Friday, August 30, 2013


 It was 1999 when I first heard of George Mallory; yes, in the month of May and the year was 1999, and very aptly I was in Nepal. I was on deputation to Dharan (see my post on ‘Dharan Revisited’) in the Eastern Region of Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal (yes, it was a kingdom in those days) at the B P Koirala Institute of Health Sciences to establish Department of Psychiaty with remit to establish full range of services and training opportunities in mental health.  I had fallen in love with the country, and was impressed by the range and varities of mountains and treks spread all over the country. Of all the 10 peaks above 8000 m in the world, 8 are in Nepal. But then there are all grades of treks spread over the length and breadth of the country for a beginner or an avid trekker.
The news splashed over the newspapers was that the body of British mountaineer, George Mallory, was found by the British Climbing Expedition that had been set up to find the remains of George Mallory and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were members of the expedition to conquer Mount Everest and had perished on 8/9 June 1924. The body was found at the height of 8157 m (26760 ft) on 1st of May, 1999 and was remarkably well preserved even after 75 years due to extremely low temperatures. The expedition conducted service for Mallory and covered his remains with a cairn on the mountain. The body of Sandy Irvine has not yet been found. The camera has also not been found so far, which could have conclusively proved that the duo did or did not reach the top of Everest on 8 June 1924.

Since then it has been a subject of intense debate and resarch whether George Mallory was indeed a first ever man to have reached the top of the Earth at Mount Everest. The controversy has still not been settled and there are claims and counter-claims on either side. One circumstantial evidence that the believers now cite is that Mallory was carrying a photograph of his wife, Ruth, in his wallet to be left on the top of the mountain. When his body was found, the wallet was very much there but with no photograph of Ruth in it. Whatever may be the truth, one thing which most of the experts agree on is that George Mallory was certainly capable of summiting the Mount Everest. He was an extraordinary climber with exceptional talent. He was driven to achieve the feat. On being asked once why did he wish to scale the Mt Everest, he famously replied, “Because it is there”.
The master story teller, Jeffery Archer, wrote a biographical novel on George Mallory, ‘Paths of Glory’ in 2009, which I recently chanced to read. Though all the characters of the novel are real, I can not say same for all the incidents. But all the major events are real as they have been described in a number of reports, biographies, and documentaries on Mallory.
In 1924, when George Mallory started for his third visit to the Himalayas, he was already past 37 years of age. His first visit to the mighty Himalayas was in 1921, which was an exploratory visit to find the possible route/routes to the summit. Very little was known at that time how human body would react to the high altitude above 15000 ft. It has to be borned in mind that the highest peak in Britain is Ben Navis at 4470 ft, and in Europe it is Mont Blanc at 15782 ft. These pale in comparison with Mt Everest that stands tall at 8848 m (29029 ft). That was the time when bottled oxygen was only in the experimental stage, the clothing was ordinary, and logistics difficult to organize, since one did not know what to expect high up in the mountains. During the 1922 expedition, Mallory was totally against using bottled oxygen saying any climbing was successful if it was accomplished unaided. During that attempt, Edward Norton and Howard Somerwell managed to reach a height of 8225 m (26980 ft), while another fellow expeditioner, George Finch, an Australian, managed an altitude of 8321 m (27300 ft). Mallory was surprised with the astonishing speed with which Finch had climbed up using bottled oxygen. After two failed attempts by his fellow expeditioners, Mallory made third attempt, which also remained unsuccessful owing to extremely hostile weather. While climbing down, seven Sherpas of Mallory were caught in the avalanche and perished beneath the snow. Mallory himself was heart broken with this tragedy, and was accused of poor judgement.
During 1924 expedition, Mallory knew that that was his last chance to summit the Mt Everest. He was willing now to use bottled oxygen for a successful climb. George Finch, who was an advocate and expert in using such oxygen was dropped from the expedition, and Sandy Irvine, 22 year old boy, who had no experience of mountain climbing, other than scaling 5000 ft high peaks, was chosen as an replacement. However, he was an enthusiastic athletic young man, with expertise in using and repairing oxygen bottles.
What happened on the fateful night of 8 and 9 June, 1924 has remained a matter of intense speculation and research. After many unsuccessful search attempts to locate the bodies of Mallory and Irvince, it was 75 years later on 1 May, 1999 that Conrad Anker, member of the search party led by Eric Simonson, discovered well preserved body of George Mallory at the height of 8157 m (26760 ft). Camera has still remained untraceable.
Number of mountaineering experts and climbers have reacted differently to the speculation that Mallory did reach the summit in 1924, becoming the first ever man to reach the highest point on the surface of Earth, pushing down Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s record to second place. Some have said that to speculate in absence of any photographic evidence, it is even wrong to make such assumptions. Others have said a successful complete climb is not only to ascend, but also to successfully descend down.
Two British Heroes, Robert Scott and George Mallory, could not accomplish their mission: Scott to become the first ever man to reach the bottom of Earth, the South Pole, and Mallory to become the first man to step on the highest point on the surface of Earth, the Mount Everest, in 1924. Both perished to realize their dreams. Scott did reach the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to realize that the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen had already hoisted Norwegian flag on the South Pole 33 days earlier on 14 December 1911. Dejected and heart-broken, Scott perished on his way back alongwith his other four colleagues. Scott's entry in the diary reveals his great disappointment. “The worst has happened… All the daydreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” the diary entry reads. George Mallory left a great mystery behind him, whether he did or did not reach the highest point on the Earth. Inspite of all the risks, dangers, and uncertainties, he wanted to do it ‘since it is there’.
George Mallory II, grandson of George Mallory, summitted the Mt Everest on 1995 as a member of the American Everest Expedition. He left a laminated photograph of George and Ruth Mallory saying it was to complete an ‘unfinished family business’.