George Mallory: Was He The First to Climb Mount Everest?

In 1924, George Herbert Leigh-Mallory and Andrew (Sandy) Irvine embarked on a courageous quest to conquer the summit of Mount Everest, leaving an indelible mark on the annals of mountaineering history. Their daring expedition, however, ended in tragedy, leaving behind a lingering mystery. Did Mallory and Irvine truly reach the pinnacle of Earth’s highest point, becoming the first to conquer Everest? 

Known as one of the most famous dead bodies on Mount Everest, Mallory was no stranger to perilous adventures. His passion for climbing took root during a school excursion, propelling him towards a lifetime of mountaineering pursuits. Motivated by an unwavering determination and captivated by the allure of the unconquered peak, Mallory dedicated himself to all three of Britain’s inaugural Everest expeditions.

This blog recounts the life of George Mallory, and the history around what may have been the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

George Mallory’s Early Life, Marriage, and World War I:

George Mallory in 1915, young george mallory

George Mallory, was born in the village of Mobberley, Cheshire in England in June of 1886. His passion for climbing began at the age of 13 when he received a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College. It was at school that he was introduced to rock climbing under the guidance of Graham Irving, his mentor. Throughout his college years, Mallory frequently ventured to the Alps alongside Irving, honing his skills and passion as a climber.

Continuing his education at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1905, Mallory not only pursued his academic endeavors but also rowed for the university team. After graduating, he embarked on a teaching career at Charterhouse in Surrey, all the while further developing his climbing prowess.

Within the United Kingdom, Mallory accomplished significant first ascents, such as Mallory’s Right Hand and Mallory’s Left Hand on Gable Crag. These climbs were considered highly challenging for their time, with Mallory’s Right Hand grading at 5.8, a difficulty level that was exceptional during that era. In 1913, he achieved the first ascent of Pillar Rock in the Lake District, establishing a new route that bears his name to this day—Mallory’s Route.

In 1914, Mallory married Ruth Turner, shortly before the start of the First World War. The couple went on to have two daughters and a son, forming a family that would become an integral part of Mallory’s life.

During the war, Mallory served in the British Army as a lieutenant and participated in various conflicts in France, including the infamous Somme offensive. This battle marked one of the bloodiest and most devastating engagements in history, with casualties surpassing one million lives lost. Mallory’s military service added yet another chapter to his extraordinary life of adventure and resilience.

Following the war, Mallory returned to his previous role of lecturing at Charterhouse. After a short stint there, he resigned in 1921 to join the first ever expedition to Everest.

Mallory’s Climbing Accomplishments prior to Everest:

Apart from his involvement in early Everest expeditions and several climbs in the Alps, Mallory achieved numerous first ascents in England and Wales during the early 1900s. These climbs were regarded as highly challenging and severe for their time, equivalent to modern-day ratings of VD (very difficult) and VS (very severe). The following is a a list of known climbs and expeditions accomplished by Mallory:

  • “Great Gully” (5.6), Cwm Eigeau, Wales (1907).
  • “Amphitheatre Buttress” (5.4), Cwm Eigiau, Wales (1907)
  • Mont Blanc (15,774 feet), Italy/France (1911).
  • Mont Maudit (14,649 feet), Italy/France (1911). Via Frontier Ridge, third ascent.
  • “Adam Rib” (5.6) Craig Cwm Du, Wales (1912). First ascent.
  • “Mallory’s Route” (5.9), Pillar Rock, Lake District (1913). First ascent.
  • 1921 Everest Expedition. First expedition to reconnoiter the world’s highest peak. Mapped the region around Everest and the Rongbuk Glacier, reaching 23,000 feet on the North Col.
  • 1922 Everest Expedition. Expedition members reached 27,300 feet, setting an altitude world record.
  • 1924 Everest Expedition: Disappeared during bid for the summit with partner Andrew Irvine. Body found at 26,700 feet in 1999.

Mallory’s Expeditions on Everest:

George Mallory embarked on the first three Everest expeditions starting in 1921 and the final taking place in 1924. The following sections highlight all three expeditions, and the death of Malory on Everest in 1924.

