by Petr Hykš
The pioneering but unsuccessful summit attempt of George Leigh Mallory is one of the most famous Everest treks in history. Mallory is credited with saying the immortal words “because it’s there”, his justification for taking on the challenge of Everest. Trekkers, mountaineers, and outdoor enthusiasts ever since have adopted this enigmatic adage to capture some of his adventurous spirit.
1920s Everest Trekking Equipment
Mallory was a pioneering mountaineer. When he tried to summit Mount Everest (8848 m) in 1924, things were quite different on the mountain. The equipment he used would surprise a modern mountaineer: he climbed the world’s mountain without a down jacket – something that people staying at Everest Base Camp three thousand metres below the peak now take for granted. He had no crampons on his boots and his oxygen tanks were much heavier and much less reliable than those used on Everest trekking expeditions today. They resembled a jet pack more than breathing apparatus.
The infrastructure that mountaineers now benefit from, such as fixed ropes and ladders, had not yet been installed. His Everest Trek did not have the benefit of the weather information that meteorology offices provide today, nor was the support structure of Everest Base Camp fully established and organised.
Mallory and Irvine Tackle Everest
For his expedition, which would be his third attempt in four years, Mallory solicited the help of Andrew Irvine, who was an expert in experimental oxygen tanks. Having been granted permits from the Chinese government, they tackled Everest from the north on the Tibet side of the mountain.
On June 8th 1924, Mallory and Irvine were last seen heading for the “Second Step”, a wall of rock on the Northeast Ridge of Everest above Camp 4. They never returned.
In 1924, and many times since, there were attempts made to locate the bodies of Mallory and Irvine. Finding evidence of whether or not their Everest Trek was successful has become somewhat of a holy grail in the mountaineering community.
Irvine’s body has never been found, but Mallory’s remains were found in 1999 by Conrad Anker, a mountaineer and an enthusiast in Everest trekking history. On the body, which he recognised by his 1920s period clothes, Anker found sun-goggles and a monogrammed handkerchief. The name “G. Mallory” was stitched inside the collar. There was also a rudimentary altimeter and a packet of letters Mallory had written to his family.
The cameras which Mallory and Irvine took with them, which could contain photographs from Everest’s peak, are still missing. And so the speculation and mystery continues about whether they made it to the top before they fell victim to the mountain.
The route Mallory initiated is still used today for summit attempts such as the unsuccessful bid made by Ranulph Fiennes in 2008. Fiennes would succeed a year later, approaching via the Everest Base Camp and the southeast ridge on the Nepal side of the mountain. This is the same route Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took for the first expedition ever to reach the summit, thirty years after Mallory’s disappearance. They looked for evidence that Mallory had made it, but found nothing.
Whether he made it to the summit or not, Mallory’s vision and Everest trekking ambition was indisputable. In writing to his wife before the climb, Mallory’s confidence was evident: “I look upon myself as the strongest of the lot, the most likely to get to the top.” We will probably never know if he was right.
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