In 1924, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine, apparently about to conquer Everest for the first time, vanished in shrouds of mist some 700 feet short of the five-mile-high peak.
The ill-fated assault was recorded by a member of the expedition, Captain John Noel, who later printed his black and white views in glass, and hand coloured them to produce glowing pictures some of which are included on this page. Captain Noel trained his telescope camera, which he designed to withstand extreme cold, on the summit to record the victory of the two tiny human specks he could see against the sky.
Approaching Everest through Tibet from the North - a way long since closed to outsiders - the expedition stopped at Shekar Dzong, set on precipitous mountain crags. Look-out towers perched on the 17,500 peak, loftier than any in Europe, yet less than two thirds as high as Everest itself. Halfway up stood the Military Governor’s Castle and on the lower slopes, a monastery.
The expedition’s members were the first Europeans ever to see these architectural miracles. The great walls of stone and mud blended so harmoniously with the rock conformations that they seemed to be a part of the barren mountain itself.
The Shining Crystal Monastery
At Shekar Dzong, the expedition were entertained by the Governor and his wife and received at the monastery by the Chief Lama. The Governor put on a show of games and dances and gave them a 12 course banquet in a Chinese tent
He honoured them as guests with smoked mutton prepared 40 years before; and invited them to a ceremonial tea-party at which they sipped luke-warm tea mixed with salt and rancid Yak’s butter. At the monastery the Lama showed them through his gold roofed temple.
They then spent two hours with the Lama, who was considered an incarnation of deity and had to be treated with due reverence. This involved bowing low to the ground before him and sitting in absolute silence, with their hats in their hands, while he addressed and blessed them - a virtual ritual, for without his blessing the Sherpas who accompanied the expedition as guides and porters would not believe it safe to continue.
Everest’s challengers were concerned with more than scaling the formidable peak. Part of their self-imposed mission was to map the vast unknown world of ice, rock and glacier. The pictorial map (left), shows the various camps on the route up Everest and the position of the final sighting of Mallory and Irvine 700 feet short of the summit. The East Rongbuk Glacier was found to be the best approach to the final ascent. The task of compiling these maps was undertaken by Captain John Noel
Noel had made other maps as a result of a journey to Tibet in disguise, in 1913, when hostile soldiers still guarded the mountain passes against foreigners. The region was first charted on a large scale by Major T.S. Morsehead who surveyed 50,000 square miles in 1922.
As the team tackled the lower slopes, in late May, Mallory, already suffering from extreme fatigue, wrote to this wife: “The physique of the whole party has gone down sadly......Darling, I wish you the best I can - that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this, with the best news....It is 50 to 1 against us, but we will have a whack yet and do ourselves proud”. The leader, Norton, commented, “There is no doubt Mallory knows it is a forlorn hope”.
A week later, the team in a spurt towards Everest’s peak racing to beat the monsoons, struggled against a fierce wind up the Northeast shoulder and on June 7th Mallory sent a note from the last bivouac at 27,000 feet, alerting the photographer to watch the skyline the next day. Then he Irvine and three Sherpas set out under a clear blue sky on the final assault, with far from perfect oxygen equipment. Odell stayed close behind to keep an eye on their progress. He was the last to see them as they disappeared, never to be seen alive again into a sudden mist, at a point higher than man had ever climbed before.
At day break on June 8th Captain Noel, perched on an eyrie at 22,000 ft, trained his camera on the summit as Mallory had instructed him to do. Two keen-eyed assistants took turns with him to man the telescope: but the peak was lost in cloud and rolling mists.
They watched for two whole days and nights with hopes fading at every hour. Suddenly a group came into view. It was Odell with his support party, creeping out to the edge of an ice-shelf to make a signal.
There was no mistaking its tragic message, caught by the photographers telescopic lens. Odell who had last seen the climbers about 700 feet short of the summit, had twice gone up to their 27,000 foot bivouac in search of them; but all he found were empty tents. When he descended at last, he said “I think that it is quite possible and even likely that Mallory and Irvine reached the top and were overtaken by the night in their descent, exhausted and frozen to death.
