldozed down the valley.
Bruce's plan is to lay siege to the mountain. His climbers will establish a series of ascending camps up the mountain. Camp III will be just below the North Col -- where Mallory had spent such an uncomfortable night -- and Camp IV on the Col itself. The hope is that this will provide the support network needed for a strike on the summit itself. The weather doesn't get any warmer, but three camps are successfully pitched up the valley, and then on 13th May, Mallory helps to establish a route from Camp III up to the North Col itself. For long sections he has to cut steps into the steep blue glittering ice. Swing, crash, step, swing, crash, step. An exhausting rhythm at sea-level; shattering up here. Shards of ice fly dangerously with each blow of the axe, like shrapnel. After a while Mallory moves across to the left of the col, and discovers that there is thick, stable snow, which makes the going much easier. In a single day he manages to fix four hundred feet of rope to help those coming up afterwards. He also reaches the North Col. The wind is not as bad as the year before, and he makes his way over the dangerously broken ground of the crevassed north ridge, through the broken cubes of blue ice, and reach safe ground near where the ridge begins. The view south opens out with every step he takes, and he sits down to look at it in awe: "the most amazing spectacle I have ever seen". Camp IV is set at the North Col.
On 17th May Mallory sends a letter to Ruth "on the eve of our departure for the highest we can reach", and the next day he, Morshead, Norton and Somervell set off from Base Camp to Camp IV. Their plan is to leave the North Col and move up the north-east ridge, bivouac, and then make a bid for the summit the following day.
After a cold night at Camp IV, they set off late up the ridge. They are delayed because they left their breakfast -- tins of Heinz spaghetti -- outside their sleeping-bags, and the spaghetti froze. They have to thaw them in water on the slow stoves and force the crystalline mush down before they can set off. Quickly it becomes clear that the wind is too strong, and the air too cold. Nobody is properly clothed: the wool in their gloves and puttees stiffens to plywood in the cold; the fibres in their felt hats matt together and will not retain the heat. Slowly and painfully they move up the ridge, and are forced to bivouac far short of their intended goal, perched on a little ledge of ice and rock on the lee-side of the ridge at 25 000 feet.
Norton's ear and feet have been frostbitten, and he cannot sleep. Morshead, too, has been wrecked by the cold: the fingers on one of his hands have gone an ominous raspberry-and-cream colour. All night the men lie awake, two to a sleeping-bag, and listen to "the musical patter of fine, granular snow" on the tent. They bash the sides of the tent with their flat hands when they begin to sag under the weight of the snow, and send the snow hissing off onto the ground.
When dawn lightens the tent canvas, they drag themselves outside, except Morshead who declares he can go no further. The summit is beyond them, that much is obvious, but they struggle onwards and upwards for a symbolic 2000 feet before turning back. They pick up Morshead at the camp, leave the tents where they are, and press on back down to the North Col. It is a desperate retreat. Morshead can barely walk, and keeps sitting down in the snow and asking to die. Norton coaxes him on, a hand about his waist, whispering gentle words in his ears. On a steep part of the ridge, Morshead slips and tugs the other two climbers off. It is only Mallory's quick reactions -- driving his axe into the snow, and throwing a loop of the rope about it -- which save all four of them from death. As they stumble back into Camp IV Mallory notices apocalyptic weather away to the west -- a pile-up of black clouds, and distant flashes of lightning brightening the sky, as though there were a war going on in a far valley.
Mallory and the three others descend to Base Camp, and spend a month recovering there. Four of Mallory's fingers have been injured by the cold. While he is recuperating, Finch and the young Geoffrey Bruce (cousin of Charles) take oxygen apparatus with them, and make an assisted bid for the summit. They get higher than Mallory's party, but they too are repelled by the cold. Bruce hobbles back into Base Camp: his feet will take weeks to recover from their frost-bite.
The season is getting on, and the monsoon snow has begun to fall. Once again there is talk of calling it a day. Two good attempts have been made, and both have failed. But again it is Mallory, more than anyone, who wants to have another "whack". His finger is not healed, he tells Ruth, "and I risk getting a worse frostbite by going up again, but the game is worth a finger & I shall take every conceivable care of both fingers & toes. Once bit twice shy!" On 3rd June he and two other climbers, along with a train of Sherpas, set off for the "great battlements of ice on the North Col." The snowfall has been heavy over the past forty-eight hours, and there is thick windslab lying on hard ice. It is classic avalanche territory. As he leads up the slope, Mallory tests the snow. It seems safe. He leads on.
Not far from the lip of the col, at 1.50pm, there is a cracking noise -- like "an explosion of untamped gunpowder" -- and the snow Mallory is on begins to move. He loses his footing, and is swept a little way downhill before being spat out onto the surface of the snow. He pulls himself clear. There are cries from below him. Nine Sherpas have been swept by a faster torrent of snow over a sixty-foot ice cliff, and down into a crevasse. Two are rescued, amazingly unharmed. The other seven are never found, killed by the fall into the crevasse, or buried alive inside it by tons of snow.
A rough memorial cairn is built for the dead Sherpas at Camp III. Bruce is sanguine about the accident. Nobody's fault, he says. Nor do the families of the dead men seem interested in blaming anyone. Their men died when they were meant to die. But Mallory won't be consoled. He considers their death his doing. "It was not a desperate game, I thought," he writes to Ruth, "with the plans we made. Perhaps with the habit of dealing with certain kinds of danger one becomes accustomed to measuring some that are best left unmeasured and untried…the three of us were deceived; there wasn't an inkling of danger among us." He is aware, too, of how close he came to dying. "It was a wonderful escape for me & we may indeed be thankful for that together. Dear love when I think what your grief would have been I humbly thank God. I am alive…".
The expedition limps back through Tibet to Darjeeling, wounded and depleted, very much "not the jolly company we were". Morshead and Mallory are in pain from their fingers, Bruce's toes are not healed, and the soles of Norton's feet are grey and black with frostbite. And yet the further Mallory gets from the murderous mountain, the more he falls back in love with it. By Darjeeling, the subject of the dead Sherpas has disappeared from his letters. His thoughts are only with Ruth. With Ruth, and with the possibility of the next trip.