George Mallory

George Herbert Leigh Mallory (18 June 1886 – 8 June/9 June 1924) was an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s. On the third expedition, in June 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine both disappeared somewhere high on the North-East ridge during or after completing the final stage of their attempt to make the first ascent of the world's highest mountain. The pair's last known sighting was only a few hundred metres from the summit. Mallory's ultimate fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was finally discovered in 1999. Whether or not they reached the summit before they died remains a subject of speculation and continuing research.

Mallory is famously said to have replied to the question "why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?" with the retort: "because it is there", which has been called "the most famous four words in mountaineering". Recently some questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of that quote, and whether Mallory had actually said it, with a possibility the quote was invented by a newspaper reporter.

Early life, education, and teaching career

Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, the son of Herbert Leigh Mallory (1856–1943), a clergyman who legally changed his surname to Leigh-Mallory in 1914. George had two sisters — one older than he, one younger — and a younger brother Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the World War II Royal Air Force commander.

In 1896, Mallory attended Glengorse, a preparatory boarding school in Eastbourne on the south coast of England, having transferred from another preparatory school in West Kirby. At the age of 13, he won a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College. In his penultimate year there, he was introduced to rock climbing and mountaineering by a master, R. L. G. Irving, who took a small number of pupils climbing in the Alps each year. In October 1905, Mallory entered Magdalene College, Cambridge to study history. There, he became good friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group including James Strachey, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant, who painted several portraits of Mallory. Mallory was a keen oarsman and rowed in his college "eight", but he did not (as has been written elsewhere) row for Cambridge in the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

After taking his degree, Mallory stayed in Cambridge for a year writing an essay he later published as Boswell the Biographer (1912). He lived briefly in France, where Simon Bussy painted his portrait, now in London's National Portrait Gallery. On his return he decided to become a teacher. In 1910 he began teaching at Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey, where he met the poet Robert Graves, then a pupil; in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, Graves remembered Mallory fondly, both for his encouragement of Graves' interest in literature and poetry, and for his instruction in climbing. Mallory was best man at Graves' wedding in 1918.

While at Charterhouse he met his wife, Ruth, who lived in Godalming, and they were married in 1914, just six days before Britain and Germany went to war. George and Ruth had two daughters and a son: Clare, born 1915; Beridge (1917); and John (1920). In December 1915 Mallory joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as 2nd lieutenant and in 1916 participated in the shelling of the Somme. After the war he returned to Charterhouse, resigning in 1921 in order to join the first Everest expedition (see below). In between expeditions, he attempted to make a living from writing and lecturing, with only partial success. In 1923 he took a job as lecturer with the Cambridge University Extramural Studies Department. He was given temporary leave so that he could join the 1924 Everest attempt.


In Europe

In 1904, in a party led by Irving, Mallory and a friend attempted to climb Mont Vélan in the Alps, but turned back shortly before the summit due to Mallory's altitude sickness. In 1911, Mallory climbed Mont Blanc, as well as making the third ascent of the Frontier ridge of Mont Maudit in a party again led by Irving.

By 1913 he was at the peak of his rock-climbing powers and ascended Pillar Rock in the English Lake District, with no aid or assistance, by what is now known as "Mallory's Route" – currently graded Hard Very Severe 5a (American grading 5.9). It is likely to have been the hardest route in Britain for many years.

