George Mallory and Everest became inseparable in the public imagination during the first attempts to climb the mountain in the early 1920s. Both became icons; the latter as a symbol of the terrible might of nature, and the former as the idealized, romantic Englishman rising to its challenge in giving his all before meeting a glorious death. The poetic alpinist Geoffrey Winthrop-Young was wont to describe him as “our Sir Galahad.”
Mallory was born into a Cheshire church family and sent to boarding school at Winchester, where he was introduced to alpine climbing by one of his masters, Graham Irving. He displayed an aptitude for it, his natural athleticism compensating for a sometimes cavalier approach and a chronic disorganization. This forgetfulness never left him; General Bruce, leader of the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions remarked that “he is a great dear, but forgets his boots on all occasions.” Fellow climber John Morris went further. “He was the most absent-minded man I have ever known,” he wrote. “We took turns to see that none of his kit was left behind.”
At Cambridge in 1905 he moved in exalted circles. Among his acquaintances were Bohemian intellectuals including the lascivious literary critic Lytton Strachey, who was instantly smitten by Mallory’s physique. Strachey famously wrote to a friend in admiration: “Mon Dieu! – George Mallory! When that’s been written, what more need be said?”
Mallory developed a politically liberal world-view during his time at Cambridge and also developed influential contacts, such as Winthrop-Young, which would lead to his automatic selection for the early Everest expeditions following the First World War in which Mallory served with distinction. By this stage Mallory was married with two children, but Winthrop-Young persuaded him that his future could be even more secure as a writer if he achieved the celebrity status assured by being the first person to climb the world’s highest peak.
In between expeditions, Mallory gave lectures in Britain and North America and it was during the U.S. tour of 1923 that he is alleged to have made his famous reply “because it is there” when asked the question “Why climb Everest?” Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance high on its Northeast Ridge in 1924 resulted in one of the longest-running mountaineering mysteries of all time, and the question of whether the duo may have summited and what happened to them has continued to excite the passions of historians ever since. The sensational discovery of his body by an American expedition in 1999 reignited the debate and merely reinforced Mallory’s position as one of the best-known mountaineers in the world.
It is right to give Mallory the final word here. He spoke in 1922, the year this portrait was created: “The first question which you will always ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
For more from AJ’s Historical Badass series, go here.