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The mystery of Mallory

Was Sir Edmund Hillary the first person to climb Everest? Or was it George Mallory? Jeffrey Archer’s latest bestseller “Paths of Glory” weaves fact and fiction to create an interesting tale of one man’s obsession. Author and playwright Jeffrey Archer, who undertakes a tour of India to share his experience writing the book, explains his fascination for Mallory. Exclusive to MetroPlus


Life rarely progresses in a straight line, even for the most talented or fortunate

PHOTO: AFP

Chasing the elusive summit George Mallory

Mallory is more interesting than Shackleton or Scott, and his life story would make a far better film than Chariots of Fire,” insisted Chris Brasher as I took another sip of tomato soup.

“How interesting,” I said, trying to sound interested.

The conversation took place at Mosimann’s restaurant over a decade ago, when Chris Brasher, John Bryant and I were enjoying one of our irregular lunches. For the next half hour, Chris regaled us both with the remarkable story of George Leigh Mallory, and the mystery of whether he was the first person to stand on the summit of Everest.

“With your passion for sport, and never-ending quest to reach the top –” Chris didn’t mince his words, “– you are ideally suited to write the tale, so get on with it Archer.”

I didn’t get on with it for several reasons; not least because I was planning to take a break from writing so that I could concentrate my energies on becoming the first mayor of London. This did not, however, stop Chris repeating his feelings on the subject whenever we met. I continued to ignore his protestations and then he died.

I was unable to go to Chris’s funeral, as at the time I was under lock and key, and prisoners are not allowed to attend funerals other than for their immediate family. However, a pang of guilt made me walk across to the prison library in the hope of finding a book on Mallory. I couldn’t find a book on Mallory, but I did discover one on Everest, in which several chapters were devoted to George Mallory. It only took a few pages to realise that Chris had been right, Mallory was an extraordinary man.

During the next break from work, I used up my phone-card (three minutes) to call my PA in London. I asked her to find every book she could on Mallory. Within a week, five books had been posted to the prison. I read them within a week and became convinced that Mallory would be an ideal subject for a work of fiction. George Leigh Mallory was born in 1886, the son of a parish priest. He followed his father to Winchester and Cambridge, where he became a friend of several other undergraduates, including Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and George Bernard Shaw. Like them, he aspired to an academic life, and hoped to be awarded a first class honours degree which would make it possible for him to remain at Magdalene College as a don; but it was not to be. Mallory gained a second, and ended up as a schoolmaster at Charterhouse. Some biographers have suggested that it was this early setback that drove the young Mallory to want to be the first person to stand on the top of the earth. There can be no doubt that he was more focussed and driven than many of his more gifted contemporaries. But life rarely progresses in a straight line, even for the most talented or fortunate, and two obstacles were thrown in Mallory’s path to make his quest to conquer Everest even more difficult.

In 1913, Mallory fell hopelessly in love with Ruth Turner, the daughter of one of the governors of Charterhouse, and after a whirlwind romance that lasted for a few weeks, they were married. And if that was not enough to hold him up, Britain declared war on Germany.

Although schoolmasters were exempt from serving in the armed forces, Mallory left Charterhouse and his pregnant bride, to join the Royal Artillery. After two years at the Front, Mallory was invalided out with a broken ankle, but he, like so many sportsmen of his generation, may have lost his best climbing years to the war.

When I was released from prison, I set about meeting leading mountaineers, historians, Cambridge folk, as well as members of the Mallory clan (his son John, living in South Africa, granddaughter Virginia in Henley, and grandson George in Australia – who himself conquered Everest in 1995 in memory of his grandfather) in the hope of throwing more light on the great man. I also studied letters, alpine journals, maps and first-hand accounts of the three expeditions that took place in 1922, ’23 and ’24, before I sat down to write the first chapter of Paths of Glory.

The 1922 expedition could best be described as exploratory, while it was during the 1923 trek that the first genuine attempt was made to reach the summit of Everest. In fact Mallory might have made it on his first attempt, had he not decided to remain with his exhausted friend Noel Odell at 27,550 feet, only to watch his great rival, the Australian George Finch continue to climb to a new world record of 27,850 feet, before he also had to turn back.


On returning to England, Mallory made two promises to his wife: that the third attempt on Everest would be his last, and if he succeeded, he would place Ruth’s photograph on the top of Chomolungma, Goddess mother of the earth – the other woman in his life.

The 1924 team set out on the SS California for Calcutta, but on this occasion, Mallory’s great rival, George Finch, was not included in the party because he had recently become involved in a divorce. The Royal Geographical Society thought it was bad enough that an Australian might be the first person to conquer Everest, but a divorced Australian! A twenty-two-year-old Oxford rowing blue, Sandy Irvine, was selected to take his place. Irvine had little climbing experience before joining the Everest party, having only reached 5,500 feet on Spitsbergen the previous year, but like Finch, he had first-hand knowledge of the use of oxygen, and more important, wasn’t divorced. This alone was deemed enough for him to be selected to accompany Mallory on the final climb from camp six (27,100 feet) to the summit (29,005 feet).

The two of them were last spotted by Noel Odell when they reached 28,400 feet, and in Odell’s words, were “heading strong for the top”, but they were never seen again, until Mallory’s body was discovered by a search party in 1999 at around 27,000 feet.

When Mallory’s wallet was carefully extracted from his frayed jacket, there was no sign of Ruth’s photograph. For the romantics, this is enough proof that Mallory reached the summit, while realists remind one, that he was forgetful and might not have taken the photograph with him in the first place.

My research showed that serious mountaineers are equally divided between those who believe he reached the summit, and those who claim that it might not have been possible without modern equipment. Of one thing they are all in agreement; this remarkable man, dressed in a three-piece suit carrying a rolled-up umbrella, was well capable of climbing the last 600 feet, which is why the mystery of Mallory continues to fascinate people nearly a hundred years later.

Graham Hoyland, who has climbed Everest on five occasions, will set out later this year with another search party, bent on finding the missing body of Sandy Irvine, and in particular the Kodak camera he took with him on the final climb. Would the discovery of the camera finally resolve the truth of whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit?

Sir Edmund Hillary was apt to remark that it didn’t really matter if Mallory did reach the top, because to conquer Everest, you have to go both up and down. I don’t agree. If the missing camera were to show that Mallory reached the peak, then in my opinion, Hillary was the second person to conquer Everest.

When I finally sat down to write Paths of Glory, a phrase from Mallory’s favourite poem, Elegy Written in a country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, came to mind, and I could never forget the next five words of that line, the Paths of Glory lead but to the grave.

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