Last Climb

Mallory & Irvine's Last Photo
Mallory & Irvine at the North Col, June 6, 1924. It is the last photo taken of the pair alive.

About a month or so ago I finished a really great book about the British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922, and 1924 called “Last Climb”, written by David Breashears and Audrey Salkeld. As you might already know, the 1924 expedition took the lives of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine when they were lost on Everest and presumed dead.  This first portion of this book focuses primarily on the life of George Leigh Mallory and while the later portion focuses primarily on the expeditions to Everest he was a part of.  A small portion of the book details the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999 as well.  It’s well-written and and entertaining, with lots and lots of pictures from the expeditions and Mallory’s life.

What I really liked about the book is that it provided just enough detail about the expeditions to give me a good idea of what it was like but not so much that the book dragged.  I’m not really that interested in mountain climbing, believe it or not, but Mallory’s story is what’s so fascinating.  For me the story is his drive to reach the top and his tragic death (along with climbing partner Irvine) and how his life and death affected his friends and family.

What I’m continually amazed by is that a 37 year old father of three would risk his life (and ultimately give his life) to reach the top of Everest.  He went on two other expeditions before the one that killed him, all within a four year period.  In between that he did a lecture tour of the states.  He was away from his wife and family for a good part of those four years.  I know times were different then and gender roles were different as well but it still boggles my mind that the desire to get to the top, to attain the title of first to the top of the world, could be worth risking his life for.  He expressed outwardly love and affection for his family but the mountain always won in the end.  When he died in 1924 he left behind three children, one three years old who he’d barely seen grow up.  Ultimately he’d never see him grow up; his son would grow up not with a father but with the legend of a man frozen to the side of the world’s tallest mountain.  On the one hand I feel a sort of reverence for someone that talented and determined but on the other hand I feel a bit of resentment and pity for someone so utterly controlled by what can only be called an addiction that he’d chance leaving his family alone in the world.  I suppose there’s no way really to feel strongly either way; it was a tragic death of a mountaineering legend and loving father and husband.

And what makes it even worse is that, based on the evidence so far, they most likely never made it.  I’d guess though that making it to the top would have provided little consolation to the family and friends of the doomed climbing pair.

Now sometimes when I’m outside in the bitter cold at night I think of Mallory up there on the side of the mountain.  I wonder what his last moments were like, I wonder if he was conscious as he lay there with a broken, freezing body.  If so, I wonder if he’d do it differently if given the opportunity.  I suppose he or anyone else would.  Then I walk inside a warm house and see my wife and my two boys; I pick the up and give them kisses and hugs, and I know that barring something unforeseen I’ll be around to see them grow up.  It makes me thankful that I’m not as conflicted as Mallory was and that my choices are very clear to me.

So if you’re even remotely interested in this story this book is great.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

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