“I have never known a man so entirely dominated by the spirit within him.”
– Everest 1924 expedition leader Teddy Norton on George Mallory
With the UK re-release this month of the Epic of Everest, a documentary filmed by John Noel during the 1924 Everest expedition, I can’t stop thinking about the early pioneers of mountaineering, nor hoping the film makes its way to the U.S. (if you hear of it, let me know). In both 1922 and 1924, John Noel captured the mountain in video and photos at elevations never thought possible; he developed film at heights unheard of. And it was Noel’s lens that caught the signals further up the mountain that climbers George Mallory (37) and Sandy Irvine (22) were lost.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge Mallory fan, but after reading more works either written by or about the other early British expedition climbers, I’m so much more endeared to all of the men that comprised the three Everest expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924. ‘Into the Silence’ by Wade Davis is a brilliant account of the men and these expeditions. Completely different from climbing Everest today, in the 1920s it took months just to get there. They traveled from Britain a month by ship, then had to take a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, and then go on a 300-plus mile trek by foot and mules just to reach the mountain. Since they were forbidden in Nepal, it took months to circle all the way around Everest. In 1921 they didn’t know how to get on the mountain, they had to survey and explore for months. They were literally walking off the map.
Enter Oliver Wheeler who, as a Canadian member of the British expedition, did the first topographical survey of Everest in 1921. Wheeler fascinates me. He spent weeks at a time isolated and alone on Everest surveying the area. His maps, the first ever of the area, were so thorough, for hundreds of square miles, that they were within seconds of latitude and longitude and 50 feet of exact height calculations. His maps were so perfect they are still being used today. It was Wheeler who also found the way onto the mountain after weeks of Mallory and others trying. To me, Wheeler is quite the unsung hero of Everest.
The same with Everest climbers Noel Odell, Teddy Norton, Howard Somervell and the many other explorers (I especially recommend Norton’s and Somervell’s autobiographical accounts). It was Odell who spent days going back and forth between the highest camps on Everest searching for Mallory and Irvine. He spent 12 days at heights above 23,000 feet, mostly without oxygen, which defied science at the time. Twenty of the 26 men fought in WWI (which, explains Davis, drew them to Everest) and most all of them never returned to Britain after their Everest expeditions.
Not only did these mountaineers obtain heights never before reached, they lived on Everest and in its shadow for months in nothing more than tweeds and sweaters. They didn’t have any of the modern clothing and gear that climbers enjoy today, much less oxygen on many of their climbs. But it was Mallory alone who went on all three of the expeditions. He had a compulsive drive that others didn’t to conquer the greatest mountain ever. And whether he did or didn’t, his efforts, along with the other early explorers, made it possible for future mountaineers.
These early explorers had ambition and grit and when Davis’ book ended, I was sad to see them go.
Mallory & Norton on Everest