At the summit of a mystery


Climber: The discovery of George H. L. Mallory's body could lead to a revision of the history of Mount Everest.

May 09, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mallory and Hillary -- the Englishman George H. L. Mallory and the New Zealander Edmund P. Hillary -- are forever linked to Mount Everest and to two of the most famous quotations in mountaineering.

Mallory's body was apparently found this month on Everest, 75 years after he and Andrew Irvine were last seen inching toward the summit. He -- not Hillary, to whom the quote is often attributed -- wanted to climb the world's highest mountain "because it's there."

What Hillary said, after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed as reaching the summit in May 1953, was: "Well, we knocked the bastard off."

An American team claims to have solid evidence that the body found at 27,000 feet May 1 was Mallory's: "The remains were conclusively identified." It was extremely dramatic news in the climbing community.

In the coming weeks, the expedition will search for his missing companion, Irvine; Irvine's camera and film; more details on how they died, and evidence of the only important point of their quest: Did Mallory or Irvine or both reach the summit 29 years ahead of Hillary and Tenzing and then die coming down? Or did they die going up, by fall or exhaustion and hypothermia?

The 1924 disappearance led to scores of articles and books, such as "The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine" by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld (1986).

Mallory was a handsome, romantic figure obsessed with Everest and known to friends as "Sir Galahad" -- and not as a put-down. The Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition led by Eric Simonson is the latest of many climbers and teams that dreamed of finding the men, a kind of Holy Grail in mountaineering. Others have reported seeing bodies in dated clothing, but could not reach them.

The Simonson mission is also the latest in a controversial trend to look for the detritus of old adventures: war (sunken German U-boats, missing World War II airplanes), shipwrecks (Titanic, Edmund Fitzgerald), ancient religious rites (sacrificial Inca bodies buried atop the Andes). Against the wishes of his widow, an outfit is about to try to lift astronaut Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell space capsule from the bottom of the Atlantic.

The Simonson team said it examined Mallory's partly unclothed body preserved in the dry cold, then respectfully held a funeral service and buried him. It appears that the climbers had been tied but were separated. Mallory had a broken leg and a shoulder injury, evidently suffered in a fall. He was resting, one leg over the other, with his snow goggles in a pocket. No evidence yet found proves or disproves whether he reached the summit.

Most climbing histories have considered the question unanswerable. It still may be. Even if the explorers find Irvine's body and his Kodak camera, which may have preserved negatives, they may never learn what happened after Noel Odell last saw two "objects" still climbing on June 8, 1924, and facing two major rock and ice obstacles. Mallory was 37, Irvine 22.

If it is found that one or both reached the top, the history books may get a rewrite, or perhaps an asterisk. Mallory's son John, 78, who was 3 years old when his father died, told the BBC last week: "To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done, isn't it, if you don't get down again."

Given that reasoning, Sir Edmund and the Sherpa Tenzing, who died in 1986, are secure in their achievement.

Hillary, now 79, stands virtually alone among his peers for what he has done off the mountain. Climbing can be a rewarding sport, but also a selfish one. Climbers experience a beautiful world unknown below, but the death and injury rates are among the highest in any recreation. High-altitude expeditions take climbers away from family and home for many worrisome months. There is little social interaction with others, except porters. Successful -- or unsuccessful -- climbs are a narcotic leading to more. No wonder many mountaineers are self-absorbed.

Hillary, however, returned to Nepal and helped develop hospitals, air strips, clinics, bridges, schools and water systems in rural villages. The air strips brought aid, but also more tourists and mountaineers, a mixed blessing. He worked through various foundations and persuaded the government of New Zealand to support the creation of a national park in Nepal. He also promoted environmental protection.

"I became increasingly interested in the people of the Himalayas," he has recalled. "I built up very close friendships with them and I became concerned about the things that they wanted: schooling and hospitals."

Hillary also looked for signs of Mallory and Irvine in 1953, but found none. "Personally I would like to believe he got there, but I think it's unlikely," Agence France-Presse reported his reaction to the recent news.

Myths began enveloping Mallory even before his third and fatal attempt on Everest. (The others were in 1921 and 1922.) Born in 1886 the son of a clergyman, Mallory began climbing as a youth in the Malvern Hills.

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