Of all the explorers I’ve been writing about for the RSGS, there are many whom I’d love to have talked to, and got to know as friends; but few have drawn me in quite as much as George Mallory.
I’m certainly not the first to see Mallory’s charm. Born in 1886, this son of a Cheshire vicar was blessed with the kind of facial features that made women – and men – swoon with unrequited longing. Tall and long-limbed, he had an athletic physique that he honed in the mountains of Snowdonia; as a climber, he possessed the effortless grace of a cat.
“His movement in climbing was entirely his own. It contradicted all theory. He would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve.” Geoffrey Winthrop Young, friend and mountaineer
But there was something more about Mallory, something harder to define. He made an immediate impact on people, but the thing was that he was largely unaware of it. His early girlfriends found him hard to fathom, and noticed how he never put himself forward in strange company, preferring to stand back and watch before trusting new acquaintances. And the girls themselves… they could have been woodland nymphs, for all that George understood them. This mountain athlete who held the key to almost any rock face became suddenly and painfully shy in the presence of the opposite sex. He admired, and hesitated, and smiled apologetically. It drove them mad.
Emerging from Winchester College into the brilliance of Cambridge, Mallory was drawn into the Bloomsbury Set, a dizzy bunch of pleasure-seeking academics who flouted the code of modern society and lived life with the hectic intensity of gadflies. Perhaps they knew, without really knowing, that the world trembled on the brink of the Great War: for those who survived its horrors, life would never again be quite so light or happy or carefree. Mallory understood their need for self-expression because he felt it in his own heart; for him, the act of climbing represented something deeper, a quest for something sensed but not seen:
“His great desire was for the spirit of man to exercise itself as freely and fearlessly and joyously as a climber on a hill.” Cottie Sanders, friend of George Mallory, from ‘The Wildest Dream’ by P & L Gillman
In 1918, the few men of this generation who emerged safely from the black hole of Europe counted themselves supremely lucky. George Mallory was one of them. On the eve of the war he had fallen in love with a wide-eyed beauty named Ruth Turner; they had married before George left for the Western Front, and already had a young family. But now George faced a challenge of a different kind. Like so many explorers before and since, he was torn by two conflicting impulses: to settle down into a life of quiet domesticity, or to pit himself against one of the world’s most terrifying natural wonders.
“‘Impossible’ was a word that acted as a challenge to him.’” George’s sister, Avie, from ‘The Wildest Dream’ by P & L Gillman
For an ambitious mountaineer in the 1920s, Everest was the holy grail. Pristine, untouched and dauntingly beautiful, it represented the apex of human achievement, and in post-war Britain it became a symbol of hope and renewed glory. If a man could scale that mountain, what pride his country would feel! Precious faith in humanity would be restored; buoyed by the pure spirit of endeavour, Britain could lift herself out of the gutter of despair and austerity, and rejoice. It was a calling that no one, Mallory included, could easily refuse. To her infinite credit, Ruth pushed her own feelings aside and urged him to go.
George had climbed extensively in the Alps, but when he first saw the world’s highest mountain he was stunned into silence. In 1921, as a member of the British Everest reconnaissance expedition, he described “a great bluntly pointed snow peak with a much steeper north face than people have made out… the most stupendous ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen.” With frank simplicity, he added: “…all the talk of easy snowslopes is a myth.”
Poster for Mallory’s lecture to the Aberdeen branch of the RSGS, February 1922
A few months later, pacing the floorboards of lecture halls in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, George Mallory recounted his experiences in vivid detail to members of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. His accompanying lantern slides were met with gasps of wonder.
“Glaciers, chasms, precipices were encountered with snow, winds, and mists – all trying to hardened and experienced mountaineers, but amidst surroundings which made wonderful and beautiful pictures. Now Everest was seen with its sharp peak, sparkling like a jewel; then with a spindrift of snow whirling to a height of at least 2,000 feet above its summit – ‘like the hair of an enraged goddess,’ as the lecturer observed. Occasionally the group of summits appeared like islands in a sea of cloud of ever-changing colours. It was fairyland one day and a dark, sombre world the next, for the mountains are fickle in their moods. The effects of snow, ice, rocky ridges, sunset, dawn were such as evoked enthusiastic admiration.” Aberdeen Free Press, 9th February 1922
Moving the vote of thanks at Aberdeen, Mr John Clarke, a university lecturer, voiced the sentiments of everyone present. “They all joined heartily in wishing God-speed to the Expedition, and they hoped before the end of the year to welcome Mr Mallory back to give them an account of ‘Everest Climbed’.”
It is unlikely that anyone present could foresee the outcome; except, perhaps, Mallory himself.
“It is curious how much I have a sense of the nearness of danger.” Letter to his wife, Ruth, in 1921, from ‘The Wildest Dream’ by P & L Gillman
George did indeed return to Everest in 1922, but this second expedition was abandoned when seven porters died in an avalanche. A third expedition was planned for 1924, and by this time the stakes were even higher. Britain desperately needed a victory: but few people even grasped the hardships the climbers were under, or the conditions they would be facing, equipped with only primitive breathing equipment and the kind of clothing that they customarily wore in the Alps. George was publicly optimistic and secretly hesitant; fatefully, he chose to ignore his doubts.
