Sometimes life and history give us an Aesop, a lesson to take to heart. Could be from a tragedy, a dream, a folly, a success, or some mixture of them all. And I think I've found just such a one.
Man is a fickle being. We aren’t very fast, yet we have moved at greater speed than any beast. We have limited senses, and yet we are compelled to see, smell, touch, and taste what we haven’t yet. We aren’t very well armed and yet we’re the most dangerous creature to ever exist. Perhaps it’s these shortcomings is one reason man is compelled to seek. We want every spot on the map charted, every place tread upon, every achievement given a “first to____”.
But, it’s often man’s folly in forgetting its limits, it's stakes, and it's purpose for that drive.
Mount Everest, known as Sagarmāthā to Nepal and Chomolungma to Tibet, it is the planet’s tallest mountain at 8,844 meters high. It might not be the actual tallest mountain by height alone (as it sits on a plateau and several mountains are larger and taller), but it’s still crowned as king. The first ever documented successful ascent to the summit was in 1953 by a Nepalese Sherpa and New Zealand Mountaineer duo, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary; as part of a larger British expedition lead by Colonel John Hunt.
It wasn’t the first attempt. It was theorized an ascent was possible despite the sheer slopes in 1885 with a northern approach discovered in 1921. But arguably the most noteworthy mission was in 1924, when a British expedition had George Mallory and Andrew Irvine attempted an ascent.
They were last seen scaling one of the steeper sides by the camp crew, before a fog bank moved in and obscured them like ghosts against the mountain. They were never heard from again.
Dying on Everest isn’t anything new or old. The mountain has 290 documented, and likely many more undocumented, fatalities; and this isn’t including the thousands dying around the mountain. Dehydration, exposure, falls, avalanches, disease, cold, snow-blindness, the list goes on on ways that land is built to kill someone. But despite this there had always been rumors. Climbing expeditions in the following decades spoke of finding evidence of a prior expedition at very high altitude, not far from the summit. Xu Jing and Wang Hong-bao, members of two Chinese scouting and surveying expeditions in the 1960s and 1970s, both spoke of finding articles and bodies with European dress and features high on the northern slopes. Given location and timing, the bodies had to have been of either Irvine and or Mallory, much higher than they were thought to have been. Because of Everest’s extreme altitude, dryness, and cold, bodies are preserved their extremely well and free of decay and scavenging.
Then a bombshell discovery. In 1999, using the location data of Wang Hon-bao’s account, Conrad Anker and his expedition discovered the thawed body of George Mallory 75 years after his disappearance, mummified and on the slope beneath where Wang Hong-bao recorded finding a body. Amongst his well preserved possessions however there was a lack of something. George Mallory swore he would place a picture of his wife at Everest’s peak when he reached the summit, keeping it in a secure place on his person at all times. The photograph was not on his body. While there are other ways the photograph might have been lost, it does stand alongside other facts such as
-The way Mallory died, a fall down a slope in the gear he was in, implies he was climbing down and not up.
-He wasn’t wearing his snow goggles, which shows he was moving at dusk when he died, something extremely rare to do on ascents and more common on more confident descents.
-Some of Mallory’s post mortem details and placement seem to indicate the Chinese explorers might have actually found Irvine’s body and not his, meaning the suggestion one of them might have removed a photograph or article to try and bring back identification might not hold true.
And others poise an interesting scenario. Could Mallory and possibly Irvine made it to the top in 1924, about 30 years before Hillary and Norgay, but perished on the way back down from exposure and a snapped rope causing a fall?
Mallory was an adventurer and Irvine, his youthful sidekick. A WW1 veteran, Mallory threw himself full force into the last hurrahs of the age of exploration in the early 1900s. The north and south pole were reached and now it seemed Everest was the last major prize, the “third pole”.
"Because it is there!"
-George Mallory, when asked "Why climb Everest?"
Mallory certainly thought it was a prize. He spoke of Everest in his journals and letters to his wife as an enemy of war, even before he'd ever seen the mountain he was biting at the bit to challenge and defeat it. He saw Everest not just as a challenge to mankind but to himself. Even when at home with his family he spoke of a call urging him to finally defeat this “monster”, this last place of land that challenged man. He saw it earlier in the 1920s, but failed to scale it. When he returned in 1924, it almost seemed like it was out of revenge.
Stopping at a local temple, the Lama gave the expedition a mixed reception. While he was a great host, he warned of how the mountains were “alive” in a way, a force of nature that man couldn’t conquer. He warned the crew to be wary and mindful of the region, least forces beyond them doom them. While Mallory and company were polite to the monks, several actions taken by them while shooting film for a documentary caused controversy and the initial attempt by the chief lama to bless the expedition and their porters failed on account of him falling ill, having to do a shorter ceremony later. By then, one porter,Man Bahadur, had already died from an phenominia and another crew member, Lance-Naik Shamsherpun of the Nepalese army, died of a brain hemorrhage.
George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, a promising and ingenious 22 year old grad-student who invented the configuration of the expeditions oxygen tanks, departed for the summit. Team geologist and oxygen officer, Noel Odell, last spotted them on the very high and infamous “Second Step”, making haste for the peak; before they were obscured by clouds and fog.
Later expeditions recreating the equipment the two mountaineers used proved it was possible to make it to the top, albeit with extreme difficulty in even good weather. Mallory and Irvine had weather issues, but most authorities don’t consider it impossible at least one of them reached the top.
Should Mallory and Irvine be given credit for the achievement then? Should they be considered the first recorded men to scale the tallest point on the planet? Did Mallory plant the image of his wife upon Everest’s peak, only to perish on the way back down.
