The world’s best introduction to the George Mallory Everest mystery

A review of Fallen by Mick Conefrey

If you’re wondering why the legendary mountaineer George Mallory seems to be getting a lot of media attention lately, it’s because it’s exactly 100 years since he went missing on Everest, thereby creating one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of exploration.

George Mallory was on his third expedition to Everest when, on 8 June 1924, he set off from Camp 6 on the North-East Ridge with fellow climber Sandy Irvine. Later that day Noel Odell, who was climbing in support, spotted a pair of figures ascending a prominent rock step above a snow crest just beneath the summit pyramid. A few moments later the scene was enveloped in mist, and that was the last time anyone saw either man alive.

Mallory’s body was found on the North Face in 1999, some distance further down the ridge from where Odell had last seen him. He had almost certainly died from a fall while descending, but had he or Irvine reached the summit, and what had happened to Irvine? There have been various alleged sightings of Irvine’s body over the years too, but nothing that can be confirmed.

Fallen by Mick Conefrey
Fallen by Mick Conefrey

A great deal has been written about George Mallory in the century that has elapsed since his death. Some, such as The Wildest Dream, have been works of pure biography examining his upbringing and early life as much as his Everest expeditions (I’m talking about the book by Peter and Leni Gillman, not the song by Taylor Swift, which – you’ll be astonished to learn – is about a prickly relationship with an ex-boyfriend rather than the legend of George Mallory). Other books, such as Into the Silence, have tried to put Mallory’s Everest expeditions into the context of the times, dominated by the aftermath of war. Some, like The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, have examined his final expedition in minute detail and theorised about what might have happened.

The theories and questions have been many and varied. Some have focused on the events, like where on the ridge they were when Odell caught his tantalising glimpse. Others have focused on possibilities, such as if and how Mallory and Irvine could have climbed the Second Step, the most difficult obstacle on the ridge. Others have been so wild as to verge on conspiracy, such as whether the Chinese Communist Party removed Irvine’s body and destroyed the camera that held proof of their ascent. Some crazy people with bald heads and bad jokes even believe that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit.

With all these words, you may wonder, do we really need another book about George Mallory? Well, yes, in fact. There is always room for more books about mountaineering history if they’re written by the right person. And with so many wacky and conflicting theories knocking around about George Mallory’s last climb, the right person in this particular instance is someone sensible, with the patience to sift through all the material and emerge with the most sensible conclusion.

Enter Mick Conefrey, whose book Everest 1953 about – yes – the 1953 Everest expedition I have previously chosen as one of the best books about Everest ever written. He followed this up with Everest 1922 about – you guessed – the 1922 Everest expedition, an important episode in George Mallory’s story. Besides having an extensive knowledge of Everest’s history, Mick has a proven track record at producing sensible conclusions from controversial stories, as he did with his book The Ghosts of K2.

Mick’s books are meticulously researched. His latest, Fallen, took him five years to write, and involved 54 visits to the archives of the Royal Geographical Society in London. They are also written in a breezy, highly readable style that manages to be both entertaining and authoritative at the same time. This has the effect of keeping you turning the pages, even when the story is well known.

Written in the same inimitable style, Fallen contains no big surprises (apart from, obviously, the fact that it’s not called Everest 1924), but in this case that’s a good thing. Even the front cover is well chosen. Mallory was famous for being dapper, with looks to make Cambridge undergraduates swoon. He stands on a snowy ledge somewhere in the French Alps (actually, the Aiguille Verte in 1909). He wears a neatly pressed velvet suit; his hair is immaculately coiffured in a manner that would make Reinhold Messner weep. He wears no hat or sunglasses, but you can be certain that his skin remained silky smooth.

Mick sets the tone in the prologue, when he explains the purpose of his book. It’s not an attempt to tell the story of Mallory’s life, but to ‘look in detail at the events of 1923 and 1924 and understand the forces that drove [him]’ and to ‘separate the man from the mythology that grew up after his disappearance’.

He whizzes through Mallory’s life and the first two Everest expeditions in a single, whirlwind first chapter. Biography devotees may feel short changed by this, but as he explained, it’s not what the book’s about (there are other biographies of Mallory, and he’s already written a whole book devoted to the 1922 expedition).

