Did Mallory reach the ultimate top?

The Peak Of Everest

November 21, 1999|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,Special to the Sun

A brave and balletic climber, George Leigh Mallory also proved to be a pithy wordsmith when, in some exasperation, he explained to a persistent reporter his quest to stand atop Mt. Everest -- the world's highest peak -- with the memorable phrase, "because it is there."

On June 24, 1924, improbably clad in a fur-lined motorcyle helmet, tweed coat and hobnailed boots, the British climber and his novice companion, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, were spotted by a fellow climber, Noel Odell, "moving expeditiously" only a thousand feet beneath the 29,028 foot summit.

Then the two were lost to view, swallowed by a swirl of clouds, no less dense than the controversy that enveloped them for the next 75 years.

Did Mallory and Irvine survive wind-whipped snow, brutal subzero temperatures and the thinnest of air, to clamber up rotting rock with their primitive equipment and, finally, stand on top of the world a full generation before the New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, and sherpa Tenzing Norgay did in 1953? Or did they turn back short of the summit?

Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Snows, as Everest is known to the Tibetans, had guarded the secrets in the intervening years. Then, this spring, an expedition went to Everest in search of Mallory because, well, "he is there."

This search, fraught with commercial rivalry and no little backbiting, produced four books and a film, "Lost on Everest," to air on BBC in January 2000, and provided some answers to the mystery of Mallory, if not incontrovertible proof. Due to a fortunate combination of clever geological mapping by a German grad student, Jochen Hemmleb, who deduced where Mallory's body might be found, and the intuition of the gifted American climber, Conrad Anker, the expedition made a remarkable discovery.

Scrambling through scree at 27,000 feet in an area he felt was a natural catchment basin for fallen climbers, Anker "saw a patch of white ... I knew at once there was something unusual about it because of the color. It wasn't the gleaming white of snow reflecting the sun. ... It has a kind of matte look -- a light absorbing quality like marble."

He had found Mallory's body, almost perfectly preserved in the cold, dry mountain air. Anker could even see the muscles rippling on Mallory's broad back, and the bruises discoloring his face. And in his tattered clothes were some hand-written notes by Mallory that provided intriguing clues about his final climb.

Anker's book, "The Lost Explorer," written with David Roberts (Simon & Schuster, 191 pp., $22) is a compelling and authoritative read. Not only did he discover Mallory, but he made essentially a free climb up the intimidating "second step" that forms the primary barrier to any north-route climber, and thus shows how Mallory could have conquered the mountain.

Anker does not write with the flair of his sometime climbing partner, Jon Krakauer, whose "Into Thin Air" about the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Everest has become a classic in the growing genre of mountaineering literature.

Rather Anker, who has made his name with pioneering climbs from Anarctica to Baffin Island, reminds me of astronauts I have known, a pro who blends calm competence and boldness, whose actions are more evocative than his words.

But when written, those words carry weight.

Of the four new Mallory books, his is the one to buy. But the lavishly illustrated "Ghosts of Everest" (Mountaineers Books, 208 pp, $29.95) runs a close second. Written by Hemmleb with Larry A. Johnson and Eric R. Simonson, the expedition leader, as told to William E. Nordurft, it contains what Anker's book does not -- the dramatic photos of Mallory's broken body clinging to the side of the mountain.

More than a coffeetable book, it has a readable text and contains more of Hemmleb's informed speculations. One is particularly interesting -- that Mallory and Irvine had one more oxygen bottle apiece than had been previously suspected, which would have been invaluable as they set out for the top.

Hemmleb, a climber of modest ability who did not climb above 23,000 feet on the expedition, does not argue that Mallory actually summited. He outlines four scenarios; in two of them Mallory succeeds.

Anker, who did climb to the top following Mallory's route, is convinced that he failed in part because his equipment was so primitive, but also because the second step is so difficult.

Today, most climbers use a metal ladder secured to the step with pitons by a Chinese expedition in 1975.

Anker, the first in nearly a quarter century to eschew the ladder, argued that Irvine could not have belayed Mallory with his "flimsy cotton rope," and even if he had, Mallory "would have had to climb the slightly overhanging 15-foot crack without a single piece of protection. The cam I was able to place was ... the only possible protection and that type of gear wasn't invented until the late 1970s."

Even then, he said, he "found the pitch desperately hard."

Anker's skepticism is endorsed by the authors of a third book, "Last Climb" (National Geographic, 240 pages, $35) by accomplished Everest climber David Breashears and historian Audrey Salkeld.

Given the accomplishments of the authors, it is a surprise to discover that this is a fairly mundane coffeetable book.

It also lacks the photos from the '99 expedition.

The fourth book, "Lost on Everest," by the producer of the BBC film, Peter Firstbrook (BBC, 224 pages, $24.95), would be adequate if this were the only book on the 1999 Mallory expedition. But it lacks the first-person drama of Anker's account and the vivid color photos to do justice to the man who sought to climb Everest "because it is there."

Mike Leary, a former national and foreign correspondent, is the editor for amateur sports at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Leary has also been the Inquirer's books editor.

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