Until I picked up this audiobook by Jeffrey Archer (the author’s name alone was enough to recommend it to me), I had never heard of George Leigh Mallory. He was, I know now, one of the greatest mountaineers in history, and according to this site also “perhaps the most famous mountaineer in history.”
Ten years ago, Mallory’s body was found high on Mount Everest, where he and his climbing partner Irvine had perished 75 years earlier. I read many stories of adventure as a child, and one of my favorite books was James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky. So why had I never heard of Mallory, whose story would no doubt have greatly intrigued and inspired me?
Probably because there is no solid evidence that he ever made it to the top of the world’s highest mountain. People remember Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (my uncle’s family named one of their cats Tenzing, because he climbed everything), because they made it to the top and then back down to tell the story. But no one knows for sure if Mallory and Irvine died trying to reach the top, or on the way back down.
Archer happens to be of the opinion that they did reach the summit, and tells a very plausible account of how it was done. But that comes very late in the book (one knows from the prologue what Mallory’s end will be, so the suspense is only in when and how it will happen), and I would not have been eager to get that far if Archer had not drawn me fully into the story with his engaging account of Mallory’s life and character.
I don’t know just what details Archer made up (the medical exam, complete with simulation of conditions on the top of Everest, does seem far-fetched, though I admit I don’t know a great deal about what was technically possible at the time of WWI). From what I have read about Mallory on the internet, though, Archer’s depiction of Mallory as an extreme idealist was very true-to-life.
Archer’s Mallory thinks, even as a young boy, that girls should be allowed to get the same kind of education as boys do – an idea met with contempt by his traditionalist father, who considers it contrary to nature. When he becomes a schoolteacher, he wants the boys in his classes to be free to express themselves, and his discipline is much more lax than in their other classes.
When war breaks out, he joins up despite schoolteachers being exempt from military service, because he cannot stand the thought of his friends – and even former pupils – fighting and dying for their country while he remains safe at home. In Archer’s book, this is a result of Mallory’s tender conscience. From what I have read on the internet, George’s love of adventure had a good deal to do with the decision.
I would be very interested in learning more about his letters to and from his wife Ruth. Archer did make up some of the details of his courtship, apparently, but not the depth of George and Ruth’s love for each other. I read that his daughter Clare regrets that her mother was not willing to talk much about George to her children after his death, because it was too painful for her.
Archer draws a convincing portrait of a complex man who was irresistibly drawn to two “women” – his wife Ruth, and the majestic Chomolungma, “Goddess Mother of the World,” as Tibetans call the mountain that the British named for geographer George Everest. I found it somewhat amusing how the British mountaineers constantly referred to the mountains they climb as women, attributing to them the emotions of human women in relation to the men who court them.
[Incidentally, this is one of the interesting tidbits that I assume that Archer is accurate in describing regarding the British mountaineers of the time – likewise the custom of leaving a British coin on the summit of each peak, “in the name of His Majesty.” He also portrays their strong nationalism – some were reluctant for George in include an Australian in his climbing party, as they fully expected an Englishman to be the first to set foot on top of the world. (And George’s plan to take a Sherpa as his climbing partner – until the Sherpa, along with six others, died in an avalanche – would have shocked his countrymen.)
It was also very important to them to be “sporting,” which meant receiving no pay in relation to mountain-climbing – even having expenses paid by someone else did not sit well with some of them. Being sporting also precluded using oxygen to help breathe at high altitudes – though George reluctantly concluded that this would be necessary, after some unsuccessful attempts to reach the summit without oxygen.]
Every day that Mallory is away from his wife, he longs to be back. But given the chance to climb the greatest mountain on earth, he cannot resist the allure of Chomolungma. Archer’s Ruth does not want him to leave, but – following the advice of the widow of Robert Scott (who died exploring the Antarctic) – she tells him that she thinks he should go. I suppose no one except Ruth knew for sure how she really felt.
Perhaps it was partly because of the sympathy I developed for Ruth that I choked up when I reach the ending. I had known throughout the book that Mallory would die on Everest – and in any case, a man born in 1886 would be dead by now regardless of how his life had gone – so why should I feel so badly when Archer described the funeral? Prior to reading this book, my opinion of would-be Everest climbers was that it was their own business if they risked their life for fame or adventure, but they should not expect anyone else to feel much sympathy if they died in such a risky venture.
Reading Archer’s account of Mallory’s life gave me a new perspective. I had not previously thought of Everest climbers as people I could relate to. I certainly had never thought of any of them as being a family man, with a wife and young children back home. On the one hand, as a wife and mother myself, I can’t help but think it selfish of a man to leave his family and risk his life for – what?
It turns out that Mallory is the climber who first gave the famous answer as to why he climbed a mountain: “Because it’s there.” (Some people speculate that it was the newspaper reporter who had asked the question, rather than Mallory himself, who put the answer in that succinct manner.) For Mallory, climbing mountains was simply part of who/what he was, a natural response to the existence of such challenges. He explained it this way:
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. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.
Elsewhere George compared climbing to a symphony – though I don’t know if he meant the writing of the symphony or its performance. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. As a music-lover I agree that a symphony is well worth both writing and performing – though I don’t know how I’d feel if it were written by a man who neglected wife and children for months at a time.
Archer has Scott’s widow tell Ruth that she would rather have had the few years she did with her husband, than to have him live long but unhappy, when he longed to be out exploring. Certainly there are people who argue that “it’s what I was born to do” as a justification for what they do; not being in their shoes I can’t say how much that is self-serving and how much an honest self-assessment.
In any case, I am fascinated enough by this fictional account that I’ve just checked three non-fiction books about George Mallory out of the library. It will be interesting to see how they compare with Archer’s account.