It was through George’s own choice that he was partnered by the 22-year-old Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine for his attempt on Everest’s summit. Irvine’s comparative inexperience was counterbalanced by his supreme fitness and his skill with the new oxygen cylinders, which were beset by technical problems. The pair set out on the morning of 8th June 1924; they were last glimpsed by team member Noel Odell at ten to one that afternoon, black specks moving steadily up the north-east ridge, before cloud moved across the mountain and obscured them from view. Neither was seen again.
“One comes to bless the absolute bareness, feeling that here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.” ‘The Wildest Dream’ by P & L Gillman
It is somehow fitting that Mallory’s end, tragic though it was, came at a time when he was directing his body and soul upwards, because that seems to have been the overriding impulse of his life. Aspiring for perfection, for some elusive pinnacle that existed in his mind just as much as it did on the face of the planet, he vanished somewhere between earth and heaven, into a white world.
The Mount Everest Committee was established in 1920 by Sir Francis Younghusband, himself a lifelong explorer, with the purpose of co-ordinating British attempts on the summit of Everest. It included members of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society.
1921: First British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, led by Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury. Mallory and Guy Bullock climbed to the North Col of Everest, reaching 23,000 feet, and established the northern route up to the summit.
1922: Second British Everest Expedition, led by Brigadier-General Charles Granville Bruce. In addition to Mallory, the team included George Finch, Geoffrey Bruce, Edward Norton, Howard Somervell and Henry Morshead*; John Noel was the photographer and film-maker.
1924: Third British Everest Expedition, led by Edward Norton, with Mallory as climbing leader. Members included Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell and John Noel, with Noel Odell and Andrew (‘Sandy’) Comyn Irvine.
*Henry Morshead is the man who accompanied Eric Bailey on his intrepid venture into the Tsangpo Gorge in 1913.
Instead of welcoming Mallory back and hearing his account of ‘Everest Climbed’, as they had so ardently hoped, in October 1924 the RSGS listened with sadness to the story of the last man to see him and Irvine alive: the geologist Noel Odell. Odell had collected samples of the first fossils ever to be found on Everest, but within hours grief had overshadowed his joy.
“They were moving swiftly, their figures silhouetted against the snow. Then the clouds enveloped the climbers. They were never seen again, and the question, Did they achieve victory? remains unanswered… They were confident the mountain could be climbed, Mr Odell declared in his clear, level voice, in which there was no suggestion but that of purposeful determination, and that the men would be found to do it.” Scotsman, 30th October 1924
- ‘The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory’ by P & L Gillman
- ‘Climbing Everest – the complete writings of George Mallory’, pub. Gibson Square
- ‘Mount Everest – the Reconnaissance, 1921’, by C K Howard-Bury
- Archives of the RSGS
Photos of RSGS ephemera © Jo Woolf and RSGS; others via Wikimedia
6 thoughts on “George Mallory – from life to legend”
Bravo! I was looking forward to this post and have very much enjoyed it. You’ve written it beautifully Jo, and it gives me a different view of Mallory from the little I’d picked up in the past. I didn’t realise he had such an effect on women, and I also didn’t know he was married with a family when he died. I had always imagined him as an adventurous bachelor. I like to think he and Irvine got to the top, but it’s one of those unknowns that I suspect will remain a mystery forever.
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Thank you so much, Lorna, you’re very kind! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I learned a lot about Mallory while reading up about him – he became very human and quite vulnerable. I found his story so moving – his relationship with his wife, and his letters to his children written while on the Everest expeditions. The background of the time was so interesting as well, with the changing attitudes to mountaineering, the world of the Cambridge ‘literati’ and the effect of the Great War. ‘The Wildest Dream’ is a good biography if you fancy finding out more.
Thank you, I think I would enjoy reading that book. Incidentally, I started reading ‘Mission to Tashkent’ but I couldn’t get through it. I was reading a John Buchan novel at the same time, which probably didn’t help. Bailey was describing extraordinary events but in such a dry way. I’m sure Buchan would have made a cracker of a tale out of Bailey’s life.
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Ah… I wondered! I didn’t like to put you off too much. Bailey was a supreme spy but his writing left a lot to be desired (and to the imagination!) Yes, Buchan would have told the story much, much better!
Thanks for this marvelous story, Jo! He certainly looks the magnetic personality. I wonder if they understood about altitude sickness back then. From what I’ve read, that will wreak havoc with the fittest climbers. When you mentioned his method of climbing I couldn’t help thinking of David Tennant leaping about in Doctor Who. They may have something in common. 🙂
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You’re most welcome, Pat, and I am so glad you enjoyed reading it. Yes, they did know about altitude sickness and Mallory had experienced it in the Alps, but few people really appreciated the huge difference between climbing Mont Blanc and Everest. The use of breathing apparatus was only just being introduced and many people (including Mallory, at first) thought that it wasn’t ‘pure’ climbing because it seemed almost like cheating. And it has been worked out that the increased oxygen offered by one of the first cylinders would have been pretty much expended by the extra energy needed to carry it. It’s almost as if the men got as far as they did on sheer determination alone – I’m sure this is true of Mallory and Irvine, anyway.
PS I do agree with your comparison to David Tennant – spot on!
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