In Asia

In 1921 he participated in the British Reconnaissance Expedition, organised and financed by the Mount Everest Committee, that explored routes up to the North Col of Mount Everest. The expedition produced the first accurate maps of the region around the mountain. Although he was accompanied by several senior members of Britain's Alpine Club and by surveyors based in India, the debilitating effect of altitude meant that Mallory, his climbing partner Guy Bullock and E. O. Wheeler of the Survey of India performed most of the exploration of the slopes. Under Mallory's leadership, and with the assistance of around a dozen Sherpas, the group climbed several lower peaks near Everest. including the North Col of Everest (7,066 m or about 23,000 ft) to gain an understanding of the potential North Face route to the summit. His party were almost certainly the first Westerners to view the Western Cwm at the foot of the Lhotse face, as well as charting the course of the Rongbuk Glacier up to the base of the North Face. After circling the mountain from the south side, his party finally discovered the East Rongbuk Glacier--the highway to the summit now used by nearly all climbers on the Tibetan side of the mountain. By climbing up to the saddle of the North Ridge (the North Col), Mallory not only became the first human to set foot on the actual mountain, but spied a route to the summit via the North-East Ridge over the obstacle of the Second Step.

In 1922 Mallory returned to the Himalaya as part of the party led by General Charles Granville Bruce and climbing leader Edward Lisle Strutt, with a view to making a serious attempt on the summit. Eschewing their bottled oxygen, on ethical grounds, Mallory led his climbing team of Howard Somervell and Edward Norton almost to the crest of the North-East ridge. Despite being hampered and slowed by the thin air, they achieved a record altitude of 26,985 ft (8,225 m) before weather conditions and the late hour forced them to retreat. A second party led by George Ingle Finch reached a height of approx. 27,300 feet (8,321 m) using bottled oxygen (both for climbing and sleeping) and climbing at record speeds--a fact that Mallory reluctantly returned to in the next expedition. Mallory organised a third attempt on the summit, departing as the monsoon arrived. While he was leading a group of porters on the lower slopes of the North Col of Everest in fresh, waist-high snow, an avalanche swept over the group, killing seven Sherpas. The attempt was immediately abandoned, and Mallory returned home to face criticism for the outcome of the second expedition.

Mallory's last climb

June 1924 expedition to Everest

George Mallory joined the 1924 Everest expedition — his third — led as in 1922 by General Bruce, believing it would be his last opportunity to climb the mountain. Following a failed first attempt by Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce, and then another by Norton and Somervell, on 8 June 1924 Mallory and Andrew Irvine attempted to reach the top via the North Col route. The pair used oxygen, Mallory having been converted from his original scepticism by the experience of Finch in 1922.

Keen-sighted expedition colleague Noel Odell reported the following:

At the time, Odell identified his sighting to have been on the Second Step of the ridge. No evidence, apart from his testimony, has thus far been found that they climbed higher than about the First Step (one of their spent oxygen cylinders was found shortly below the First Step; and Irvine's ice axe was also found nearby in 1933) but it has never been disproved either. They never returned to their camp and died somewhere high on the mountain.

It is assumed that Mallory and Irvine died either on 8 June or, at the latest, the next day. The news of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance was widely mourned in Britain to the extent that the two were hailed as national heroes. George Leigh Mallory's funeral service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral, London and was attended by a wealth of family and friends as well as prime minister of the time J. Ramsay Macdonald, the entire British cabinet and the British Royal family, headed at the time by King George V.

Lost on Everest for 75 years

After their disappearance, several expeditions tried to find their remains (and perhaps determine if they had, in fact, reached the summit). One of these, Tom Holzel's Mt. Everest North Face Research Expedition (MENFREE) search expedition of 1986, learned from a Chinese climber that — in spite of official denials — his tent-mate, Wang Hung-bao, had stumbled across "an English dead" at in 1975. Holzel's report of Wang's sighting rekindled interest in the fate of Mallory, but few climbers were willing to trade search time in place of a summit attempt.

In 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, sponsored in part by the TV show Nova and the BBC and organized and led by Eric Simonson, arrived at Everest to search for the lost pair. Guided by researcher Jochen Hemmleb, within hours of beginning the search, the frozen body of Mallory was found by Conrad Anker at on the north face of the mountain. The body was remarkably well preserved due to the mountain's climate. The team could not locate the camera that Mallory had reportedly carried with him. Experts from Kodak have said that if a camera is ever found, there is some chance that its film could be developed to produce printable images, if extraordinary measures are taken. [For the Eastman Kodak film developing protocol, see:]

The expedition conducted an Anglican service for Mallory and buried his remains.

