George Mallory

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

A few biographical thoughts on George Mallory: My INTENTION is always to get people reading some of the fascinating books around mountains and wilderness and there can be fewer more compelling stories than that of George Leigh mallory.

George Herbert Leigh Mallory was was born on the 18th June 1886 to Herbert Leigh Mallory and Annie Beridge, in Mobberley, Cheshire, U.K. It was during his time at Winchester College that his first introduction to mountaineering and rock climbing came, through R.L.G. Irving, who was a master at the school. 

Mallory was by all accounts a natural athlete, also rowing for Magdalene College whilst studying history in Cambridge. Not long after graduating he became a teacher, ending up at Charterhouse in Godalming, Surrey where he met his wife Ruth Turner, with whom he went on to have 3 children.

Despite this Mallory went on to climb Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc in the summer of 1911. Around this time he was also climbing some serious routes on British rock. Climbing and mountains had become an integral part of young George's existence. He wrote an essay on his alpine climbs which gives an insight into both his growing obsession and also his relationship with the concept of the conquest of a mountain;

"One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end - to know there's no dream that mustn't be dared... Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We're not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished... Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here".

For me there is a contradiction in his words. There is perhaps the beginning of a struggle between the acknowledgement that mountaineering is not a battle that can be won per se - the mountain is after all immoveable - and the intense desire to achieve his goals; a desire that would drive him to place Everest above all other concerns in his life, including his family.

His climbing and his time at Charterhouse was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, in which Mallory joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, serving as a Second Lieutenant. He returned again afterwards but soon his entire existence was to be consumed by Everest.


In 1921 a British Reconnaissance Expedition set out to explore the possibility of approaching and ultimately climbing Everest. Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time so a route through Tibet was used. The North Col was reached by three climbers; Guy Bullock, Edward Wheeler and George Mallory. They were the first Westerners to set foot on Everest, and probably the first to see the western Cwm below the Lhotse face. 

This recon expedition set the tone for the coming 10 or 20 years as subsequent parties throughout the 1920s and 30s would attempt Everest form the North Col route. This was Mallory’s first taste of Himalayan climbing but he was to return the following year.

"Because it’s there".

In fact it was a mere three months later when Mallory was again embarking on another trip to the Himalayas. 

Brigadier General Charles Bruce was chosen to lead the 1922 Everest Expedition and was a man with a comparatively large amount of experience in the greater ranges. First with Conway in the Karakoram, on Nanga Parbat in 1895 where Albert F. Mummery would famously die, then on the Trisul massif with Thomas Longstaff.

His team, included the likes of Mallory, Howard Somervell, Edward Norton and George Finch and had very serious intentions of climbing the highest mountain in the world. There was no 'reconnaissance' mentioned in this outing.

Mallory, Somervell and Norton reached a record altitude of 8225 metres, on the North-East Ridge prior to retreating in worsening weather. This was all done sans oxygen, which they felt was very much against the spirit of mountaineering… just in case you thought ethics and climbing were in any way a more recent phenomenon!

This record altitude was beaten a few days later by George Finch’s party using oxygen. Although against his principles Mallory made a note of this as he observed just how quickly those using oxygen were able to move at this extreme altitude.

Mallory himself was part of a third unsuccessful attempt on the summit during this expedition but it was late and the monsoon season was upon them. On the descent Mallory’s group was caught up in an avalanche which resulted in the untimely demise of seven Sherpa porters. It was time to go and another chance at immortality had passed him by.

Following this expedition Mallory was asked by an American journalist; why it was that he wanted to climb Mount Everest? His response has gone down in history as probably the most oft-repeated phrase in climbing; “Because it’s there”. It was there alright; permanent, all-consuming, a powerful and enduring drug in the mind of George Leigh Mallory. 

But Mallory was not as blasé as this soundbite might suggest. A letter to Ruth on 18th May 1922 demonstrates how keenly aware he was of the personal dangers:

"I write to you on the eve of our departure for the highest we can reach, just because I shall feel happier, in case of difficulties, to think that I have sent you a message of love".

How could he not be, given the deaths of the Sherpas, something for which Longstaff held Mallory at least partly responsible? But no danger would deter George Mallory. Everest was indeed there, it would remain there and was still there in 1924 when Mallory would make his final attempt at conquering the world’s highest summit.

the whole fascinating vision - 1924 Everest Expedition

This was always likely to be Mallory’s last chance to climb Everest. He was 37 years old in 1924, when General Bruce led another expedition into Tibet. He was more determined than ever to make it count.

His first attempt, alongside Geoffrey Bruce was cut short at camp 5. Subsequently Norton and Somervell reached a new record altitude of 8570 metres, without oxygen.