Honestly I think we’d need conclusive evidence, but there is an important detail to note here. Regardless of if they made it or not, if they turned back after reaching that summit or earlier, Mallory and Irvine didn’t survive the trip back down. They didn’t “conquer” Everest like so many places the vigor of early 1900s and 1800s exploration sought to. It just killed them. Maybe not at the same time, maybe together. Some suggest Irvine died or was incapacitated first, given reports of his body are higher up than Mallory’s, and Mallory pressed on using Irvine’s oxygen tank, possibly even reaching the summit or scaling down for help; only to slip and fall to his death.
There’s an old adage. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to here it, did it happen? In this case, if you climb a mountain summit to become a world first and your record is lost to time as you die unknown; was it noteworthy?
Would the moon landings be as famous if that brave Apollo team didn’t make it back home safely? Or if the conspiracies of Pre-Apollo cosmonauts dying in the efforts are true, does it really matter?
Would Usain Bolt be as famous if he died at the finish line after breaking the speed record? Does it count if someone, somewhere ran faster but it was undocumented?
Does it matter that Ray Harryhausen wasn’t the first to do Stop-Motion, is he still the king of it?
What of the USA Founding Fathers? They weren’t the first to make a rebellious republic, but does that make their achievement and its aftereffects any less?
Point is, being first doesn’t always mean completion. Mallory and Irvine might not have even been the first to stand upon Everest even if documentation was found confirming them up there. Mount Everest was in a region that’s been inhabited for thousands of years and many groups, such as the Sherpa, are expert climbers. Some modern expeditions have gotten all the way to the top without oxygen supplies. Who’s to say somewhere, somehow in the past, some local(s) went forth and did the same; but their name and achievement were just lost to history?
Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal were the first documented, modern men to climb Mount Everest. They took their time, they charted out a more steady path, made peace with the local monastery, and came back down as global heroes. To this day it’s unclear which of the two made it to the summit first, both giving conflicting stories over the years alleging the other did. Colonel Hunt, fed up with journalists demanding a conclusion in a way that implied one was the follower and the other the lead, declared “They reached it together, as a team”. In the years following both Hillary and Norgay would climb many more mountains while operating for the betterment of the region and its people. Everest wasn’t a conquest or a focus, it was just an achievement to their use and then leave.
The explorers of earlier decades aren’t to be written off, but the fervor of it all with different. It was about human triumph and many paid the ultimate price for it. Hundreds died reaching places like the South and North poles. In a way the first to make it there and back was also the first one to walk past all the bodies and survive. Caution is not for just cautious people. Good men or not, Mallory and Irvine didn’t respect the terrain like Hillary and Norgay did. They pressed through obviously bad weather. They bum-rushed the summit without checking for safer routes. They might not have packed enough oxygen or first aid for the two of them. They had chances to quit, but didn’t, Irvine out of youthful vigor and Mallory out of pride in will to conquer what he saw as man’s last foe.
Imagine a scenario posed by some. Irvine dies or is too injured to go on on the way up, giving Mallory his oxygen tank to continue on. Mallory reaches the summit and sees the view. He plants his wife’s picture and thinking victory, starts down…. Only, for Irvine to die on the way down. Mallory places his body in a secure spot, where Wang finds him decades later, and presses on. Then, when he’s got his rope tied to a secure rock or post above to climb down, the rock breaks and Mallory falls. He breaks his leg and head on impact with the rocks and his loosed ice axe, dying soon after. No one who knew him in life would ever find his body. Any pictures on Irvine’s camera were never recovered. And the elements destroyed or removed the image of Mrs. Mallory from the highest peak in the world if it was there. All that effort, all that struggle, toil, and dreaming; for what? A future we may never know for sure if they did it or not. And even if they didn’t reach the summit, their perishing on the way down doesn’t change the narrative. Irvine lost a long and promising future ahead of him, a bright young man dying on a distant slope. Mallory lost a loving family and already esteemed life chasing after an enemy whom proved his better in the end, Ahab done in by his Moby-Dick. Good men, great men even; but ones with a folly. And this isn't even counting the good men who already perished in their ill planned expedition.
Nature has a way of biting back when man grows arrogant, and true achievement comes through patience; not a hollow victory that leads to a halting defeat. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine went to finish a fight, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary went to achieve a start. One team went to conquer a landscape, another went to experience it.
Don’t try to be something just for the sake of it, be it being a "first" or anything else. Accomplishments means little to the costs required if nothing is done with it. Do it with purpose, it's the legacy we leave that lasts the longest. After all the first page is just the start to the rest of the story, and I rather like Tenzing’s and Edmund’s. Life rarely rewards recklessness.
Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.
-Sir Edmund Hillary
I have climbed my mountain, but I must still live my life.
Sir Edmund Hillary founded the Himalayan Trust organization, providing improved education, wellbeing, healthcare, and infrastructure for peoples living in the the Solukhumbu District of Nepal and beyond
Tenzing Norgay went on to become Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and founded the Norgay Adventure Company, providing tours and trekking across the mountains.
Their sons, Jamling Norgay and Phillip Hillary climbed Everest in 2002, the anniversary of their fathers’ climb, alongside fellow 2nd generation climber Brent Bishop.
Andrew Irvine’s body has still yet to be found, the one man who possibly saw it died in an avalanche a day after reporting it.
The 1924 expedition camera has never been found. Mountaineers still debate whether the two made it to the summit or not.
George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s bodies join others in arguably one of the largest open graves on the planet, Mt. Everest.
Many have never been removed.