Reaching the summit

Whether Mallory and Irvine reached Everest's summit remains an open question and the topic of much debate and research.

Mallory's body

From the rope-jerk injury around his waist, encircled by the remnants of a climbing rope, it appears that the two were roped together when Mallory fell. The body lay roughly below the location of an ice axe found in 1933 and generally believed to have belonged to Irvine, although not close enough to assume with any certainty that it was the site of Mallory's fall. The fact that the body was relatively unbroken (in comparison to other bodies found on Everest) also suggests that Mallory may not have fallen such a long distance.

Two details noted when Mallory's body was discovered are tantalising:

  • Firstly, Mallory's daughter has always said that Mallory carried a photograph of his wife on his person with the intention of leaving it on the summit. This photo was not found on Mallory's body. Given the excellent preservation of the body and its garments, this points to the possibility that he may have reached the summit and deposited the photo there. However no one who has subsequently reached the summit has reported seeing any evidence that Mallory deposited the photograph.
  • Secondly, Mallory's snow goggles were found in his pocket, suggesting that he and Irvine had made a push for the summit and were descending after sunset. On his attempt a few days earlier, Norton had suffered serious snow-blindness because he did not wear his goggles, so Mallory would be unlikely to have dispensed with them in daylight. And, given their known departure time and movements, had they not attempted the summit pyramid it is unlikely that they would have still been out by nightfall. An alternative reason is that Mallory may have carried an extra pair and the pair he was wearing was torn off in his fall.

Oxygen supply

From the location of their final camp (discovered in 2001), the summit climb may be estimated to have taken them around eleven hours. Assuming they took two cylinders each, they only had about eight hours of oxygen available, so – although this depends on the flow rate, which could be controlled and was not necessarily used on full flow – the oxygen would almost certainly have run out before they reached the summit. The two flow rates available on those oxygen sets were 1.5 and 2.2 litres/min. Both are low rates for active climbing, and it is unlikely the two would have used the lower flow rate. One of their oxygen bottles was found some short of the First Step, which enables their speed of climbing to be calculated. It can be estimated that at best they might have reached the base of the Second Step with one-and-a-half hours of oxygen remaining each. Given the distance remaining, and that the climb to the summit after the Second Step is estimated to be at least three hours, this is probably too long for each of them to have reached the summit while still on oxygen.

Although some recent climbers have climbed Everest without the aid of oxygen, these are either extraordinary athletes, fully hydrated and wearing the latest wind-proof clothing, or Sherpas who are genetically endowed with high-altitude capability. Like the four-minute mile, this was not within the capabilities of climbers of the period. Thus, the best chance for Mallory to have reached the summit was if he had relieved Irvine of his oxygen at the First Step and sent him down to safety. However, string rope-jerk injuries around Mallory's waist strongly suggest the two were roped together when Mallory fell. Other historians suggest that, after having seen the extreme technical difficulty of the Second Step, the two may have switched to the Norton Route, i.e., via the Great Couloir. While theoretically possible, there is no physical evidence for this possibility.

Another possibility, prompted by Mallory's remark in his last note to John Noel that they would "probably go on two cylinders", is that the pair carried three, not two cylinders each (Mallory's "probably" implying that the choice was between two or three, as a single cylinder would clearly be inadequate). Mallory's oxygen rig was not with his body and has never been found.

