Feature article by Anthony Harrison, founder of The George Mallory Foundation
Long before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, George Herbert Leigh Mallory was a British expedition set to conquer the titan. He never returned.
In 1999, some 75 years after Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared, the BBC’s Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition arrived at Everest with the sole purpose of locating the pair.
Despite the significant passage of time since they disappeared on the mountain, the odds of finding them were good.
The constantly freezing temperatures and layer of permafrost on Mount Everest preserve the bodies of climbers who perish on its slopes almost perfectly.
While Mallory’s body was successfully located, Irvine’s body has never been located – though his climbing axe was located roughly 800 feet above Mallory’s body.
Researchers concluded from the position of his axe, and rope around his waist, that Mallory had likely been tied to Irvine, and either fell, dragging Irvine with him, or cut himself free before doing so. The pair’s death was attributed to a fall.
Whether or not Mallory and Irvine ever reached the summit remains a mystery, though experts have speculated that the positioning of the body suggests Mallory was climbing down the mountain, rather than up it.
According to the survivors of their 1924 climbing expedition, Mallory was carrying a camera to document his and Irvine’s success, should they reach the summit.
Unfortunately no camera has ever been found.
Experts from Kodak have said that if a camera was ever found, the film could likely still be developed, although several expeditions in recent years to locate the film have proved to be fruitless.
George Herbert Leigh Mallory, was born in Mobberley in 1886 to the local clergyman Herbert Leigh Mallory of Saint Wilfred’s Parish Church.
In his early years, Mallory’s family bought their first family home at Hobcroft House on Hobrcoft Lane, where he self-taught the art of climbing, utilising the home’s tall chimneys and the church tower where his father preached.
He later went on to read History at Cambridge University in 1905 and in December 1915 he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery with whom he served throughout the First World War and fought with during the Battle of the Somme.
Mallory resigned his commission in 1920 and – unable to resettle back into ‘normal’ life – signed up to The Geographical Societies 1921 British Expedition to Everest. This would be his first of three.
On Mallory’s third expedition, he and his climbing partner, Chester’s own Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, decided to make their move for the summit on 6th June before the wintery monsoon season was forecast to hit.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen by fellow expedition member Noel Odell, who reportedly saw the pair heading towards the Third Step, “going strongly for the top”.
Mallory and Irvine then disappeared into the clouds and weren’t seen again until Mallory’s body was found in 1999 just 200m from their summit camp (Camp VI). He appeared to have been on the descent.
George Mallory’s body and possessions remained in very good condition within the ‘Death Zone’ but his pocket camera and a picture of his wife Ruth (which he promised to place at the summit) are still missing to this day.
Mallory is believed by many to have summited Everest on 8th June 1924.
Over the years he’s inspired and been quoted by kings and presidents alike.
President John F Kennedy, launching the US space program in 1961, when asked ‘why’ he wanted to reach the top of the world, he responded “because it’s there,” directly quoting Mallory.
1921 and 1922 British Expeditions
The first of several reconnaissance missions led by the Royal Geographical Society, the aim of the 1921 Everest expedition was to survey the landscape and summit of Mount Everest.
Setting out from Darjeeling, India, the expedition documented the vistas, local communities, wildlife and landscapes along their journey towards the world’s highest peak.
Photographs from the expedition, taken by George Mallory, Edward Wheeler and Alexander Wollaston (among others) were intended to complement the expedition’s surveying work in preparation for future attempts to ascend to Mount Everest’s summit.
The photographs attest to the intrepid nature of the expedition, capturing the pristine natural landscape, and are some of the very first photographs and panoramas ever taken of Mount Everest.
In Mallory’s account of this initial expedition, he wrote: “Mountain shapes are often fantastic seen through a mist: these were like the wildest creation of a dream.
“Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain sides and glaciers and arètes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared.”
In September the party was forced to retreat from an initial attempt at reaching the summit due to high winds.
A second expedition the following year was similarly revealing, and benefited from the innovation of bottled oxygen during a number of tentative ascents.
An attempt to reach the summit ended tragically in an avalanche which killed several members of the team.
1924 British Expedition
In 1924 Mallory was selected for the third expedition.
This was to be the mountaineer’s final outing, as he and fellow climber Andrew Irvine disappeared on the north-east ridge of the mountain on 8th June.
The particulars surrounding whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit prior to their disappearance continue to be the subject of numerous studies.
In the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was found at about 8,440 metres, and in 1975 a Chinese climber discovered a body that he described as being that of an Englishman.
An expedition set out in 1999 to search for the two bodies but only revealed Mallory’s, which was found at 8,155 metres, determining that he had died after a bad fall.
It was initially hoped that the camera which Mallory had with him might reveal if he and Irvine had reached the summit.
Possessions such as an altimeter, pocketknife, and letters were found – but no camera. His body was buried in the spot where it was discovered.