Every once in a while someone asks me the THAT question, “Do you think George Mallory reached the top before Edmund Hillary?”
This question will go unanswered until they work out how to thaw out the dead reanimate them to speak their truths. George Mallory the Englishman who set out to climb Everest via the North side was last seen alive about 250m below the summit and then his body was discovered 75 years later frozen in the scree after a severe fall killed him. Sandy Irvine is yet to be discovered, a Chinese climbed to have seen “English dead” in 1975, but he too was killed in an avalanche before he could divulge where he had seen it.
People argue the pivotal evidence that George was found without the picture of his wife among the items they salvaged from his clothing. A broken altimetre sans hand or glass (inconvenient to say the least), a few bits and pieces…but no photo. The significance lies in Mallory’s promise to his wife to place her on the summit when he got there, both a woman and a promise he would lay his life on the line for.
In a 2008 documentary, Conrad Anker the American who discovered Mallory’s marble-skinned body facedown in the scree, led an expedition to free climb the Second Step to answer the feasibility of free climbing the last obstacle between Mallory last sighting and the summit. He did it. Without the ladders that are bolted there today, chalking another point for the Mallory team and adding even further mystery to the tale.
The opposition step in and argue that even if he had made it to the top, he did not survive the descent and therefore the conquest was I vain, summit or not. Some 34 years later, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa stood victorious on top of Everest, claiming the peak for the British Empire, a perfect gift for the newly crowned Elizabeth II. Mallory-faithfuls may consider this an act of re-gifting, but when all was said and done, it was their names are inked in the history books.
So what is my opinion? Do I think Mallory made it? From the sidelines I have the luxury of not needing to fall on my sword for either camp, but prefer to extricate the bits of history and the associated learnings for my own personal benefit.
Yes, Mallory’s jacket was missing Ruth’s picture, his altimeter rendered useless and clouds obstructed any witnesses on that fateful day. The romantic in me says he made it. I picture him kneeling at the summit, kissing Ruth’s photograph before placing her delicately into the snow. Perhaps he knew then that his end was nigh, perhaps the elation of his life-long quest overshadowed the sentiment of that moment. We speculate based on our own values, emotions and imaginations and what we know about the man himself.
This was his third expedition to claim Everest, an obsession that would eventually cost him his life, marriage and future career of fame and fortune.
The truth is, it does not matter. It matters nothing to us. Our names weren’t in the will and world hunger is no better because of this triumph.
What I choose to take away from his story is a lesson in dedication, having the bravery to follow a dream and returning time and time again to a vicious master based purely on a gut feeling. And most of all George Leigh Mallory died doing what he loved. He would not have chosen another path had he been given a second chance. He would go again and die again. And again and again.
As for Hillary? He returned to the region building schools, raising funding and awareness and several hospitals for the Sherpa people. He saw an opportunity to make a difference, using his new found fame and favour, the beekeeper from New Zealand rolled up his sleeves and laid bricks, built roves and ferried wheelbarrows through the Khumbu. Lesson to be learnt, you’re never too important to get your hands dirty. Also, beekeepers make great mountaineers, and mountaineers make great bricklayers. So, lose the job title, nametag and the attitude, if there is a difference to be made, go make it.
These two men’s lives were defined by a giant chunk of rock. One of their lives ended up there; the other’s virtually began again.
For me, I like to consider myself as one of the latter.