Tuesday, 18 June 2013

‘For the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man’

Today marks the birthday of George Leigh Mallory, a talented mountaineer who became a national hero, and whose fate on the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1924 is debated passionately to this day.

Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, on 18 June 1886. His father, Herbert Leigh Mallory, was rector of St Wilfrid’s church, a position first held by a Mallory (Thomas, son of Sir William Mallory of Studley) as far back as 1619. 

George didn’t follow his father into the church, however. At 13 he won a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College, where he became interested in rock climbing and mountaineering. (Although it is said he scaled the tower at St Wilfrid’s aged seven, so perhaps it was always part of his make-up!)  After getting a degree at Cambridge, he became a teacher at Charterhouse, marrying Ruth Turner just six days before the start of the First World War. George served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the war, and then returned to Cambridge. In 1921 (now with three children) he resigned his post to join the first British Mount Everest Expedition.

By this time Mallory’s reputation as an exceptional mountaineer was uncontested; many considered him the best climber in the world. ‘His movement in climbing was entirely his own’, said Geoffrey Winthrop Young. ‘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."  Fellow climber Harry Tyndale agreed: ‘In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance; so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place ... that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness.’

The attempt on Everest was unsuccessful, however, as was the Second Expedition, which was further marred by the deaths of seven porters in an avalanche, for which Mallory felt partly responsible and for which he was harshly criticised. Following the disaster he travelled to the US to lecture on his experiences, and in New York was asked why he wanted to climb Everest: ‘Because it’s there’, he famously replied.

And then came the Third Expedition. By now George was 37 and he knew it would probably be his last chance to become the first person to climb Everest. On 8 June 1924 Mallory and Birkenhead-born Andrew Irvine, who was 22, left their camp at 26,700 feet to make a summit attempt. They were sighted briefly by support climber Noel Odell at 12.50 pm, when he saw them scaling what he believed to be the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge (he later decided it was actually the First Step; some have since suggested it was the even higher, then unknown, Third Step), about 800 feet from the summit.

This was the last time they were ever seen alive – Mallory and Irvine never returned. Whether they reached the summit before they died has been a matter of contention ever since.

News of the loss of Mallory and Irvine was greeted with shock in Britain. A memorial service at St Paul’s cathedral on 17 October was attended by King George V and other members of the royal family, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and the entire Cabinet.

Memorials were erected around the country. They include stained glass windows in the South Cloister at Chester cathedral and at Winchester College. Unsurprisingly, there is also a window dedicated to him at St Wilfrid’s. Mallory Court at Magdalene College, Cambridge is named after him, and in 1925 US climber Norman Clyde named Mount Mallory  and Mount Irvine in California in the men’s honour.

As has been well documented, Mallory’s body was discovered on the North Face of Everest in May 1999. Two pieces of circumstantial evidence – the fact that he no longer had the photograph of his wife that he had planned to leave on the summit; and that he was carrying his snow goggles, implying the men were descending after sunset – have led some to believe that they did reach the summit. Others believe the Second Step was just too difficult to climb at that time.

After an Anglican service, Mallory’s body was covered by a cairn of stones and left on the mountain.


George Leigh Mallory; Mallory memorial window; detail of window; St Wilfrid's, Mobberley

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