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Remembering George Mallory, 100 years on - Harold Cluff

Blog | By Harold Cluff | Jun 08, 2024

Mallory (circled) in 1924

The great climber was last spotted 100 years ago today. By Harold Cluff

A hundred years ago today, the celebrated mountaineer, Noel Oddell spotted two small dots a thousand feet below the summit of Everest ‘going strongly for the top’.

That was the last sighting of George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine. Mallory’s mummified body was discovered 75 years later in 1999 by an Anglo-American expedition, but Irvine’s corpse is yet to be located.

The question of whether the daring duo summited the tallest mountain in the world divides the climbing community to this day. When asked, optimists cheerfully declare ‘Of course they did!’, while sceptics can’t help but list the awesome obstacles that stood in the intrepid pairs’ way.

Mallory had all the attributes of a romantic hero long before he vanished from Oddell’s view. He was handsome, intelligent, shy, but popular. Although he was a top scholar and had a bright academic or literary future ahead of him, he wasn’t content with the prospect of leading a purely cerebral life. He wanted to set the limits of exploration, to go further than anyone had gone before, to be a man of action as well as a man of ideas. His story is an example more of us in this age of indolence and anxiety ought to emulate.

There are several tantalising clues that suggest Mallory and Irvine did trudge their way to the top. Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, Ruth, with the intention of depositing the keepsake on the summit. Despite finding a number of letters and bills as well as some amazingly well-preserved items on his person, the expedition of 1999 failed to locate the snapshot. The pair also carried a pocket-sized Kodak camera to document their historic trek. It is still missing. Kodak has said many times over the years that if the camera is ever found, they will be able to develop the film. The device was specifically designed to withstand being dropped from towering heights and was made to endure the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas. If the camera is ever unearthed and the film is developed, it could solve the most puzzling riddle in the history of modern exploration.

I suppose whether they made it to the top or not is no longer of importance. After all, Hilary and Tenzing were the first to safely summit and get back down again. Getting back down is surely an essential part of conquering any mountain. Mallory and Irvine aren’t revered because of their potential success a hundred years ago today. They are honoured and remembered because they dared, because they strived, because they wanted to have a crack at something that seemed insurmountable.

A few weeks before setting off on that fateful expedition, Mallory was asked by a journalist why he wanted to climb Everest. ‘Because it’s there’ he coolly replied. That urbane response has become a mantra for climbers and explorers. It is an inspiring sentiment, one that will forever be associated with the lost heroes of Everest.