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George Leigh Mallory

Strangely, the highest mountain in the world has probably been visited most frequently not by the native Nepalese and Tibetans who have lived for centuries in its shadow, but by British explorers and surveyors. While the local populations could catch an occasional glimpse of the giant between the smaller intervening mountains and through the almost constant veil of clouds and snow that enshroud the summit, local taboos discouraged them from venturing very close.

In 1852 Sir Andrew Waugh, the Director-General of the British Ordnance Survey of India, was told that careful measurements indicated that the mountain rose more than 29,000 feet above sea level. Until then, Everest was known simply as ‘Peak XV’. Sir Andrew questioned nearby inhabitants in an effort to learn the local name of the mountain, but was unable to discover any. Since Peak XV seemed an unsatisfactory designation for the world’s highest mountain, Sir Andrew named it after his predecessor, Sir George Everest.

The thought of climbing Everest did not take hold immediately, but in 1857, only a few years after Sir Andrew Waugh’s discovery, the British Alpine Club was formed. The sport of mountaineering was enjoying tremendous popularity in Britain and within a relatively short time British climbers, under the direction and support of the Alpine Club, had conquered many of Europe’s highest and most inaccessible peaks.

By the end of the 19th century, the need for new challenges prompted mountaineers to look toward Asia, and the hope of reaching the highest point on earth became a common desire among the best British climbers. For years, however, the most difficult part of the dreamed-of ascent was taking the very first step. Neither Tibet nor Nepal would allow Europeans across their borders, and without access to at least one of these countries, Everest was beyond reach.

Not until January 1921 did the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club receive permission from Tibet to send a joint expedition to Everest. In the resulting excitement, no one could have guessed that more than 30 more years would pass before British climbers reached the summit.

Since so little was known of the local geography, the 1921 expedition was described as a ‘reconnaissance’. Officially, the expedition’s goal was to chart the best course to the summit, while the scientists of the Royal Geographical Society took advantage of their presence in Tibet to study Himalayan geology and botany. No attempt to reach the summit was planned, although the climbers were ready to jump at any favourable opportunity that might arise.

Nearing the base of the mountain, George Leigh-Mallory and a fellow climber parted from the scientists of the Royal Geographical Society and, after weeks of climbing, backtracking and detouring around obstacles, reached a saddle-shaped piece of ground called the North Col. Here, high winds halted Mallory at an altitude of 23,000 feet.

Guided by the results of this reconnaissance, a second expedition left Britain for Everest the following year. Unlike the first expedition, the second team of explorers had the summit as its primary goal. Preparations for the 1922 expedition prompted the first debate over the use of oxygen cylinders by the climbers. Purists among the mountaineers insisted that it was just not sporting to rely on an artificial supply of oxygen. Other opponents cited more practical concerns. Dependence on oxygen could be fatal if the delicate apparatus malfunctioned, and the strain of carrying the heavy cylinders up the mountain, some said, would more than offset the refreshment provided by their contents. The issue was not conclusively decided, but in the end the expedition equipped itself with the cylinders and took a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

Even without using the oxygen, George Leigh-Mallory, E. F. Norton, and Howard Somervell climbed higher than any ever had before, but after painfully slow progress, they abandoned the effort at 27,000 feet.

A second attempt, this time with the benefit of oxygen, followed a few days later. Faced with less favourable conditions, the second party did only marginally better, reaching 27,300 feet. A third and final attempt ended in disaster when an avalanche killed seven porters. In shock and dismay, the British expedition admitted defeat.

Two years later, veterans of the 1922 expedition re-entered Tibet, confident that the lessons gained from the previous failures were adequate assurance of success. From the outset the third expedition met with more extreme weather than had either of the previous two. It took a superhuman effort just to reach the customary jumping off point on the North Col, and by the time a camp had been established there the entire expedition had nearly reached the limit of its endurance. It seemed that all the advance planning had been derailed by the weather, but, unwilling to return to England without making a try for the summit, the climbers pushed on upward and established two additional camps, the highest of which was at 26,800 feet.

