The wind howled and the peak itself remained obscured, but for a moment the little human chain was spotlighted in the sun. Then the mist closed in again, and I began my walk.
I am 300 pages, not even half way, into Wade Davis’s Everest tome, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. It’s not an easy read. Davis is a compulsive, not to say indiscriminate writer, whose editor apparently never asked him to prioritize some of the lesser details. (I had the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – to “interview” him on stage at the Sheridan Opera House during a Mountainfilm festival. We had 45 minutes. I asked one question.)
George Mallory is the obvious fascination of the book, along with the way the war to end all wars led so many surviving British soldiers away from the surreality of peacetime on the home islands and toward romantic, sometimes impossible pursuits. Upper class Brits especially, whose faith in just about everything, including empire and the innate superiority of all things English, had been shattered by the carnage. Blank spots on the map tugged at them. The poles had been reached. Everest was dubbed the Third Pole. And, by God, the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest Committee was damned if it wouldn’t be a Brit who first scaled the heights, “as an example of British spirit, to lift British morale.”
Mallory was the preeminent rock climber of his age. At Cambridge he hung with poets and philosophers, and dabbled in at least one homosexual affair. He somehow survived the trenches of Flanders where two million of his countrymen did not. He was not the leader of the three British Himalayan expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924; that was left to generals and Alpine Club heavies. But he was the obvious climbing leader, so gifted on rock and snow a partner of his, Harry Tyndale said: “In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance, so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place.”
The first part of the climb up Highland Bowl traverses a very narrow col with a cornice on the left and Maroon Creek 4,000 vertical feet seemingly straight down to the right. The boot track offered little room for error between the two voids. My shouldered skis wanted to sail with the wind. Each step of my plastic-soled ski boots had be placed just so to maintain a fragile balance and its corollary, momentum.
In the book, I’m still only as far as the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition. The team is in Tibet, exploring, mapping, just trying to get close to the mountain, to see if there is any way to get up it. In his tweed jacket and scarf, Mallory makes repeated forays to well above 21,000 feet but is nearly always frustrated by monsoon clouds obscuring Everest’s bulk. One of his tasks is to make photographs, and he exposes more than 30 glass plates. But down in base camp they tell him he inserted the plates back to front, and they’re all worthless.
He’s apparently a klutz in other ways. He was reported to have nearly burned down his own tent, twice, trying to light the Primus stoves.
But on the ridges and glaciers he was a genius. He was what they called then a ridgewalker. Front points on crampons wouldn’t be invented until 1929. And no one, not even Mallory, was ready to try the sheer, direct faces of the big peaks.
Eventually, he did find the North Col and what would ultimately become the standard Tibet-side route up the Northeast Ridge. And, of course, in 1924, he and partner Sandy Irvine would famously vanish high on that route. Teammate Noel Odell spotted them that June 8, at around noon, in a sudden opening in the mists, moving well, he thought, only a few hundred vertical feet from the summit. But then the swirling cloud enclosed them again, and they disappeared into legend.
Did they make the summit? Were they going up or down when at least one of them fell, dragging the other off with him? Mallory’s body was found at about 27,000 feet in 1999. Irvine’s remains, and the camera that might hold more clues, has not been found, despite intense searching the last few decades.
As I drove away from the parking lot on Sunday, Highland Bowl was still wrapped in cloud. But behind it, farther up in the Elk Range, a tear in the storm’s fabric let the light in on Pyramid Peak, like Everest an impossibly steep triangle of black rock in an ocean of snow.