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The mystery of Mallory’s possible conquest of Everest

Posted in Famous news stories, Geography, Historical articles, History on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about George Mallory originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

Mallory on Everest, picture, image, illustration

George Mallory, the first hero of Everest by Graham Coton

Tea time in Victorian households was supposed to be an opportunity for quiet conversation, which was why the Rev Herbert Leigh Mallory looked up disapprovingly at the sound of shouts of alarm beyond the vicarage garden. Hurrying outside, he found a group of worried neighbours staring up at the roof of Mobberley Church, where a small figure, very correctly dressed, had just completed his climb of the church tower and was now edging his way very competently along the line of the roof. Tiny though the figure seemed from the ground, no-one had any difficulty in recognizing the Vicar’s son, seven-year old Master George, who half an hour earlier had been banished to his room for making too much noise. The Vicar waited until his son had safely regained the ground then faced him angrily.

“I thought you had been told to go to your room, sir!”

But he had gone to his room, young George protested. He’d gone there to collect his cap before he set off on his climb. Nobody had said anything about staying there!

Somewhat baffled, the climber’s parents gave up. But one thing was certain, the sooner George was sent off to school the better, otherwise he would certainly break his neck. The older Mallorys’ concern for their son was understandable, because he was unlike their other three children. True, he was intelligent, well mannered and exceptionally good looking, but this was balanced by a strange, almost compulsive need to climb things. Buildings, walls, trees, the object was unimportant so long as it was as high and as dangerous as possible.

Nobody has ever explained what it was that compelled George Mallory to climb. So far as was known, nobody in his family had ever shown any interest in the sport, and indeed in those days even the idea of mountaineering was quite new. It was almost as though the lightly built seven-year old was some kind of throw-back to an earlier age altogether, when men made their homes amid the tops of trees. Certainly his natural talent for climbing would be remarkable enough today, but towards the end of the 1800s it seemed a very odd gift, and a little unnerving.

In 1900 George Mallory went to the great public school of Winchester, for which he had won a scholarship. By rights this new world should have given him enough to think about without climbing, but fate decided otherwise. Tempted by a nearby ruined castle, George was scrambling along a high wall when the ancient masonry collapsed. Reacting with the instincts of a cat, he jumped for his life and landed lightly on his feet while the wall crashed down behind him. His coolness and sheer gymnastic skill didn’t go unnoticed. One of George’s new masters was none other than Graham Irving, a member of the Alpine Club and a top man among British climbers, who saw in young Mallory a talent that was too good to waste. When next he went climbing in the Alps, he took his gymnastic pupil with him.

The sight of real mountains seemed to confirm for George Mallory that to scale them was what he wanted to do more than anything else, and he settled down to learn all he could. The men who climbed with him noticed that although he did not appear to have enormous physical strength he had an extraordinary sense of balance and, perhaps more than anything else, the sheer mental dedication that makes the true mountaineer. Because there was no doubt about it. George Mallory was a born climber. A man who gave the slightly eerie impression of having done it all somewhere before.

He climbed whenever he could, if not in the Alps, then among the rocky crags of Wales. After he had left Winchester for Cambridge he still climbed, and when finally he became a schoolmaster, his new job did nothing to lessen the fascination that mountains held for him. By now acknowledged as one of the handsomest men in the country, married and with a host of friends among the most brilliant young thinkers of his day, Mallory seemed to have everything, yet he made no secret of the fact that he didn’t particularly enjoy teaching.

As it happened, his career as a schoolmaster was not a long one. In 1914 World War I swept across Europe, and Mallory joined up as an artillery officer. Millions of men were to be killed during the four years that followed, but the climber-schoolmaster survived without a scratch, almost as though fate had something else in store for him. And in 1921, in the first, uneasy years of peace, he got a hint of what it might be when he received an invitation to join an expedition to climb the greatest mountain of all: Everest.

“It’s a big world,” was George Mallory’s comment when he first set eyes on the mighty Himalayas. Perhaps, so far as he was concerned, it was the only world that really mattered. But that first expedition was to prove little more than a reconnaissance, for appalling weather drove the climbers back. Nevertheless the route seemed clear, and when he returned the following year Mallory was full of hope. At first everything went astonishingly well, and the climbers found themselves at almost 27,000 feet, higher than man had ever reached before. Considering that they were wearing ordinary felt hats, tweed jackets and army putlees wrapped round their trousers it seems unbelievable today that they got anything like as far without dying of cold.

Then an avalanche descended and seven of his companions were swept away. The survivors abandoned the expedition and headed for home.

Much had been learned about the terrors of Everest, but would it prove enough against such an implacable enemy? In 1924 Mallory was back again, grimly determined that this time would be different. Indeed, to those who knew him best he confided that something told him that this time he would get to the summit.

The expedition reached the highest of the camps as planned, and on June 6th Mallory set off with another climber, Sandy Irvine, on the final dash to the top. Clouds gathered, and for a time the summit was hidden from view. At last they parted, and for a fleeting moment a watcher saw two tiny figures climbing steadily, up towards their goal.

Neither George Mallory nor his companion were ever seen again. Almost thirty years were to pass before Everest was finally conquered, but even then no trace was found of the missing men. Did Mallory lead the way to the top all that time ago? Many of his friends believed that he did. All George Mallory’s life seemed to have been a preparation for that great effort, and being the kind of man he was it is hard to believe that in the end he failed.

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