Sunday, June 13, 2010

George Mallory and His First Love, Chomolungma

I'm currently reading Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer. It is a well-researched account of the life of mountaineer George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest famously replied, "Because it's there."

Most people know that the first climber to reach the summit of Everest was Sir Edmund Hillary, so why a book about a guy who didn't make it? Because Mallory pretty much started it all, paving the way for all who followed.
The story begins with the discovery of Mallory's body near the summit in 1999. His pockets are searched for the clue that would inform the world whether he'd successfully pressed on to the prize and died coming down, or failed in his quest.

Archer calls his book a novel, which gives him license to be creative with dialogue to advance the story, but it's clear the work has been exceptionally researched and has an authentic feel. Mallory affectionately calls Mount Everest "Chomolungma" throughout, and describes her as his "other woman"... who beckons him always. Though critics take a few swipes at the book, I've found the story quite compelling, in part because I was unaware of the extreme hazards presented by this mountain. I find the details fascinating.

George Leigh Mallory led three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s. The first, in 1921, was simply to map the terrain and get a sense of how to approach this imposing challenge. The 1922 effort was for real, with failure the result. In 1924, Mallory was pressured into leading a third trek, from which he never returned, having disappeared high on the North-East ridge. They were last sighted very near to their dream.

But the treacherous winds, limited oxygen, avalanches, and other obstacles make conquering this mountain an extremely challenging affair. It was not until 1953, the ninth attempt by climbing parties, that the summit was reached.

By the end of 2008 there had been over 4000 ascents to the summit by 2,700 individuals. 216 people have perished in the process.

If the mountain is so dangerous, how have so many conquered it? Well, today's climbers have many advantages that those first explorers didn't have. The base camps have all been established now, and not only are the routes marked, the Sherpas have affixed ropes along the way to assist climbers through all the more dangerous passages.

This is not to say that climbing the ancient maiden is easy. The region above 28,000 feet is called the death zone. Oxygen is one third as dense there, and the weather can get nasty. Strewn along the way you can see the corpses of others who never came back.

Wikipedia has plenty more to say about this mountain. Chomolungma's lovers have been many, but her most ardent was possibly her first... George Mallory. For years she invited him, but in the end she gave him a cold shoulder. He died at her side, with a broken heart.

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