Mountaineering & Expeditions

George Mallory Biography | Everything You Need To Know About The Man Who Changed Everest

Despite it being unknown whether he successfully ascended the mountain himself, Mallory pioneered the way for climbers looking to reach the summit of Everest

Whether George Mallory, in the summer of 1924, made it to the summit of Everest or not remains a matter of rigorous debate in mountaineering circles. One thing however that can’t be denied, argued, or contested is Mallory’s status as one of the most significant people to ever set foot on the highest mountain in the world.

After Mallory and his companion Andrew “Sandy” Irvine left for the summit on the 8th of June 1924, their story became one of the biggest talking points not only in the world of outdoors and adventure but also in the wider international press as well.

Their disappearance on the mountain left a number of questions unanswered and it wasn’t until 75 years later, when Mallory’s body was found during the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, that at least some of the mysteries could start to be solved. Before we get stuck in with all that business though, let’s wind the clock back to where it all began.

Pictured: The North Face of Everest, with the North East Ridge on the left hand side

The Early Life Of George Mallory

Born on the 18th of June 1886 in Mobberley, Cheshire, George Mallory was the son of a rich clergyman by the name of Herbert Leigh Mallory. And, as is so often the case with children of wealthy Brits, it wasn’t long before Mallory wound up in the world of English public schooling.

After gaining a mathematics scholarship at the age of 13, he was soon studying at renowned boarding school Winchester College. Throughout his youth, Mallory was said to have had a unique view on safety. As Mallory’s friend David Pye put it: “There is no doubt that all his life he enjoyed taking risks, or perhaps it would be fairer to say doing things with a small margin of safety.”

In 1904, aged just 18, Mallory and some friends from Winchester went off to the Alps for what would become Mallory’s first foray into the world of Alpine mountaineering. The trip, led by his headmaster Robert Irving, was put together with the aim of climbing a number of mountains in the Bourg St-Pierre range of the Swiss Alps.

The party though were unsuccessful in their attempt to climb a ‘modest’ peak below 3,700m after Mallory was seen to be developing the early signs of altitude sickness. Soon after the failed trip however, Mallory returned to the Alps with Irving and climbed two peaks including Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in the Alps, and in Europe west of the Caucasus).

Pictured: Winchester College

Following on from his first tastes of European mountaineering, Mallory was accepted into Magdalene College, Cambridge where he studied History. It was here where Mallory focused on his academic performance, whilst becoming good friends with many writers, intellectuals and artists, including Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes and Charles Darwin’s grandson (who was also named Charles – go figure).

During his final years studying, Mallory met and became close friends with poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who was also a notable climber and who would go on to pave the way forward during the golden age of alpinism.

Young would put Mallory in touch with numerous other accomplished climbers, who were also studying at Cambridge, including the soon to be President of the Alpine Club – Percy Farrar (Farrar would later ask Mallory to be a part of the first Everest expedition).

After Cambridge, Mallory continued to climb. He also went on to teach at Charterhouse School, one of the ‘Great English Public Schools’. While at Charterhouse, Mallory would frequently take his pupils climbing with him.

Poet Robert Graves, a former pupil of Mallory and someone who admired him greatly as a person, recalled Mallory’s teachings in his autobigraphy ‘Goodbye To All That’: “He [Mallory) was wasted [as a teacher] at Charterhouse. He tried to treat his class in a friendly way, which puzzled and offended them.”

On the eve of the First World War, just six days before its outbreak in fact, Mallory married Ruth Turner; a woman he’d met during his teaching experience at Charterhouse.

George Mallory During World War One

During the First World War, Mallory served as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. After a brief time on the front, he was sent home when an old ankle fracture started to give him issues. Mallory went on to have three children with Ruth, Frances Clare in 1915, Beridge Ruth in 1917, and John in 1920.

“The violent experience of the First World War shook Mallory and made him consider his life choices”

Although it was only a brief period on the front, the violent experience of the First World War shook Mallory, and made him consider his life choices. Following the birth of his third and final child, in 1920, Percy Farrar approached Mallory to join the first Everest reconnaissance expedition of 1921. With his old adventurous streak still very much part of his character, and perhaps looking to escape Europe after the horrors of war, he swiftly signed up.

1921 & 1922 British Everest Expeditions

The 1921 Everest Expedition offered Mallory the opportunity to prove himself amongst the big time of the Himalayan expedition community. And with him quickly becoming the go-to climber whenever the group looked towards summit pushes on peaks surrounding the Rongbuk Glacier (on the north side of Everest), it’s clear he achieved this.

Pictured: The 1921 Everest Expedition Team / The North East Ridge of Everest

As Nepal was closed to foreigners at the time, and would be until 1950, the expedition explored the Tibetan side of Everest and made it to 7,000 metres on the North Col. All in all, the 1921 expedition was seen as a success as it found a feasible route through the tricky glaciers that flank Everest up to the vital North Col – an area that climbers still pass when climbing Everest from the Tibetan side.