The story slows down as Mick devotes a whole chapter to Mallory’s US speaking tour in 1923. This was hardly sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, though it does contain elements of Spinal Tap on tour. His promoter struggled to book gigs and some venues were only half full, though at one point he did perform to 1,200 people. I can’t help reflecting this is something that modern mountaineers could never hope to achieve (if the countless lectures I’ve attended in London are anything to go by – but perhaps it’s different in America).

He moves on to the build up to the 1924 expedition and the failure to recruit George Finch, which Mick describes as a ‘huge own goal’. Finch was the star of the 1922 expedition and an expert in the oxygen apparatus that was likely to hold the key to success in 1924. He was also a notoriously difficult character (anyone wondering just how difficult should read Peaks and Bandits). Mick even uncovered a letter from Guy Bullock’s wife, a schoolmate of Mallory’s who joined the 1921 Everest expedition (Bullock, not his wife). She claimed that Mallory refused to go if Finch was included (Mick is sceptical of this claim).

By chapter 5, we are already onto the 1924 expedition and the bulk of the book, which covers five chapters. We learn about the trek from Darjeeling, the faulty oxygen equipment, and the weather that was very much worse than it was in 1921 and 1922. There was much more snow that year, and they had difficulty establishing advanced base camp in freezing conditions. They struggled to reach the North Col and were ill-prepared for a series of rushed summit pushes. Even so, two heroic attempts were made, by Edward Norton and Howard Somervell, then Mallory and Irvine. As well as describing these climbs in as much detail as he can, Mick describes the equally heroic solo efforts of Odell in the following days to find out what happened.

The final four chapters of the book focus on the aftermath and the years since when various attempts have been made to understand what happened. This is the separating of the man from the myth that Mick promised in the prologue.

We learn that Odell was the only member of the 1924 team who believed that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit (in hindsight, not so surprising given that he understood the terrain and the circumstances better than anyone). Odell kept quiet as the British establishment tried to negotiate permission from the Tibetan authorities for another expedition. This permission finally came in 1933, when team members found an ice axe on the North East Ridge that Odell was able to identify (by marks on the shaft) as Irvine’s.

The story fell quiet for 30 years or so, until 1970 when Somervell was interviewed for a BBC documentary, and revealed that he had given Mallory his camera. This camera, which might contain vital evidence, has never been found but has led to half a century of searching. We learn about the expeditions since, to look for Irvine, Mallory, the camera, including the moment in 1999 when a team of American climbers, guided by the notes of a German researcher, found themselves staring at a 75-year-old corpse lying prostrate on Everest’s North Face.

If you’re hoping that Mick’s meticulous research might lead to a definitive conclusion about what happened, you may be disappointed, but this is true to form. A sensible historian produces sensible answers. Refreshingly, Mick avoids the ‘did they, didn’t they’ speculation about whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit. He presents only the facts, and the facts don’t lead to a definitive answer either way. It is likely we will never know the answer and the myth will be preserved.

What you will find in Fallen, are all the most important parts of the story, presented in the most entertaining, well-balanced way. Even without the mythology, it’s a fascinating story. If you’re new to it, this book offers the best introduction you can find. If, like me, you think you’ve read it all, it’s always nice to have a readable refresher. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I have all of Mick’s books. I look forward to reading his next one.

 

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4 thoughts on “The world’s best introduction to the George Mallory Everest mystery

  • July 13, 2024 at 7:27 am
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    Thanks, Jochen. That means a lot!

  • July 13, 2024 at 7:33 pm
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    The only known man to free climb the second step is Conrad Anker, and he rated it 5.8 in the American scale. That level of rock climbing was not yet done even at seal level in 1924. Could Mallory and Irvine have done it with oxygen apparatus on their backs? No way.

  • July 15, 2024 at 1:24 am
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    I’ve seen speculation that one could have given the other a lift, either by the foot in joined hands method, or by one scrambling up to the other’s shoulders. The first one up would let down a rope for the other. I am not a climber, so I don’t know how realistic an idea that is.

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