The difficult "Second Step"

Experienced modern climbers disagree on whether Mallory was capable of climbing the infamous "Second Step" on the North Ridge, now surmounted via a aluminium ladder permanently fixed in place by Chinese climbers to avoid the problem. The Second Step was first climbed by the Chinese in 1960. It was climbed "free" (without artificial aid) by Catalan climber Oscar Cadiach in 1985. He rated the crack that forms the crux 5.7-5.8 (5+ UIAA grading), certainly accepted as within Mallory's ability. However, on Cadiach's climb, the Second Step was filled with a hard snow ramp that made its ascent considerably easier than in the conditions faced by Mallory. Austrian Theo Fritsche repeated the free climb solo — that is, without rope protection — in 2001 under dry pre-monsoon conditions (as in 1924), and supported Cadiach's assessment of 5.7–5.8. Fritsche completed the climb without supplementary oxygen (as did Cadiach), wearing only a light down jacket, and believes that Mallory could have summitted in his clothing on a good day.

In June 2007, as part of the Altitude Everest Expedition, Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding successfully free-climbed the Second Step, having first removed the Chinese ladder (which was later replaced). Houlding rated the climb at 5.9, just barely within Mallory's estimated capabilities. The climb was part of an expedition designed to film a recreation of the 1924 climb as closely as possible. However, Anker fell off the crack on his first attempt, raising the question if a 5.12-grade climber has trouble with it, how well can a 5.9 climber be expected to do. Eight years earlier Anker had climbed the Second Step as part of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition but had used one point of aid by stepping on a rung of the ladder. At that time he had rated the climb at 5.10 and probably beyond Mallory; after the June 2007 climb he changed his view and said that "Mallory and Irvine could have climbed it". The climbing community still remains split on the subject of whether Mallory was capable of having climbed the Second Step.

Mallory is known to have "swarmed up" a very similar obstacle in alpine conditions on the Nesthorn (3,824 m) in the Swiss Alps, and his companions were under no illusions about either his considerable ability or his visionary, idealistic self-motivation.

As for climbing difficulties, Mallory is known to have climbed comfortably at HVS (Hard Very Severe) standard or 5.8–5.9 range in North Wales. Many of his early pioneering rock climbs were undertaken on Y Lliwedd, a near-1,000 ft often-loose cliff face, which is part of the Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) massif. Those who have climbed on this face in mountaineering boots, perhaps armed with only basic equipment, will understand the genuine difficulty of a climb of HVS standard when so-equipped – and come to truly appreciate Mallory's boldness and physical ability. But on this, his final climb, he had already taxed himself by a previous aborted ascent, along with the other standard, strenuous activities of being on Everest.

Initially, Noel Odell believed he had seen Mallory and Irvine ascend the Second Step. However the British climbing establishment increasingly questioned this opinion, and Odell eventually gave in. Towards the end of his life, however, he expressed his original view, stating with conviction that he had seen them climb the Second Step. And if his eyewitness report is accurate, the topography he describes does appear to much better describe the Second or even the Third Step on the ridge rather than the First. One alternative theory suggests that when Odell saw them climbing a Step, he assumed they were still ascending--and thus had to be on the Second Step, as the First is not on the route to the summit. It fit nicely into the general disdain for the oxygen equipment, to blame it for the five hour delay of where Mallory had stated he expected to be. Thus, when Odell saw them, he immediately assumed they were still ascending, but woefully late. Therefore they could only have been climbing the Second Step. But if they were already on their descent, the unproven oxygen malfunction issue goes away, the unlikely late start theory disappears, and they are closer to estimates of climbing time in their descent from perhaps as high as the base of the Second Step. Odell then may have seen them clambering up the First Step as a vantage point from which to view the complex route to the Second Step before returning to the North Col (which is what the French did in 1981 when they, too, could no longer continue upward).

Further expeditions

The 1999 research team returned to the mountain in 2001 to conduct further research. They discovered Mallory and Irvine's last camp, but failed to find either Irvine or a camera. In 2004, another expedition (unrelated to the 1999 and 2001 team) searched for the cameras and other clues that either had reached the summit, but found no significant new evidence. A fourth initiative in 2005 also proved fruitless.

