George Mallory

This is George Mallory as a young man. Presumably about the time he came out of “public” school and prior to the outbreak of The Great War. George was born in 1886 to a British clergyman, and at the age of 13 entered a boarding school, Winchester College. (It is said of the British elite of Victorian times that “they kept their dogs at home and sent their sons off to kennels.”) It was at Winchester that George was introduced to climbing – his ultimate passion. After graduating from Cambridge he became a school teacher, and just 6 days before the outbreak of The Great War was married to Ruth Turner.

Much of what I have gleaned about George Mallory came from a book written by Wade Davis, the book entitled, “Into the Silence.” It is indeed about Mallory, but a good portion of the book deals with The Great War. And what intrigued me as well was the emphasis on British society,
especially the sense of entitlement that came with being born of wealth and privilege.

If you were a “public” (read “private”) school boy, you had a one in five chance of perishing during the war. If you fought in the trenches, you had a 50% chance of survival. If you were a colonial (Canadian, Aussie, Kiwi, etc.) forget it. If you were a general, miles behind the front lines, you would be bivouacked in a chateau, and might go for a morning ride on your well-groomed horse.

Such was the life of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a military visionary who disdained the use of steel helmets, the airplane as an instrument of war, and played down the importance of machine guns, which the Germans used ruthlessly to mow down the Allied boys charging out of their trenches. Eight years after the war Haig still extolled the “value of the horse,” going on to say that “aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse …” This from a man under whose charge more than two and a half million soldiers of the British Empire were killed, were maimed, or went missing, and whose son, long after the war explained away Haig senior, saying that “the suffering of his men caused him great anguish … that he felt it his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations because these visits made him physically ill.” Haig below, doing what he did best.

Enough of that. Back to Mallory and his three attempts to scale Mount Everest (named in 1865, for Sir George Everest, previously the Surveyor General of India).

As a schoolmaster, Mallory was exempt from enlisting in the British armed forces. But with each passing month, and with increasing reports of his friends falling in battle, Mallory was given permission to join in the war effort. By early 1916 he was in France serving in the trenches as a second lieutenant (public school fast-track?) and through the course of the war he had periods of front-line duties interrupted by extended leaves back home. In any event, he survived the conflict relatively unscathed, and by January, 1919, he was back teaching. Very quickly unhappy as a schoolmaster, Mallory in early 1921 received a life-line; an invitation to join the Everest Committee.

Mallory above, in early climbing days, doing what he did best.

1921 then, marked the first attempt for scaling Everest, at 29,035 feet, the world’s tallest mountain (think about that height the next time you are traveling on a jet at 35,000 feet).

If nothing else, the seeming interminability and real horrors of The Great War toughened the resolve of the team that would try to conquer Everest. None of this was trivial. There was the passage to India by boat; train travel to Darjeeling, and from there by pony, mule and by foot to Tibet. As tough as the journey might be for the British climbers (all born of money and with that, social standing), the real heavy lifting was done by porters, Sherpas, or “coolies” as they might be referred to by their masters. On the second attempt in 1922 to reach the summit of Everest, seven Tibetans died in an avalanche. The compensation: 13 British pounds for each family in “quarterly installments (for how long I do not know – but I am guessing, not for long).

The first attempt on Everest ended unsuccessfully with Mallory climbing to 22,000 feet.

OK. Why, might you ask, has a photo of the actor Peter Finch insinuated itself into this blog about Mallory. That is Finch in a scene from the 1978 movie “Network,” for which he won the Oscar as best actor, and
for which he will be remembered for his rant, “I’m made as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Among Peter’s other accomplishments; five BAFTA awards (the British version of the Academy Awards); three marriages, and affairs with Vivien Leigh and Shirley Bassey.

But it is onto Peter’s “father” George where the emphasis shifts. George Finch was a vital member of Mallory’s first two attempts to climb to the summit of Everest. The elder Finch was born in Australia, and while accepted into the Mallory’s inner circle of climbers, there was a great deal of opposition to his inclusion; mainly because he was an Aussie. The Brit elitists didn’t fancy a colonial joining the “team,” never mind that Finch senior was an expert mountaineer, or that he had remarkable scientific underpinnings (as an example, it was Finch who insisted that the summit of Everest could only be reached through the use of supplemental oxygen). George was married to Alice (“Betty”) Fisher, and in 1916 went off to war. And here is where it gets more interesting. Betty gave birth to Peter some 10 months after George’s departure. It seems that Captain “Bertie” Campbell, on leave in England from duties in France, slipped into the gap, so to speak, and impregnated Betty. George tracked “Bertie” down in France, and beat him to a pulp. George decided that Peter was to be raised as a Finch and there was an attempt to reconcile with Betty, but it seems that Betty had difficulty keeping her knickers on in the presence of others. The Finches divorced, and Peter was raised by George’s mother. George, no saint he, had taken up with Gladys May while still married to Betty, impregnated Gladys, and just as quickly, cast her aside. He eventually married Agnes “Bubbles” Johnson.

George Finch, during the ascent of 1922, firmly stuck by his belief that to conquer Everest required supplemental oxygen. Mallory had gone off before Finch, without oxygen, and reached an altitude of 26,800 feet. Finch, climbing with Geoffrey Bruce, and with oxygen, climbed to 27,300 feet, higher than any man had ever climbed. But to preserve Bruce’s health, they had to retreat.

Finch was regarded as the “finest ice and snow climber in Britain” yet he was not invited to participate in the 1924 Everest expedition. The reasons were not clear. Jealousy? His Aussie heritage? Never mind. He would eventually count his blessings. George lived to age 82, passing on in 1970.
That’s George (on the right) and Geoffrey Bruce in the following, after their record climb.

Again, Mallory was to lead the third expedition. In preparation, more than 3,000 pounds of food, tents and equipment were sent to the base of the Himalayas, including sixty tins of quail in fois gras and 48 bottles of champagne. All moved by porters. One of the members of the expedition, Noel Odell prepared himself in Darjeeling with games of squash, followed by tea, dinner and dancing late into the night. Entitled? You think?

Climbing Mount Everest was never going to be a straight shot. Camps were to be set up at various stages along the way and would be supplied with tents, food and oxygen at certain altitudes, with teams charged with carrying supplies in a sort of relay before retreating to lower levels. For example, two climbers (Brits, of course) together with 15 porters would carry supplies to Camp V at 25,500 feet, before returning to Camp IV at 23,000 feet. Camp VI was at 26,500 feet and VII at 27,300 feet. Camp VII would be the final launching pad for reaching the summit (still almost 2,000 feet higher).
Mallory’s partner for the final ascent was Sandy Irvine, at only twenty-one, athletic, brilliant and fit for Everest. Mallory was not yet 40 himself, and certainly still fit for the mountain. A year before, Mallory, when asked the question why he would want to ascend Everest, responded, “Because it’s there.” And here it is.

In the photo following, Mallory and Irvine are shown at Camp IV with oxygen apparatus in place. It was the last photo taken of the pair. It is believed that Mallory and Irvine departed Camp VI, and some in the expedition were convinced that they had in fact climbed to the summit of Everest. The photo was taken on June 6, 1924. The body of Mallory was recovered in 1999 – 75 years later. The body of Irvine has never been found. There is no evidence to suggest that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit.

Mallory had broken a leg and suffered broken ribs and a head injury, indicative of a fall. His remains were relatively well preserved, as seen in the following photo…

It would be 6 more expeditions over almost 30 years, before the successful conquest of Everest by the Kiwi, Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. Since that climb in 1953 there have more than 5,000 successful ascents of the mountain.