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Last letters of pioneering climber who died on Everest reveal dark side of mountaineering

<i>Magdalene College/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>A digitized letter shows part of the final correspondence that Mallory wrote to his wife
Magdalene College/AP via CNN Newsource
A digitized letter shows part of the final correspondence that Mallory wrote to his wife

By Mindy Weisberger, CNN

(CNN) — George Mallory is renowned for being one of the first British mountaineers to attempt to scale the dizzying heights of Mount Everest during the 1920s — until the mountain claimed his life.

Nearly a century later, newly digitized letters shed light on Mallory’s hopes and fears about ascending Everest, leading up to the last days before he disappeared while heading for its peak.

On June 8, 1924, Mallory and fellow climber Andrew Irvine departed from their expedition team in a push for the summit; they were never seen alive again.

Mallory’s words, however, are now available to read online in their entirety for the first time. Magdalene College, Cambridge, where Mallory studied as an undergraduate from 1905 to 1908, recently digitized hundreds of pages of correspondence and other documents written and received by him.

Over the past 18 months, archivists scanned the documents in preparation for the centennial of Mallory’s disappearance. The college will display a selection of Mallory’s letters and possessions in the exhibit “George Mallory: Magdalene to the Mountain,” opening June 20.

The Everest letters outline Mallory’s meticulous preparations and equipment tests, and his optimism about their prospects. But the letters also show the darker side of mountaineering: bad weather, health issues, setbacks and doubts.

Days before his disappearance, Mallory wrote that the odds were “50 to 1 against us” in the last letter to his wife, Ruth, dated May 27, 1924.

“This has been a bad time altogether,” Mallory wrote. “I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door and onto a world of snow & vanishing hopes.”

He went on to describe a harrowing brush with death during a recent climb, when the ground beneath his feet collapsed, leaving him suspended “half-blind & breathless,” his weight supported only by his ice axe wedged across a crevasse as he dangled over “a very unpleasant black hole.”

Other letters Mallory exchanged with Ruth were written at the time of their courtship, while he was serving in Britain’s artillery regiment during World War I. Throughout his travels, correspondence from Ruth provided him with much-needed stability during the most challenging times, said project lead Katy Green, a college archivist at Magdalene College.

“She was the ‘rock’ at home, he says himself in his letters,” Green said. The archivist recounted one note in which Mallory told Ruth: “I’m so glad that you never wobble, because I would wobble without you.”

Yet while Mallory was clearly devoted to his wife, he nonetheless repeatedly returned to the Himalayas despite her mounting fears for his safety.

“There’s something in him that drove him,” Green said. “It might have been his wartime experience, or it might have just been the sort of person that he was.”

‘Documents of his character’

In total, the collection includes around 840 letters spanning from 1914 to 1924; Ruth wrote about 440 of those to Mallory, offering an unprecedented and highly detailed view of daily life for women in the early 20th century, Green told CNN.

Together, the letters offer readers a rare glimpse of the man behind the legend, said Jochen Hemmleb, an author and alpinist who was part of the Everest expedition that found Mallory’s body in 1999.

“They are really personal. They are documents of his character. They provide unique insights into his life, and especially into the 1924 expedition — his state of mind, his accurate planning, his ambitions,” said Hemmleb, who was not involved in the scanning project. “It’s such a treasure that these are now digitized and available for everyone to read.”

Frozen in place

Three of the digitized letters — written to Mallory by his brother, his sister and a family friend — were recovered from Mallory’s body by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, which ascended Everest seeking the remains of Mallory and Irvine.

On May 1, 1999, expedition member and mountaineer Conrad Anker found a frozen corpse at an altitude of around 26,700 feet (8,138 meters) and identified it as Mallory’s from a name tag that was sewn into his clothes.

Mallory’s body was interred where it lay at the family’s request, said Anker, who was not involved in the letter digitizing project.

“Having done body recoveries in other places, it’s very laborious, and it’s very dangerous at that altitude,” he told CNN. “We collected some of his personal effects that went back to the Royal Geographical Society,” including the three letters that were later scanned at Magdalene College.

Mount Everest, the highest peak in the Himalayan mountain range, is also the tallest mountain on Earth, rising 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) above sea level on the border between Nepal and Tibet — an autonomous region in China. Its Tibetan name is Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of the World,” and its Nepali name is Sagarmatha, meaning “Goddess of the Sky.”

However, these names were unknown to 19th century British surveyors who mapped the region, and in 1865 the Royal Geographical Society named the peak Mount Everest after British surveyor Sir George Everest, a former surveyor general of India.

Mallory participated in all three of Britain’s first forays onto Everest’s slopes: in 1921, 1922 and 1924. When he vanished in 1924, he was less than two weeks shy of his 38th birthday.

Many have speculated about whether Mallory and Irvine managed to reach Everest’s summit. The climbers were last seen in the early afternoon of June 8 by expedition member and geologist Noel Odell, who was following behind and glimpsed them from a distance. Odell later found some of their equipment at a campsite, but there was no trace of Mallory and Irvine.

“(Mallory) risked a lot despite the fact that he had a family back home and three small children,” Hemmleb said. “We don’t know whether it was really irresponsible to make that final attempt, because we don’t really know what happened. It could be that in the end, he simply had bad luck.”

So close, yet so far

Decades after Mallory’s death, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary became the first to reach Everest’s peak, summiting on May 29, 1953. In the years that followed, thousands attempted to climb Everest, with nearly 4,000 people reaching its summit. More than 330 climbers have died trying since modern records were kept, according to the Himalayan Database, which compiles records of all expeditions in the Himalayas; some of those bodies remain on the mountain, frozen where they fell and visible to climbers who pass them by.

“If you’re out in this environment, you make peace with your own mortality and the deaths of others,” Anker said. “You’re above 8,000 meters, and when there are weather changes or your own systems cease to function due to the lack of oxygen, it gets serious really quickly.”

When mountaineers are close to a mountain’s summit, they sometimes proceed even under dangerous conditions due to so-called summit fever, a compulsion to reach the peak even at the cost of their own safety. It’s unknown whether Mallory was in the grip of summit fever when he died, but he might have thought that his reputation depended on summiting.

“That was going to be the defining moment in his life,” Anker said.

By comparison, Mallory’s team member Edward Norton had attempted to summit four days earlier but turned back at roughly the same altitude where Mallory and Irvine were seen for the last time.

“I had a conversation with one of Edward Norton’s sons a couple of years ago,” Hemmleb said. “When I asked him, do you think it was mere luck that your father survived and Mallory died? He said, ‘No, I think there was one difference: My father, Edward Norton, didn’t need the mountain.’”

As a climber himself, Hemmleb took that message to heart.

“That is something I personally learned from Mallory,” he said. “You need to be very careful not to make yourself dependent on that summit success.”

A century has elapsed since Mallory’s death, but the digitizing of these letters assures that his story will keep being told, Hemmleb said.

“This will continue beyond my own lifetime, I’m certain of that,” he added. “In a sense, it’s the expedition that never ends.”

Mindy Weisberger is a science writer and media producer whose work has appeared in Live Science, Scientific American and How It Works magazine.

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