Paths of Glory is a fictional account of Mallory on Everest. Quite amusing, old chap.
The question of who climbed Mount Everest first is perhaps unimportant to the crowd of tyros who now pay their way to the top. But it’s actually an ongoing debate in some circles. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary are usually credited with the first, when in 1953 they stood at the Everest apex — and made it back alive. But another pair might have made it long before Tenzing and his client.
In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last seen alive on Everest’s Northeast ridge, presumably headed up. While this was indeed almost pre-historic climbing in terms of today’s gear and techniques, Mallory actually had quite a bit of experience in mountaineering, and had several previous Everest attempts to his credit that included an early altitude record without supplemental oxygen, 26,985 ft (8,225 m) feet. In other words Mallory might have had the chops, so perhaps he and Irvine were first?
Many of us who track mountaineering enjoy knowing who got to the top of Everest first, and are fascinated by the possibility that long before the generally accepted premier of Tenzing and Hillary, men in the 1920s outfitted with nailed boots and wool jackets got close to the summit — and possibly climbed it. (Of course, that’s less of a surprise these days when you observe how many wankers get there with the help of guides, but still, back in 1924 they didn’t even have nylon, let alone Everest summit guides!)
When Mallory’s body was found in 1999, obviously the victim of a fall off the mountain onto slabs below the Northeast Ridge, many hoped the mystery would be solved. Alas, Mallory and Irvine’s camera was not found (it may have been carried by Irvine), and clues were sparse.
Well known alpinist Conrad Anker was the first person to come across Mallory’s body during the 1999 search. He made pertinent postmortem observations such as Mallory’s hands not showing signs of frostbite that would have indicated they’d been benighted after possibly summiting, but rather supported the theory that they’d reached a high point then turned around, and fell during the descent. (The idea being that at the rate they were climbing, and with our modern knowledge of how Everest climbs go, it is highly unlikely that if the pair had reached the summit they would have returned before nightfall.)
One crux of the debate is a feature on the climb known as the “Second Step,” which might have proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to Mallory with the gear and climbing skills of his day. During the expedition when he found Mallory, Anker tried to free climb the Step, as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do (it’s now equipped with a ladder and fixed ropes, in the continuing effort to make Everest easier.)
Anker describes the second step as being “…about 90 feet long…really exposed…drops off 7,000 feet below you.” During his attempt, Anker found himself using cams for protection while employing knee jams to make upward progress, and ended up resting with one foot on the ladder (guides keep it lashed to the cliff so people paying huge amounts of money can artificially climb the mountain). He said it “felt like 5.10 with my boots and at altitude,” and went on to conjecture that “even with a shoulder stand, I think it’s improbable that Mallory and Irvine would have done it.” On a later expedition, Anker did climb the step without the ladder, and after that experience rated it 5.9. As far as I know, he didn’t change his opinion about it being unlikely that the men made it in 1924.
But not so fast. More snow or ice on the step could have made a significant “ramp” and changed it for climbing (and indeed can do so, according to my reading). More, the crumbly rock at that altitude on Everest had to have changed over nearly three quarters of a century. Perhaps it was easier 75 years before Conrad did it.
I was scouring the library for beach novels the other day, and ran across bestselling author Jeffrey Archer’s “Paths of Glory.” The book is a well researched but fictionalized biography of Mallory and his Everest climbs. This is not a new book (published in 2009) but it perhaps escaped heavy scrutiny due to it being historical fiction, or maybe I was too busy being a skiing blogger to catch a climbing book.
At any rate, while a bit heavy on sophomoric dialog as well as containing plenty of truth stretching, I found “Paths of Glory” to be incredibly interesting and in the end a fun read.
In the book, author Archer tracks the arc of Mallory’s life. The story begins with portraying Mallory as an unusually adventurous boy, leading to the man spending a big chunk of his life on several Everest attempts (in those days, this involved many months of overland traveling not to mention lengthy stays on the mountain).
To make his writing more compelling, Archer weaves in the love story of Mallory and his beautiful wife Ruth. Such isn’t really as ancillary as you’d think, as part of the Mallory mystery arises from the fact of his avowed intention to leave a photo of Ruth on the Everest summit. Thus, the absence of that photo when Mallory’s body was found lends at least a smidgen of credence to him possibly summiting.
Most of all, I enjoyed how “Paths of Glory” fleshes out what it was like to be trying for the unclimbed summit of the world, far back in 1924. For starters, Mallory and his peers began the ongoing debate about supplemental oxygen and what comprises “fair means.” They experienced this personally, as they attempted much of their climbing during Everest attempts without 02, but eventually succumbed to the big O’s effectiveness and used the primitive gas packs of the day during their summit attempt. Considering what we now know, one has to wonder if Mallory and Irvine would have been better off going oxygenless rather than carrying the 30 pound (!) sets, which still only supplied 9 hours of gas. Indeed, if you do use oxygen for altitude climbing, and run out while you’re still high on the mountain, such is a recipe for likely disaster.
Another thing that struck me was how they put together Everest expeditions back in the true “day.” You won’t believe the bureaucracy and wrangling that went on among the “old chaps” of the Mount Everest Committee of England. For example, can you imagine having to contend with the following (paraphrased from the book) before you got to go climbing? Quite amusing to read about, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.
– None of the five men seated round the table particularly liked each other…
– Chairman Sir Younghusband had negotiated terms with the Dalai Lama for the crossing into Tibet…
– Arthur Hinks was said to write up each meeting’s minutes the day before they took place…
– Mr. Reaburn was once considered a fine alpinist, but his cigar and paunch meant you had to have a good memory to know that…
– Commander Ashcroft always had a snifter with Hinks before the meeting, so he’d know which way to vote.
So, need a book for your post snow-season Mexico beach margaretta quest? Good one, just take it all with a grain of that salt on your glass rim.
Climbing Magazine, September 1999, and Wikipedia.
Also this for more than you ever wanted to know.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.