On 6th June, E. F. Norton climbed to within 900 feet of the summit before giving up. Two days later, George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine made another attempt but never returned to camp. Members of the next major expedition to Everest, in 1933, found an ice-axe at 27,600 feet that apparently marked the site of a fatal accident.

The ruler and spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, viewed the tragedy as a sign that the spirits who lived on the mountain were angered by the European intrusion and he again closed his country’s border for nearly a decade. During the frustrating interval the mountain became an obsession with British climbers, who felt they had a personal score to settle. A new generation of mountaineers, including Eric Shipton, Hugh Ruttledge, and Frank Smythe, stepped forward to take the place of the Everest pioneers.

I can't see myself coming down defeated, wrote 37-year-old Himalayan pioneer George Leigh Mallory shortly before his third assault on Mount Everest, in 1924. Nearly 80 years later, whether the British explorer was defeated remains the biggest mystery in mountaineering history. Did he and his 22-year-old climbing partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine, reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Mallory and Irvine-nattily outfitted in gabardine, the Gore-Tex of their day-departed their high camp early on the morning of June 8. They were last seen by fellow climber Noel Odell at 12:50 p.m. ascending one of the three rocky steps that characterize the upper reaches of Everest's difficult Northeast Ridge. But clouds soon enveloped the top of the mountain, and Mallory and Irvine vanished into the penumbral mist.

Hard evidence in the case is scant. A 1933 British team found Irvine's ice ax below the first step, at 27,760 feet, and one of their oxygen cylinders was found nearby in 1991. A 1999 expedition led by American climber Eric Simonson discovered Mallory's bleached and mummified body lying facedown at 26,760 feet. As incredible as that discovery was, there are still no answers. "The camera would be the definitive clue," says Simonson, alluding to the still-missing Vest Pocket Kodak that Mallory supposedly borrowed from a teammate for his summit bid. "And more evidence could absolutely be found up there."

The final sighting of the two climbers-the starting point for the bulk of subsequent speculation-became problematic as Odell equivocated in the days after the climb, unable to decide whether he had seen Mallory and Irvine grappling with the Northeast Ridge's relatively benign first step or the far more difficult second step. Climbers on the ridge today bypass the crux of the second step via a rickety ladder. The only group to ascend it in pre-ladder days, a four-man summit team from the 1960 Chinese expedition, did so with the aid of pitons-equipment that Mallory and Irvine did not have.

Everest veteran and filmmaker David Breashears, director of the 1987 documentary Everest: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, says there's no way the duo could have free-climbed the second step-and, thus, they could not have reached the summit. "At over 28,000 feet, in an unprotected lead with a bowline around his waist and hobnail boots, and with Irvine on a marginally anchored or possibly unanchored belay stance, Mallory climbs something as hard or harder than he'd ever climbed at sea level?" asks Breashears. "It is not only ludicrous to think they could do that; it is a flight of fancy."

American climber Conrad Anker, the 1999 expedition team member who found Mallory's body, agrees. "Saying that they could have climbed the second step is putting the romantic dream ahead of the factual evidence, and that, in a sense, does a disservice to the climbers," he says. "There's just no way they climbed the second step without gear."

But Simonson, who returned to Everest in 2001 for an unsuccessful attempt to find Irvine, refuses to rule out the possibility. "On a good day, sufficiently motivated, people do some amazing things," he says, referring to Mallory's indomitable will. "It's my opinion that it was possible for them to climb the second step."

Simonson is contemplating another fact-finding expedition to the mountain, spurred by the recent revelation that Xu Jing, a climber on the 1960 Chinese expedition, encountered a body-possibly Irvine's-in decaying old clothes, lying supine, arms frozen to his sides, on a section of the Northeast Ridge. If that is Irvine's body, perhaps he holds the final answer to mountaineering's long-standing debate in his icy grip.

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