“Because it’s there”

Just as it had done in 1921, the 1922 expedition which Mallory was a part of went to the North Col. It was from here, that the expedition became the first of its kind to set itself the goal of making it to the summit of Everest. Despite not succeeding in their attempt, they managed to push up the north ridge to 8,320 metres, making it the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 metres. The expedition though will always be steeped in tragedy after seven porters were killed in avalanche on the North Col descent. These were the first climbing deaths on Everest.

Following the 1922 expedition, Mallory uttered his most famous line; a line just three words long, a line that’s echoed through the entire history of mountaineering. When asked “Why do you want to climb Everest?”, he cut straight to the chase and said “Because it’s there.”

1924 British Everest expedition

After a year off from attempting Everest, due to lack of financial backing, the British organised another attempt at the summit of Everest in the form of the 1924 Everest expedition. Not one to miss out on such a thing, Mallory was again involved.

The expedition followed the same route as the 1921 and 1922 expeditions. Climbing up to North Col, they planned to leave their basecamp and get up high along the north ridge. From here, the group looked to fix high camps at predetermined heights all the way up to Camp VI (around 8,170 metes).

Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce, who had been of the two-man team that reached 8,320 metres on Everest in 1922, were selected for the first attempt to reach the summit. However, before they could build Camp V at 7,700 metres, they met with disdain from their porters who refused to climb any higher and abandoned their loads. The attempt was subsequently abandoned.

Pictured: Porters were used during the 1924 British Everest Expedition. Screenshot taken from The Epic of Everest film

While making their retreat, Mallory and Bruce passed Howard Somervell and Edward Norton on their retreat from Camp V. The pair soon reached and established Camp VI at 8,170m.

On the 4th of June, Norton and Somervell began their attempt at the summit from Camp IV. By 12 o’clock, Somervell was no longer able to continue and so Norton ascended alone. It was during this solo attempt that Norton traversed around the eastern side of the north ridge to ascend up what would soon be known as the Norton Couloir.

Norton reached a high point around the 8,570 metres mark before being forced to turn back due to exhaustation. This height would remain a record for some 28 years, until Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert surpassed it in 1952.

Up next was Mallory, and his companion Sandy Irvine. Mallory, who’d gotten to know the 22 year old engineer on the ship voyage to India, had noted that Irvine was “strong as an ox.”

“Mallory and Irvine were not seen again”

As Norton was making his way back down, Mallory and Irvine were climbing up to Camp IV with fresh oxygen supplies for another attempt on the summit. Whilst he had little climbing experience, Irvine was thought to be a valuable asset due to his knowledge of the oxygen systems. On 6th of June, Mallory and Irvine departed for Camp VI.

By the 8th of June, Noel Odell, who was assisting Mallory and Irvine as they ascended the mountain, was said to have observed the pair climbing at the “base of the first pyramid”. When the skies cleared some time after this diary entry, Odell was said to have observed a small black dot moving on the ridge above the pyramid. However, after this observation, a mist enveloped the mountain again. Mallory and Irvine were not seen again.

Did Mallory and Irvine Reach The Summit of Everest?

Pictured: Irvine first from left, Mallory Second. Photo: John Noel Collection

Ever since the end of the 1924 Everest expedition, the question whether Mallory and Irvine had reached the summit of Everest has been on the minds of the mountaineering community and the media at large.

As to whether Mallory and Irvine could climb the first, second, and third steps – three tricky rocky bands that were later to be graded as a 5.9 rock climb by American climber Conrad Anker – became one of the main talking points around whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the summit of Everest.

According to Odell’s recount, a black dot was said to have moved through the second step in around five minutes, a climb that it was later argued would be impossible to be complete in such a time.

1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition

After poor weather prevented a 1986 expedition from finding the bodies, the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Expedition was organised in an attempt to solve the mystery of whether or not Mallory reached the summit of Everest.

This expedition featured experienced climbers from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. After previous reports and sightings of what was thought to be Irvine’s body, the expedition headed towards predetermined locations.

After going off course, Conrad Anker accidentally came across Mallory’s body still well-preserved, laying face down, with his arms outstretched as though he was aiming to break a fall. The body lay just below the first step, at 8,159 metres.

Although there was nothing definitive found on Mallory’s body, there were a few points of interest that gave the whole debate around whether he summited or not fresh oxygen

First of all, a pair of goggles were located in his pocket suggesting that he had been descending at night and not required the goggles.

Secondly, oxygen canister calculations suggested the pair had been carrying a third oxygen canister between them – enough to allow for a summit push.

“He [Mallory] was really the initial pioneer of the whole idea of climbing Mount Everest”

Finally, it was reported that Mallory always climbed with a picture of his wife and that he planned to leave it on the summit. The photo was not found anywhere on Mallory’s body.

A range of new theories have been speculated, all of which end with Mallory and Irvine falling during the descent. The “lost camera”, a camera the pair had with them to take pictures with should they make it to the summit, is another item that could unlock the secret once and for all. Its whereabouts on the mountain is unknown.

What is known is that Mallory sparked into life the idea that it was actually possible for human beings to climb Everest. None other than Edmund Hillary himself shone a light on this idea when he said “He [Mallory] was really the initial pioneer of the whole idea of climbing Mount Everest.”

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