Mallory and Irvine: Should we solve Everest's mystery?

Mallory climbing in 1922, climbing in 1909, and in portrait

The mystery of whether two British adventurers were the first to reach Everest's summit has long intrigued the public. But do we really want to know the truth?

As a tale of doomed, romantic endeavour, it has endured for decades.

It is also Everest's most persistent mystery - did George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine make it to the top in 1924, almost 30 years before it was officially conquered?

The pair, equipped with primitive climbing gear, were last sighted a few hundred metres away from the summit before bad weather closed in around them.

Wearing Burberry gabardine jackets and hobnail boots, and carrying a rudimentary oxygen supply, their gear was a far cry from the hi-tech protective clothing worn by modern mountaineers.

Everest Everest gripped the imagination in the 1920s

And historians have long argued whether or not they made it to the peak before succumbing to the freezing conditions.

A forthcoming expedition to Everest aiming to establish what exactly happened is just the latest in a series of attempts to solve the puzzle. But despite the continued speculation, many of those with a stake in the mystery hope it will never be resolved, fearing the prosaic truth could never match the legend.

Successive expeditions have been staged to try to piece together their movements. The discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 fuelled interest in the mystery but failed to resolve it.

Those who believe the duo did reach the summit believe a camera carried by them could finally settle the controversy. If the two men did reach the top, it is reasoned, they would have taken a photograph.

When Mallory's remains were found, no camera was recovered. Now the new US-led hunt in December will seek Irvine's body and the missing film.

1920s climbing kit

They wore gabardine, wool, cotton and silk, and looked to modern eyes like naive gentleman walkers out on a winter stroll.

But the clothes worn by Mallory and Irvine were, in fact, extremely resilient and would not have prevented the pair reaching Everest's summit, according to a study conducted by researchers in 2006.

Contrary to the popular conception that they were ill-equipped, the layered natural materials used to construct the garments were found to be excellent at trapping air next to the skin.

Textile experts from four British universities found that the outer layer of gabardine was hard-wearing and water-resistant yet breathable.

Additionally, the clothing was also lighter than modern gear.

However, the pair would have struggled in freezing temperatures with fly buttons, the team concluded.

Julie Summers, Irvine's great-niece and biographer, who is undertaking a lecture tour about him, is one of those who hopes the mountain will retain its secret.

"I like the idea of it being one of our great enduring mysteries," she says.

"There's something about the romance of it - there's an otherworldliness to the story."

Certainly, few would doubt that the tale of Mallory and Irvine has come to represent more than just a single, doomed climb.

The persistence of the story has much to do with its protagonists' contemporary fame. The attempt to conquer Everest was closely followed by the public and the subject of regular breathless dispatches in the Times prior to their disappearance.

But the historical context ensured their disappearance symbolised more than simply the tragic deaths of two young men. The recent memory of World War I - in which most of the expeditionists, with the notable exception of 22-year-old Irvine, had served - added an additional dimension of poignancy to their loss.

Subsequently, too, the noble failure of this ill-equipped, Boys' Own-like adventure has come to be seen as a symbolic portent of the British empire's demise.

The personal dynamic of the pair has added much to their continued mystique.

Mallory's view in the Times

From The Assault on Everest written by George Mallory for the Times on 16 June 1924

"Was there ever such a party as set out straggling up the snow-covered stones next morning? Norton, Somervell and myself, the three who have climbed on Everest before, must have appeared like a party of thrashed curs.

"I suppose we were half-sick with the cold and the altitude. Never can three men have looked less like accomplishing a hard task; never, I confess, has a task appeared to my mind so utterly far away and unlikely to be accomplished.

"We drove ourselves somehow or other over the fresh snow of the glacier basin and up, up, slowly and wearily, puffing and coughing.

"'If only it were not for that blessed cough,' I thought, 'even in snow up to my knees I could have gone on well enough.'"

Mallory was an aesthete and Cambridge lecturer who had consorted with members of the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group. In one of the most famous statements ever made about mountaineering, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory replied: "Because it's there."

Irvine, 15 years his junior, was a taciturn engineering student whose physical strength and uncomplaining hard work meant he was chosen by Mallory to be his companion during the ascent, despite the younger man being the least experienced climber in the 13-strong expedition team.

The tragedy of two individuals - one consumed by a desire to overcome the summit, the other bolstered by youthful fearlessness - driving themselves on towards their fate is what makes the story compelling, believes Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest.

"If you have that burning desire inside to do something like that, it's very difficult to let go," she says.

"With Mallory, there's no question that climbing Everest was everything to him. Irvine was so young, I think he just got carried along."

Hillary and Norgay Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are recorded as the first to make it

And while this compelling personal narrative leads some to protect the myth, it also inspires among others a drive to attempt to find out exactly what happened to them.

Film-maker Graham Hoyland was part of the 1999 expedition which found Mallory's body and has written a book which, he says, will settle the mystery.

Hoyland says he recognises the saga's allure. But he believes that uncovering the men's fate is the only way to truly appreciate their achievements.

"I think we should historicise it rather than mythologise it," he says.

"I do understand the appeal of the myth - as a boy I was besotted by the story. But I do think there's more value in getting the truth out. That's the only way we can really assess the circumstances."

Whether these two remarkable men reached the summit may never be resolved. But whatever the outcome of the next expedition, the fascination their story inspires is unlikely to fade.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Reader Dennis Hodgson was right in stating that Mallory was wearing Tricouni nails (and not hobnails) on his boots. His boot was recovered and is now kept at the Royal Geographic Society in London. You can see a short video on Tricouni nails (read by Roger Moore) on the Tricouni website.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    A lot is made by some commenters of the fact that when Mallory was found he was not carrying the picture of his wife he promised to leave at the summit.

    He had just suffered a fall in which he had broken his leg. He knew he would not get down the mountain alive. I think it's much more likely that he took out the photo to look at, as his life ebbed away. The photo probably then just blew away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    I don't think it really matters whether it's a known fact that they reached the summit. They were a few hundred metres from it, with almost nothing to protect them. Experienced mountaineers, in my opinion they knew they would never get back and went for glory. Regardless of wether or not they summited Everest, they are great for trying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    142. bj8191
    1 Hour ago

    (or the mountain gods if you prefer) to allow you to sneak up and sneak back down again. .

    Or as Chris Bonnington once remarked, you don't conquer a mountain like Everest, now and again you catch it with its back turned . Everest can never truly be considered conquered until someone builds a McDonalds at the summit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    As for ascent, summit, climb and conquer.

    If they got up they were almost certainly the first to do so which means more to ordinary non-mountaineering people than getting up and down.

    Tensing and Hilary first to get up and down which means more to mountaineers than just 'up'.


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