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Mallory, George Herbert Leigh (1886-1924)
Mallory, George Herbert Leigh (1886-1924)
George Mallory and Mount Everest became almost inseparable in the public imagination during the first attempts to climb the mountain in the early 1920s. Both man and mountain became icons; the latter as a symbol of the terrible might of nature, and the former as the romanticised full-blooded Englishman rising to the challenge of overcoming its difficulties, giving his all before dying a glorious death. Not for nothing did Geoffrey Winthrop-Young dub him ‘Sir Galahad’. The reality, though no less honourable, was rather more prosaic.
Mallory was born into a well-to-do Cheshire church family in 1886 and was sent to boarding school at Winchester where he was introduced to Alpine climbing by one of his masters, Graham Irving. He displayed an aptitude for climbing, his natural athleticism compensating for a sometimes cavalier approach and a chronic absent-mindedness. His carelessness was legendary: climbing the Finsteraarhorn in Switzerland in 1909, for instance, Mallory forgot to tie onto the climbing rope, and only became aware of the fact when he was in a very exposed position on a narrow ice arete with a thousand-foot fall threatening. However, such was his coolness in a tricky situation (albeit of his own making), that he was able to maintain his composure and tied back on with great difficulty. This forgetfulness never left him; General Bruce, leader of the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions remarked that ‘He is a great dear, but forgets his boots on all occasions’. After studying History at Cambridge (where he moved in exalted circles amongst intellectual Bohemians such as the literary critic Lytton Strachey) he continued to hone his exceptional climbing skills and became well known amongst key players from the Alpine Club. Because of his climbing and social credentials, therefore, Mallory was an automatic choice as lead climber for the Everest expeditions which began in 1921. Mallory’s disappearance on Everest in 1924, along with his young partner Sandy Irvine, resulted in one of the longest-running mountaineering mysteries of all time. The question of whether the duo may have summitted and what happened to them which has continued to excite the passions of historians ever since. The sensational discovery of Mallory’s body by an American research expedition in 1999 resulted in an explosion of publicity and merely reinforced Mallory’s position as the best known mountaineer in the world. It also served to re-ignite the debate as to whether he succeeded in reaching the top, but failed to provide conclusive answers one way or the other.
Further reading: The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine, Tom Holzel & Audrey Salkeld, Jonathon Cape, 1986; The Wildest Dream, Peter & Leni Gilman, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000.
Biographical information is kindly supplied by Colin Wells. Image is courtesy of The Alpine Club, ref 001227: George Leigh Mallory, 1886-1924, English climber, while on lecture tour in the USA 1921-1922.
2006-08-06 00:00:00
Maxine Willett
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Mallory, George Herbert Leigh (1886-1924)
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