Everest Expeditions in 1921 and 1922:

George Mallory on Everest in 1921
George Mallory in 1921 on first Everest Expedition

Mallory became part of the inaugural 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition by the British, led by Colonel Charles Howard-Bury and Harold Raeburn, with notable members including Guy Bullock and Edward Oliver Wheeler. The primary objective of this expedition was reconnaissance, aiming to map the surrounding terrain and identify a feasible route to the summit via the North Col.

On September 23, 1921, Mallory, Wheeler, and Bullock (with Mallory assuming command of the climbing operations due to Raeburn’s poor health) reached an altitude of 23,000 feet on the North Col. However, strong winds forced them to retreat. It was during this venture that they discovered a promising route to the summit via the northeast ridge.

In 1922, Mallory returned to Everest as part of the second British expedition on Everest, led by Brigadier General Charles Bruce, with Edward Strutt as the climbing leader. Unlike the previous attempt, the team brought bottled oxygen to assist their ascent.

Mallory, along with Howard Somervell and Edward Norton, made an initial oxygen-less endeavor and achieved a remarkable altitude of 26,980 feet, just below the crest of the northeast ridge, setting a world record at that time. In a subsequent attempt, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce utilized oxygen and surpassed the previous record, reaching 27,300 feet. Unfortunately, they were compelled to retreat due to Bruce’s inability to continue.

Tragically, during Mallory’s third attempt on June 7, 1922, an avalanche occurred, claiming the lives of seven Sherpa porters and effectively ending the expedition. This devastating event marked a somber chapter in the quest to conquer the world’s highest peak.

The 1924 Expedition and Death of George Mallory:

At the age of 37, Mallory embarked on his final Himalayan expedition – the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition. Accompanying him were fellow climbers Edward Norton, Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell, John Noel, John de Vars Hazard, Noel Odell, and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, among others. Mallory’s first attempt to reach the summit, alongside Bruce, was halted at Camp V due to fierce winds and extreme cold, as the porters refused to proceed further.

A subsequent endeavor led by Edward Norton and Howard Somervell saw Norton ascend to an impressive altitude of 28,126 feet, falling just shy of the summit, due to exhaustion.

Undeterred, Mallory and Irvine embarked on their own summit attempt from Camp VI on June 8. Irvine, a skilled engineer, had designed a modified oxygen apparatus for their use. Noel Odell, following behind to provide support, reported witnessing the duo rapidly ascending the Second Step, located at approximately 28,250 feet, a mere 800 feet away from the summit. However, there has been uncertainty regarding Odell’s account, with some questioning whether he had truly observed the Second Step or possibly the First Step instead.

Regrettably, this marked the last sighting of Mallory and Irvine alive. Mallory’s body remained undiscovered for nearly 75 years until Conrad Anker made the remarkable find in 1999. The body was located at an elevation of 26,700 feet. However, Irvine’s body and the camera they carried with them have yet to be found, adding to the enduring mysteries surrounding their fateful climb.

Discovering George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest:

Discovering George Mallorys Body
George Mallory’s body being discovered in 1999

The revelation of George Mallory’s body atop Mount Everest, gave rise to more questions than answers. In 1999, a group of climbers embarked on the “Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition” organized by the BBC, with the single objective of locating Mallory and Irvine. Despite the passage of 75 years since their disappearance, the likelihood of finding them remained relatively high. The freezing temperatures and perpetual layer of permafrost on Everest impeccably preserve the bodies of climbers who perish on its slopes.

Who Discovered George Mallory’s Body?

In 1999, Conrad Anker made a remarkable observation on the northern slopes of the mountain. Initially mistaking it for a large, flat, white rock, he soon realized that it was the exposed back of a dead body. As he approached the body, he immediately recognized the old mountaineering boots, and called his team on the radio. 

The team then began the task of digging out the frozen body, and although much of Mallory’s attire had deteriorated with time, the covered parts of his body remained remarkably well-preserved. After some time of digging, they were able to free a jacket pocket which held various items that were monogrammed with the initials G.L.M.

While Irvine’s body was never discovered, his climbing ax was located around 800 feet above Mallory’s resting place. Researchers surmised that Mallory and Irvine were likely tethered together, and the evidence suggests that Mallory either fell, dragging Irvine with him, or separated himself from the rope before the fall. Ultimately, their demise was attributed to a fatal fall.

