From The Rising Nepal (May 15, 1975) – Courtesy MPP Archive
It was the year 1852. An obscure peak deep in the frontier of Nepal and Tibet named Peak XV was found to be the highest in the world. It is a sad fact that the Sherpa name ‘of Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the Earth) was not known to the Survey people down in Calcutta, and so they named the peak “Everest”.
But whatever name the mountain went under, it at once became the target of, mountain climbers determined to reach the top of the world. The North and South Poles had already been reached on 1909 and 1911 and so the ascent of the highest peak became the only great adventure left.
Many a tragic drama has been played since then on the cold, high slopes of Mount Everest even after it finally surrendered to, the British expedition in 1953.
One such tragedy involved the greatest climber of them all, George Leigh Mallory (1886– 1924). Mallory had become a legend in his own life-time, and he was one of the first and ablest opponents of “the Mother Goddess.”
The first British reconnaissance expedition to the Everest area was granted entry into Tibet by the Dalai Lama in 1921. Nepal was not to open her doors until after the Second Great War in 1949.
When he was invited to participate in the first expedition, Mallory had already made a name for himself in the Alps as an excellent rock and ice climber. As the years went by, and his reputation grew in England it was thought that if he could not conquer Everest, then nobody else could.
The difference between Mallory and other well-known climbers of the day was that he was a scholar. He was almost idolized by many. He was said to be very handsome, and had large thoughtful eyes with long lashes. He was very chivalrous, so much so that he was sometimes called Sir Gallahad. Mallory loved poetry and he was an authority of the English Literature. He himself also wrote very good prose, mainly concerning mountain climbing.
Of the many saying attributed. to George Mallory. two of them are most famous. When a lady-reporter in the USA asked him the hackneyed question as to why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, perhaps in irritation, Mallory answered, ‘Because it is there! This saying stuck, and now it has been quoted by many writers, climbers, and even by Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Among his prose selections the most famous is what he wrote about the essence of conquering a mountain. `Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That world means no-thing there… to struggle and to understand-never this last without the other; such is the law’.
During the first reconnaissance of 1921, Mallory became the first European to see the mighty North face of Everest and to reach the North Col. He was also the first person ever to peer over the West Ridge of Everest and look into Nepal. From his high perch up on the Lho La (19,100ft) Mallory looked into the Southern Nepalese half of Mount Everest, and he decided that the mountain could not be climbed from the Nepalese side. He ends his diary for the day with. “We saw a lovely group of mountains away to the South in Nepal. I wonder what they are and whether anything is known. about them’, But as it was, Mallory never lived to come and try Everest from the Nepali side. The attempts at Everest from the North were never to succeed, and in the end, it was from among the very peaks to the South which Mallory had seen, that Tenzing and Hillary succeeded in climbing Everest thirty years later.
So why then, if Mallory could never conquer Everest, does his name remain so closely linked with that of the peak? During the ’20s and the ’30s, the names Mallory and Everest were almost synonymous. The reason is that Mallory was first man ever to reconnoitre Everest, and he was also the life and soul, the trump card of the following two attempts on Everest.
The expedition to Everest (1922) ended in tragedy, when seven Sherpa ‘tigers’ lost their lives in an avalanche on the North Col. Mallory himself barely escaped with his life, being buried under only la couple of feet of snow.
By the time of the third expedition, Everest had become with Mallory a personal matter. An obsession. After the second expedition, he had gone back to England and to a much coveted post as a professor in Cambridge. For a while he lived peacefully with his wife Ruth (a mountaineer herself) and three children. But Everest would not leave him alone.
Mallory was asked to join the third expedition by the Mount Everest Committee. Though unwilling to leave his family for such a hazardous venture he was eventually persuaded to go, even by his wife, who knew that Mallory’s heart was constantly on the barren northern slope of Everest.
So, once again, the spring of 1924 found Mallory and, the rest at Darjeeling on their way to Khampa Dzong, from thence to the Rongbuk Glacier where they would set up their base camp.
The plan for carrying the crucial supplies up to the last camp, Camp VI high up at 27,000 feet was very meticulously laid out, and Mallory wrote. ‘It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shan’t get to the top. I can’t see myself coming down defeated.’ He did not come down defeated: he never came down.
Bad weather, sickness and accidents made haywire of all the plans, and the climbers had to make do with what they had.
Mallory’s decision on choosing his climbing partner may have played a crucial role in the tragic accident that followed, He chose one Andrew (Sandy) Irvene, who was the youngest and the most inexperienced against the obvious choice of another much more experienced climber who was fully acclimatized to the great height, N.Odell. It is believed that Mallory chose Irvene simply, because he liked him, because the two came from similar backgrounds. At it was, the two started out from Camp VI with their 25 lb. oxygen sets, on the morning of June 8. It is somewhat pitiful to reflect that even if Mallory and Irvene had had the best of modern mountaineering equipment, they would never have made it to the top. It is now believed that the route they had chosen was completely impossible.
Odell, who was acting as back-up to the two climbers at Camp V glanced up to see the clouds parting for a moment. He recognized the two figures of Mallory and Irvene plodding up the slope. They seemed a bit too late in starting. And then the clouds again closed, and that was the last anybody ever saw of the twosome.
The cause of the death of Mallory and Irvene has been one of the greatest mysteries ever. The speculation increased when in 1933, members of another expedition found an ice-axe lying on a rock ledge at 28,000 feet.
The story of Mallory and Irvene, as theoretically reconstructed goes thus: After a vertical climb of some hundreds of feet, the climbers came to an area called the Yellow Band. Here they had to traverse the whole North face of the Summit Pyramid by means of a rock strata which extended across the whole face. The route is very dangerous with mocks covered with slippery powder snow, and sloping out and downwards at a dangerous angle.
When they came to this rock strata, Mallory must have let the younger man take the lead, so that if Irvene slipped, Mallory could save him by belaying the rope with which they were connected.
It is presumed that on one of these rock-slabs, Irvene must have slipped and fallen. Instantly, Mallory must have let go of his ice-axe, in order to grasp the rope with both his hands. But, on the rock slab, Mallory’s foot-hold must have been very insecure and the jerk as he tried to arrest the sliding man pulled him off balance, and dragged him, on after Irvene. Both men hurtled down the precipice, and, hopelessly, they fell towards the Rongbuk Glacier, some ten thousand feet below. That Mallory must himself have put the axe on the rock ledge is certain, for if it had been flung from his grasp, then the axe too would have falled with the men, down the precipice and not into the narrow ledge.
Thus “the Mother Goddess of the Earth” took her revenge upon her most dreaded opponent, and George Mallory died… but his legend lives on. Though the Northern and “older” approaches to the summit have now been abandoned, Everest has now been climbed many times from The Nepal side. Even today, climber to the Everest on the Khumbu Glacier cannot rid themselves of the vision of Mallory, way back in 1921, peering the Lho La and into the Nepal side.
…And more and more climbers still pour in to the Nepal Himalaya… some to die here on the cold slopes, but all with only one reason as to why they climb, “Because it is there ! !”