In 1933, the first Everest expedition after the tragedy discovered a rusted ice axe just below the summit ridge. Its Swiss maker’s mark identified it as the property of either Mallory or Irvine. Its position has led many mountaineers to agree with Odell. Perhaps after all, Mallory and Irvine died victorious!.
Of all the challenges accepted by imperial adventurers, the climbing of Mount Everest must rank among the greatest. Mount Everest was an irresistible lure for mountaineers right from the moment in 1852 when, as a story has it, a clerk of the Indian Trigonometrical Survey in New Delhi rushed into his superiors office exclaiming “Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world”. Since no one was then aware that the 29,002 foot high mountain had long been called Chomolungma “Goddess Mother of the World” by the Tibetans, it was promptly christened Everest, after Sir George Everest, the first Surveyor-General of India.
When the British came for their assault in 1953, Sherpa Tenzing was the first man recruited. It was his sixth visit to the mountain. The choice of the committee to lead the expedition was an Army officer, John Hunt
Among his top climbers was Edmund Hillary, who had performed so well on the 1951 expedition and on the training expedition the following year. The expedition was on a grand scale. Some 350 porters set out from Katmandu early in March. Hunt had determined not only to get to the mountain in plenty of time, but also to allow his climbers many days to acclimatize properly. His plans also called for camps to be established high on the mountain, so that the assault parties would be poised relatively close to the summit for their final push. The initial challenge was the icefall, with enormous crevasses to be bridged with metal ladders
There was the constant danger that great boulders of ice might break loose and come tumbling down on the climbers.
But by mid-April Hillary and his companions had notched out a path up to it. They then spent a month staging out their camps up the mountain. By May 26th the first assault party of Tom Bourdillion and Charles Evans was all set to go. Aided by oxygen they reached the south summit of the mountain at 28,700 feet. But their oxygen supplies were too low to allow them to climb the additional 300 feet along a snow-encrusted ridge to the main summit. Two days later Hillary and Tenzing, with three other climbers established camp IX at 27,900 feet.
Hillary and Tenzing spent the night there, as the temperature in their little tent sank to 70 deg. below freezing. But at four o clock in the morning they were up pulling on their clothes and checking their oxygen gear. Hillary’s boots had frozen solid and had to be thawed out over a Primus stove. At 6.30a.m they were on their way and by 9a.m they were on the South Peak. From there a steep ridge covered in snow led upwards to the summit. Hillary went first chopping out steps in the frozen snow with his ice axe. It was an arduous process that went on hour after hour . “As I chipped away steps around still another corner, I wondered rather dully how long we could keep this up”, he wrote later . “Our original zest had gone and now it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realized that the ridge ahead, instead of monotonously rising, dropped sharply, away and far below I could see the North Col and the Ronbuk Glacier.
I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few whacks of the ice axe and we stood on top.
Everest had been conquered. It was 11.30 a.m. On May 29th 1953. “My initial feelings were of relief ”, Hillary recalled later. “Relief that there were no more steps to cut , no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success.”. The two men Hillary and Tenzing, thumped each other on the back in sheer delight . Tenzing scooped a small hole in the snow in which he placed some chocolate and biscuits as an offering to the Gods. Hillary also put a small crucifix which John Hunt had given him, into the snow.
The news of their victory reached Britain just three days later, on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. As it came over the loudspeakers to the crowds already waiting along the coronation route, loud cheers broke out. No achievement could have been more fitting for the occasion. Everest had been conquered 101 years after its discovery at the 11th attempt.
Why had the conquerors done it? Mallory had been asked why he wanted to climb Everest before setting out in 1924 on the expedition from which he never returned . The answer he gave is still the best “Because it is there”!
He recorded tragedy instead. The bodies of Mallory and Irvine lie high in Everest’s wilderness of rock and ice, known to the Tibetans as ‘Chomolungma’ - “Goddess Mother of the World” . They may actually have reached the pinnacle and fallen to their deaths on the way down. In any case, they came closer to triumph than climbers ever did until the victorious expedition led by John Hunt in 1953.
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