The question of whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit remains unanswered. Some experts speculate that the placement of Mallory’s body indicates a descent rather than an ascent. Mallory was believed to have carried a camera to document their achievements, but it has never been recovered.

For over 75 years, Mallory’s body eluded discovery until Conrad Anker and his team of climbers from BBC located it in 1999. This momentous find reignited interest in Mallory’s life, his enduring legacy, and the enigma surrounding the events of that fateful day.

Where was George Mallory’s Body Found?

George Mallory’s body was discovered on the North Face of Mount Everest, specifically in an area known as the “Yellow Band.” The location where he was found is at an elevation of approximately 8,155 meters (26,755 feet) above sea level. The location of his body is characterized by steep and challenging terrain, with treacherous rock and ice formations.

The image below shows the location of where George Mallory’s body was found.

Location of George Mallory's body on Everest
The location of where George Malory was found in 1999

Where is His Body Now? Where was George Mallory Buried?

George Mallory’s body rests at an elevation of 8,200 meters (27,000 feet) on the North Face of Mount Everest, situated in Tibet. Specifically, he is positioned at the base of the Scree Slope, a notable feature below the Yellow Band. The Yellow Band refers to a distinct layer of transformed limestone, easily observable from the North Base Camp, that lies just prior to the summit.

After the BBC team found the body of Mallory, they buried it with stones and said a few words before departing. Now almost 25 years later few have visited the burial site as even though the precise GPS coordinates of Mallory’s resting place are known they are withheld to prevent any potential grave robbery. Interestingly, despite the knowledge of its location, there remains a sense of intrigue surrounding the fact that Mallory’s body has not been rediscovered by those aware of its expected whereabouts in recent years. 

Speculation Surrounding George Mallory and the First Ascent Of Everest:

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on Everest

The question of whether Mallory, Irvine, or both successfully reached the summit of Everest has sparked intense speculation and garnered various opinions from mountaineers. However, one of the most credible testimonies comes from Conrad Anker, who led the 1999 expedition to recover Mallory’s body.

Anker believes that while it is technically possible, it is highly unlikely that either Mallory or Irvine reached the summit before their tragic demise. The ascent of the second step, later known as the Hillary Step, is notoriously challenging. Experienced climbers estimate its difficulty to be around 5.9, which is at the upper limit of Mallory’s climbing ability at sea level, without considering the extreme conditions and oxygen deprivation on Everest’s summit. Moreover, the timing of their climb would have required them to ascend and descend at an exceptionally fast pace.

Perhaps the entire debate is fundamentally flawed. Mallory’s son, John, who was merely three years old when his father perished, has expressed the belief that a true summit achievement entails returning safely. He stated, “To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” This perspective challenges the focus on reaching the summit and emphasizes the importance of a successful descent as the ultimate measure of accomplishment.

We may never know if the two reached Everest’s summit or not. The only hope for the mystery to be solved rests in the hope of finding the camera that Andrew Irvine and Mallory carried. Until then, George Mallory and the results of his Everest expedition will remain unknown.

FAQs: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine Everest Expedition:

Below are the most frequently asked questions regarding the 1924 Everest expedition with George Herbert Leigh-Mallory and Andrew (Sandy) Irvine.

1. Did George Mallory reach the top of Everest?

On June 6, 1924, Mallory and Irvine embarked on their ascent of the mountain. Their final sighting alive was near the summit, witnessed by their fellow expedition member, Noel Odell. While there is speculation that they might have successfully reached the summit, they never made it back from their climb. Tragically, only George Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999.

2. Was George Mallory’s camera ever found?

George Mallory’s camera has not been found. In 1924, Mallory had been in possession of a Kodak VPK camera during his fateful final attempt to summit the mountain. Regrettably, when his body was finally uncovered in 1999, the camera was nowhere to be found.

3. Did they ever find the bodies of Mallory and Irvine?

At an elevation of 8,155 meters, Mallory’s remains were discovered in 1999 by an expedition led by Eric Simonson. Regrettably, the body of Irvine has yet to be located, leaving his fate shrouded in enduring mystery.

4. Where was Mallory last seen?

The last place Mallory was seen was on the Northeast Ridge of Everest around 800 vertical feet (approximately 240 meters) away from the summit. Mallory and his climbing companion Andrew “Sandy” Irvine vanished without a trace during the 1924 expedition.

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