Possible sightings of Irvine

In 1979 a Chinese climber named Wang Hongbao reported that, in 1975, he had seen the body of an "English dead" at 8100 m, a 20 minute walk from his bivouac tent. Wang was killed in an avalanche a day after the report and so the location was never precisely fixed. However, in 1986, Chinese climber Zhang Junyan (who had been sharing the tent with Wang in 1975) confirmed Wang's report of finding a foreign climber's body to Tom Holzel. If this report was accurate, at that altitude and date, the only possible identity of the body was that of Mallory or Irvine. Wang's sighting was the key to the discovery of Mallory's body 20 years later in the same general area, though Wang's reported description of the body ("hole in cheek") does not fit that of Mallory, who was face down and his face was completely buried in scree but with a plum-sized puncture wound on his forehead). The 2001 research expedition discovered Wang's campsite location and made an extensive search of its surroundings. Mallory remained the only ancient body in the vicinity, and some argue it was indeed Mallory that Wang had found in 1975, despite the wide variances in body position.

Another Chinese climber, Xu Jing, claims to have seen the body of Andrew Irvine in 1960 (see Hemmleb and Simonson, Detectives on Everest), although testimony is uncertain with regard to the location of his find. On two occasions, he placed it between Camps VI and VII (Yellow Band, c. 8300 m), while later changing it to the NE-Ridge between the First and Second Steps (c. 8550 m). In spite of several such rumored and reported sightings, subsequent searches of the North Face have failed to find any concrete trace of Irvine since his ice-ax was discovered in '33. Some climbers believe Xu could very well have spotted Irvine. He was reportedly lying on his back in a rock cleft--a sign that he died after lying down to recover from either a serious injury or simply to rest. The position of the body also better matches the description Xu Jing gave.

Assessments by climbing partners

Harry Tyndale: one of Mallory's climbing partners, said of Mallory: "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 ... that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness."

Tom Longstaff: with Mallory on the 1922 Everest expedition, wrote in a letter to a friend, "It is obvious to any climber that they got up. You cannot expect of that pair to weigh up the chances of return. I should be weighing them still. It sounds a fair day. Probably they were above those clouds that hid them from Odell. How they must have appreciated that view of half the world. It was worthwhile to them. Now, they will never grow old and I am very sure they would not change places with any of us."

Geoffrey Winthrop Young: one of the most accomplished alpine climbers of his day, held Mallory's ability in awe: "His movement in climbing was entirely his own. It contradicted all theory. He would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve. Whatever may have happened unseen the while between him and the cliff ... the look, and indeed the result, were always the same – a continuous undulating movement so rapid and so powerful that one felt the rock must yield, or disintegrate." When informed of Odell's belief that Mallory had climbed the Second Step, Winthrop Young was convinced he made the summit. He wrote: "After nearly twenty years' knowledge of Mallory as a mountaineer, I can say that difficult as it would have been for any mountaineer to turn back, with the only difficulty past, to Mallory it would have been an impossibility."


A range of different outcomes have been proposed, and new theories continue to be put forward. Most views have the two carrying two cylinders of oxygen each, reaching and climbing either the First or Second Step, where they are seen by Odell. At this point there are two main alternatives: either Mallory takes Irvine's oxygen and goes on alone (and may or may not reach the summit); or both go on together until they turn back (having used up their oxygen, or realizing that they will do so before the summit). In either case Mallory slips and falls to his death while descending, perhaps caught in the fierce snow squall that sent Odell to take shelter in their tent. Irvine either falls with him or, in the first scenario, dies alone of exhaustion and hypothermia high up on the ridge. The theory advanced by Tom Holzel in February 2008 is that Odell sighted Mallory and Irvine at the First Step while they were descending from a failed summit bid. As with all good mysteries, the fragmentary evidence leaves much room for speculation and hypothesis.

First real ascent, or just to the summit?

Even if evidence is uncovered which shows that George Mallory or Andrew Irvine reached the summit of Everest in 1924, some believe that the historical record should not be changed to state that they made the first ascent, displacing Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Many mountaineers maintain that a successful first ascent not only involves reaching the summit, but also returning to the bottom. Indeed, George Mallory's own son John Mallory, who was only three years old when his father died, said:
"To me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don't get down again".

