Friday, Sep. 12, 2003

Simply by Being There, a Himalayan Peak Posed the Ultimate Challenge

There had been 32 years of expeditions, and at least 13 lives lost, by the time Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set off for the world's highest peak in 1953. "There was much talk about 'unjustifiable risk,'" recalled Hillary in his autobiography. "But I think we all realized that these were attitudes from the past, that nobody was going to get up Everest without a few risks."

The attitude of the distant past held that Everest was a mystical, spiritual realm — Chomolungma to the Tibetans: Mother Goddess of the Earth. It was seen by many foreigners as a forbidding, impossible place. But by the late 1800s, climbing was being done throughout the Himalayas, and there were men, most of them British, who were wondering how to conquer Everest.

They didn't know anything about what that might entail. Not only didn't they know how, or if, they could overcome Everest's avalanches, collapsing ice, crevasses, bitter cold and relentless wind, they were by no means certain that a man could survive — could breathe, could remain intact — at 29,028 feet above sea level. What would happen to the body? Might one conquer the mountain only to have the mountain take one's life as payment?

There were some, certainly, who would have none of such hoodoo. "To my mind at least, as far as human endurance is concerned, it would be no more surprising to me to hear that a man had succeeded in walking up Mt. Everest than to know that a man can succeed in standing an arctic climate while on a sledging expedition," Clinton Thomas Dent wrote way back in 1885. "I do not for a moment say that it would be wise to ascend Mt. Everest, but I believe most firmly that it is humanly possible to do so; and, further, I feel sure that even in our own time, perhaps, the truth of these views will receive material corroboration."

Dent was right about the plausibility but off on the timing — although this wasn't exclusively on account of the rock pile's indomitability. There were, in Dent's day and for a good while thereafter, political as well as physical and psychological barriers to conquering Everest. Nepal and Tibet were, in the early decades of the last century, "closed" countries; therefore, access to most of the world's highest peaks was problematic. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, wrote to Douglas Freshfield of the Royal Geographical Society in 1899 that he, Curzon, would appeal to Nepal for permission to scale Everest. Military action in Tibet precluded any such endeavor for several years, and in 1905, Curzon wrote to Freshfield again: "It has always seemed to me a reproach that with the second highest mountain in the world for the most part in British territory [K2 in Kashmir] and with the highest in a neighbouring and friendly state, we, the mountaineers and pioneers par excellence of the universe, make no sustained and scientific attempt to climb to the top of either of them." He detailed his plans for an expedition escorted by Swiss guides and "coolies" that might, in the next summer or two, establish successively higher camps "until one day the advance camp would be placed on a spot from which a dash could be made for the summit ... Ought we not to be able to do this?"

Political problems — complicated ones involving India, Nepal, Tibet and Russia, which some British diplomats did not want to provoke with any maneuvering in the mountains — said the answer was no. A scheduled assault in 1907 was scotched at the last minute by bureaucrats, and for myriad reasons no expedition was mounted until 1921. A dozen other attempts — most of them British, some of them solo, some of them covert — failed during the next three decades.

Or did they?

In Everest lore and legend, no name is writ larger than that of George Herbert Leigh Mallory — not Hillary's, not Tenzing's, not Jon Krakauer's. A British schoolteacher, Mallory was a brave and dogged climber. When sickness forced Harold Raeburn to step down as climbing leader of the First Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, Mallory took the role. He and Guy Henry Bullock found the approach over the East Rongbuk Glacier to the North Col during that autumn of 1921, but the nine-man team spent far too many weeks at altitude and eventually, sapped of strength, was forced to descend, defeated. In 1922, Mallory was on the second British try as well; two of his companions got within 1,732 feet of the top, but that was it.

Mallory returned with the Third Everest Expedition in 1924. On June 4, group leader Lt. Col. Edward Felix Norton established a new high by reaching an altitude of 28,126 feet. The big question brought back by the Third Expedition was: Did Mallory perhaps eclipse Norton's achievement on June 8?

