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George Leigh Mallory

George Leigh Mallory


British Mountaineer

George Leigh Mallory was a British mountaineer who led three pioneering expeditions to Mount Everest in the Himalayas on the border between Nepal and Tibet in the 1920s. On the third expedition to Everest in 1924, Mallory and climbing partner Andrew Irvine (d. 1924) made an attempt at the summit but disappeared in stormy weather, never to return. Whether they reached the summit before they died is not known. A 1999 expedition found Mallory's frozen body at 27,000 feet (8,229 m) on Everest's north face, but the mystery of whether the summit was reached still remains unsolved.

Mallory, the son of an English clergyman, grew up in a conventional household. As a child he had an adventuresome spirit and enjoyed exploring and climbing rocks. He entered Magdalene College in 1905 to study history and train as a schoolmaster. His career as a teacher was interrupted by World War I (1914-18), during which he served at the French front as a gunner. After the war he built a formidable reputation as a mountaineer, bold rock climber, and a competent ice climber. He was also recognized for his love of adventure and his ability to lead and inspire others.

By the early 1920s the farthest corners of the earth had been explored: the North and South poles had been reached, and the sources of the world's major rivers had been mapped. The "Third Pole," the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, was still unclaimed and considered to be a great prize for international explorers. Mallory and a team of British mountaineers decided to take on the "Third Pole" for Great Britain.

Though visible as a small dot on the horizon from Darjeeling in India, Everest had remained remote and unexplored because of its location on the border between Tibet and Nepal, both countries that were not welcoming to foreign travelers. Negotiating the political protocols eventually paid off, and the expedition received permission to enter Tibet. They set off on a 6-week expedition in 1921, exploring, surveying, and carrying out a "photographic offensive" on the geographical and cultural landscape of Tibet, a country unknown to most of the Western world.

With his expedition team, Mallory searched out a possible approach to the East face of Everest. Exploring great distances, climbing peaks and glaciers, and wading swollen rivers in remote valleys, they gave up the East Route because of the ever-present danger of avalanches and the geographic reality of this approach—it was in forbidden Nepal. Mallory then decided that the most probable approach lay with the North face—called the "North Col." Mallory led a small team up that side, and although conditions were unfavorable for an attempt on Mount Everest that year, they were convinced that a clear route existed all the way to the summit. The small, poorly equipped little band dressed in tweeds and clothing appropriate for less-formidable conditions vowed to return the following year.

In the following year, 1922, the climbing party was better equipped and prepared, and they approached the North Col via the East Rongbuk valley, where they reached a height of 27,000 feet (8,229 m), a record at the time, but still 2,000 feet (609 m) below the summit of Everest. Mallory decided to attempt the summit a second time, but a fresh snow triggered massive avalanches that swept away nine members of the expedition, killing seven of them, all sherpas—native Nepalese. The loss of "these brave men" was a blow to Mallory, and he abandoned the second attempt.

In 1924 the third expedition returned to the North Col of Everest. On the morning of June 6, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine and Mallory attempted the summit with the use of supplemental oxygen, considered a risky and unpredictable gas at the time. Mallory and Irvine were last seen on June 8 by expedition geologist Noel Odell, who was following behind as support and backup. Last seen at the dangerous Second Step, nearing the base of the summit pyramid, Mallory and Irvine seemed to have a terrific chance to make the summit. Shortly afterwards, however, the visibility vanished, and the climbing team was not seen again. It was unknown if they had indeed reached the summit.

Sir Edmund Hillary (1919- ) became the first man to officially reach the summit in 1953. In 1960 a Chinese expedition completed Mallory's route, and in 1975 a Chinese climber spotted what was speculated to be Andrew Irvine's remains. In 1999 a BBC/Nova film crew found Mallory's remains. However, the camera that accompanied the ascent was not found, and the mystery of whether or not Mallory and Irvine made a successful first ascent of Everest remains unanswered.


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