John Mallory had mixed feelings about his dead father's celebrity status, explaining that he would far rather have had a father than a legend.

Sir Edmund Hillary's assessment

Sir Edmund Hillary echoed a similar perspective, asking: "If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again."

Chris Bonington's assessment

In conclusion, Chris Bonington, the widely respected British Himalayan mountaineer, summed up the view of many mountaineers all over the world:
"If we accept the fact that they were above the Second Step, they would have seemed to be incredibly close to the summit of Everest and I think at that stage something takes hold of most climbers ... And I think therefore taking all those circumstances in view ... I think it is quite conceivable that they did go for the summit ... I certainly would love to think that they actually reached the summit of Everest. I think it is a lovely thought and I think it is something, you know, gut emotion, yes I would love them to have got there. Whether they did or not, I think that is something one just cannot know."

Court named after Mallory

  • Mallory has a court named after him at Magdalene College, Cambridge. There is an inscribed stone commemorating his death, set above the doorway to one of the buildings.

Writings of Mallory

  • In 1917 Mallory wrote an article about an Alpine ascent in which he asked the question: "Have we vanquished an enemy?" His answer: "None but ourselves."

Climbing among Mallory's family

  • By a strange stroke of fate, George Mallory’s younger brother, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, also met his death on a mountain range — in his case, the French Alps. Once again, the body was not recovered until well after the fatality. The Avro York carrying him to his new appointment as Air Commander-in-Chief of South East Asia Command (SEAC) crashed, killing all on board. The flight took off on 14 November 1944, but the remains of the crash victims were not discovered until June 1945.
  • Mallory's daughter, Claire, married into the Millikan family but her husband, a physicist, was killed in a climbing accident near Oak Ridge, TN during WWII. His grandson Rick Millikan became a respectable climber in his own right during the 1960s and 70s.
  • In 1995, Mallory's grandson, George Mallory II, reached the summit of Everest via the North Ridge with six other climbers, as part of the American Everest Expedition 1995.

References to Mallory in the media

  • A film is soon to be made of the life and times of George H. Mallory The movie is called In High Places and is being produced by Paul Heller (My Left Foot, Enter the Dragon).
  • The band Gatsby's American Dream has a song called "The Fall of George Mallory", the first song on their freshman album entitled Why We Fight (2002).
  • Artist, poet and musician Billy Childish paid tribute to Mallory in the song Bottomless Pit with his band, The Musicians of the British Empire.
  • Musician Andy Griffiths wrote a song called Mallory, using letters he sent to Ruth (his spouse) it describes his last attempt at Mt Everest, The last Verse Griffiths made up himself informing Ruth that "George and Sandy(Irvines nick name)" were lost from view, "Last scene heading upwards through a brief gap in the clouds" and asks the question, if they did make it, what does that mean now?

See also

Further reading

  • Anker, Conrad and Roberts, David: The Lost Explorer — Finding Mallory on Mount Everest. London: Simon & Schuster, 1999
  • Firstbrook, Peter: Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine. BBC Worldwide, 1999
  • Gillman, Peter and Leni. The Wildest Dream: Mallory, His Life and Conflicting Passions. London: Headline, 2000 (winner, Boardman Tasker Prize)
  • Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, Eric R. Simonson, William E. Nothdurft: Ghosts of Everest — The Search for Mallory & Irvine. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1999. Story of the 1999 expedition that located Mallory's body
  • Jochen Hemmleb & Eric R. Simonson: Detectives on Everest. The Story of the 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2002. Sequel to Ghosts of Everest, with new discoveries on Everest and revelations regarding the fate of Andrew Irvine
  • Tom Holzel & Audry Salkeld: "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine," 1986. Revised edition: Mountaineers Books, 1999.
  • Julie Summers Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine (2000), (republished 2008) ISBN 978-1-904466-31-4


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