On that day, along with his climbing partner, Andrew Comyn "Sandy" Irvine, a 22-year-old engineering student, Mallory set off for a summit that was only 2,000 feet distant. At 12:50 p.m., teammate Noel Odell saw the two men as "black spots" below the summit, moving forward with alacrity. Mallory and Irvine disappeared into the clouds, "going strong for the top." They were never seen alive again. An ice ax belonging to one of the men was found by the Fourth British Expedition, which nine years later reached the same height as Norton. The discovery of the ax did nothing to solve a mountaineering mystery that, at intervals, has devolved into an unpleasant controversy: Did Mallory and Irvine reach the top? Naysayers insist that they wouldn't have had time that day to summit. The position of Mallory's supporters was poetically expressed early on by Tom Longstaff, a friend of both Mallory and Irvine, who had climbed with the British team in 1922. "It was my good luck to know both of them: such splendid fellows.

"Mallory wrote in the last letter I got from him, 'we are going to sail to the top this time and God with us — or stamp to the top with our teeth in the wind.' I would not quote an idle boast, but this wasn't — they got there alright. Somehow they were 4 hours late, but at 12:50 they were less than 800 ft below and only a quarter of a mile away from the summit: Odell reports them moving quickly: therefore the oxygen was working well; nothing could have stopped these two with the goal well in their grasp at long last." Or, as another associate, Winthrop Young, put it in a letter to The Times of London: "the peak was first climbed, because Mallory was Mallory."

Such strong boosterism was not, of course, proof — and it was long thought that proof would never be forthcoming. Then, on May 1, 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, an operation led by American mountain guide Eric Simonson, found Mallory's frozen corpse on a wind-scoured ledge at nearly 27,000 feet — several hundred feet below where the ice ax, identified as Irvine's, was found in 1933. Mallory, still in fur-lined leather helmet and hobnailed boots, a frayed rope around his waist, lay facing upslope, his body frozen into the earth. One leg was broken, an elbow injured. In his forehead was a puncture that exposed part of his brain. On May 17, expedition members found a 1924 oxygen bottle 65 feet above the site of the ax; evidence seemed to be pushing Mallory and Irvine ever farther up the hill. The 1999 expedition, spurred by its finds, continued to search — but found nothing conclusive. They were particularly disappointed not to find the camera, which might contain pictures of the men on the summit.

To most experts, it is clear from the evidence that Mallory fell to his death. Some analysts of the scene maintain that we now know the two climbers were descending when Mallory, in the lead, fell. Irvine likely tried to arrest the fall, but then the rope that connected them snapped, and Mallory plummeted to his death. Though Irvine's body has never been recovered, it is surmised that he, alone and exhausted, with little or no oxygen remaining, perished during the bitter night.

It's all surmise still. From where were they descending? The summit? The Second Step, a wall of rotten rock that took ace rock climber Conrad Anker an hour to climb during the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition? If the "black spots" Odell saw on the ridge at 12:50 p.m. were Mallory and Irvine, they probably could not have reached the summit until seven p.m., quite possibly as late as three o'clock the next morning. Wouldn't they have turned back much earlier, knowing that an overnight in the Everest cold would almost surely kill them? "The mystery of Mallory and Irvine therefore lives on," wrote Peter Firstbrook, an expedition member, in The Search for Mallory & Irvine. "In death, as in life, they remain together on the mountain; they are in every sense, the men of Everest."

They were not, of course, the last men of Everest. Prominent among those who would follow were New Zealander Edmund Hillary and a Nepali named Tenzing Norgay, born to Sherpas in 1914. Norgay was by age 19 already a porter and mountaineer; before joining the British expedition of 1953, he had climbed on five Everest assaults, Swiss and British, in 1935, '38, '47 and two in '52. By the time he signed on with the Brits again in '53, he probably had spent more time on the mountain than any other man. He had also come the closest to its summit, in 1952, when he and a Swiss teammate were forced back barely 1,000 feet from the top. "The pull of Everest was stronger for me," Norgay, who died in 1986, once said, "than any force on earth."