Mallory, this time alongside young Scottish climber Andrew Irvine, set off from Advanced Base Camp (6500 metres) on the 4th of June. Such was his obsession with Everest and his overriding will to conquer this mountain that by this stage he had completely reversed his once negative opinion on using oxygen. Indeed both he and Irvine began to use it from the base of the North col. He recalled how fast Finch had been in 1922.

On June 6th the pair climbed up to Camp 5, then Camp 6 on the 7th. By the 8th of June Noel Odell moved behind the climbers covering a supporting role. He saw them climbing a prominent rock step, which may have been the Second Step;

“…there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more”

This was the last time that Mallory and Irvine were seen. 

Whilst Odell observed that one of the two men had surmounted the Second Step of the NE ridge there is no concrete evidence to suggest they got that far. One oxygen cylinder was found below the First Step and Irvine’s ice axe was also found close by in 1933.

It is assumed that they died late on the 8th or perhaps early on the 9th of June 3, 2016.

Odell commented:

"This upper part of Everest must be indeed the remotest and least hospitable spot on earth, but at no time more emphatically and impressively so when a darkened atmosphere hides its features [...] and how and when more cruel could it ever seem than when balking one's every step to find one's friends". 

Noel Odell thought that he had seen Mallory and Irvine ascend the Second Step, however he later changed his story to say it was the First Step before performing another U-turn and re-stating his original opinion relating to the Second Step, late in his life. Observations taken from Odell's vantage point by other mountaineers have also suggested that Odell could quit possibly have seen his colleagues at the Second Step.

Having said this, modern climbers have varying views on whether Mallory would actually have been capable of ascending the Second Step of the North Ridge. More recently it has been surmounted via a 15 ft (4.6 m) ladder, permanently fixed in place by climbers in the 1970s although Theo Fritsche (Austrian climber) did solo it in 2001 without oxygen and has asserted that he think Mallory might have made it. 

In June 2007 British climber Leo Houlding, along with US veteran Conrad Anker temporarily removed the ladder and free-climbed the Second Step. Houlding rated the climb at 5.9, which is thought to be just within Mallory's capabilities as a rock climber. Following this climb Anker commented that he felt that Mallory "could have climbed it".

But, these are all assumptions. What is certain is that Mallory and Irvine were feted as heroes back home. A memorial service, held at St Paul's Cathedral, in London on the 17 October, was attended by the great and the good, including Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the British Cabinet, as well as members of the Royal Family, led by King George V.

The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine

A Photo of George Mallory - All rights: 

The tale of most lives would end here, in death, but Mallory, or the myth of Mallory has lived on and on.

Disappearance does of course not quite satisfy the human need for completeness. It is a life ended but somehow not closed. This has never been more the case than with Mallory and Irvine. Coupled with romantic speculation as to whether these home-grown heroes might just, maybe have conquered Everest 30 years before Hillary and Tenzing the myth of Mallory and Irvine lived on for 75 years at least. 

Many expeditions have tried to locate their bodies and to come to a final indisputable conclusion as to whether George Mallory reached the summit of Everest. In 1936 F.S. Smythe thought he saw a body where Irvine’s ice axe had been found but this was not made public.

Tom Holzel, who would later co-author The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine with Audrey Salkeld, launched an expedition to find Mallory in 1986, following reports by a Chinese mountaineer that he had come across “an English dead” around 8100 metres. Unfortunately the precise position was never really fixed and Holzel came back empty handed, so to speak.

In 1999, 75 years after his death, a frozen and weathered body was discovered by Conrad Anker at a height of 8157 metres. It was actually found below where Irvine’s axe had been found but the name tags on the clothing carried the name of "G. Leigh Mallory".

The Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition brought a few items about his body off the mountain but his corpse was covered with a cairn. They returned again in 2001 to conduct further research but failed to find either Irvine or a camera that might have shed more light on their last moments.

The enduring image of Mallory as a hero was due in part to the impact he had on those around him, during his formative years. He was a regular of the Bloomsbury set; friends with Duncan Grant (who painted him repeatedly) Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes. He became a friend of Robert Graves and ended up as best man at Graves' wedding.

Lytton Strachey writing in 1909, spoke of Mallory in the following terms: 

"He's six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face—oh incredible—the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy"

He was sensitive, attractive and a talented and determined climber. An artistic hero, driven to succeed yet vulnerable - perhaps more than anything to his own passion. Perhaps until his body was discovered he was able to live on in our imaginations. For me the images that circumnavigated the globe in the days after his discovery; images of his white wind-flayed skin and ravaged clothing, brought an end to the myth of George Leigh Mallory. He became once more a mere human; lifeless skin and bone, robbed of an immortality that the glorious disappearance on Everest had lent him. 

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