Climbers to recreate Mallory's Everest attempt

By Gopal Sharma
Tue Jun 5, 6:22 AM ET

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - An American who discovered the body of George Leigh Mallory on Mount Everest eight years ago will try to recreate the British mountaineer's pioneering attempt using only 1920s gear, a hiking official said on Tuesday.

Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, disappeared near the summit of the world's highest mountain in 1924, and it remains a mystery whether they successfully reached the peak.

Mallory's frozen body was discovered only in 1999, 620 meters (2,030 feet) below the summit, by a team led by American climber Conrad Anker. Irvine's body has never been found.

Anker and his British climbing mate, Leo Houlding, now plan to retrace Mallory's route up the mountain's Chinese face, said Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

They will shun modern gear and synthetic fabrics in favor of replicas of Mallory's and Irvine's original clothes as they head for Everest's summit, 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) above sea level.

Once other expeditions are out of the way, they will also remove the ladders and synthetic ropes that have been permanently affixed at one of the most difficult stretches on the mountain.

Anker's team is expected to set off next week, according to the team's local trekking agency, Mountain Experience.

A record number of people have climbed Everest this year, with 514 reaching the summit since the season began in March.

In 1953, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa were the first to successfully climb the mountain, almost 30 years after the Mallory expedition.

So far more than 2,000 people have reached the summit, among them a 71-year-old Japanese man, a 16-year-old Nepali boy, a climber with an artificial leg and a Nepali sherpa who has reached the summit 17 times.

But a Dutchman failed in his attempt this year to climb the mountain wearing only shorts.

At least 207 people have died on the mountain.


FOLLOW-UP: Everest: A trip back in time

More than 80 years after George Mallory and Sandy Irvine began their fateful ascent of the world's highest mountain, their steps are being retraced by climbers with the same primitive equipment. By Ian Herbert
Published: 06 June 2007
The discovery of George Leigh Mallory's body on a terrace 2,000 feet below the summit of Mount Everest eight years ago provided a reminder to the world of how extraordinary his fateful ascent of that mountain really had been. His tweed jacket, with its name tag still sewn in, remained intact and so, too, his trusty leather boots. Mallory had set out for the last time, it transpired, in clothing better suited for a gamekeeper and his somewhat surprising attire raised more questions than answers about what really happened at the summit at 12.50pm on 8 June 1924, when Mallory was last seen. Had he just tugged his tweed jacket more tightly, gazed over to Tibet and slipped away?

These questions and many others - including the enigma of whether he actually reached the top, nearly 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay - will never be answered unless Mallory's trusty Kodak "vest pocket" Autographic camera, the subject of many searches since the body was found, is also located. But a sense of the agonies which Mallory went through in making it so far, before and he and his companion Sandy Irvine disappeared that day, may soon become a little clearer.

Conrad Anker, the American climber who found Mallory's body in 1999, and the Briton Leo Houlding are retracing the route taken by Mallory and Irvine in an attempt to recreate all but their last moments.

Everything, down to the clothes they wear, will be the same. They are wearing wool, silk and cotton clothes in place of the waterproof and synthetic fabrics to which today's mountaineers are accustomed. Once other current expeditions are out of the way, they will also remove the ladders and synthetic ropes that have been permanently fixed at the 40m-high, near-vertical rock face called the Second Step - one of the most difficult stretches on the mountain - and scale it using hemp ropes, as Mallory and Irvine would have done.

The progress of the Altitude Everest Expedition, which is being mapped in videos and diaries on the website, has so far taken them to an acclimatisation camp at 25,000ft, and already the tightness of the clothes - more than any lack of insulation it offers - is presenting a problem. "It's a bit restrictive," said Houlding. Anker was less diplomatic. "The clothes are horrendous," he said. These are mountaineers who speak from experience. Anker, the world's top mountaineer according to the respected Outside magazine, has completed some of the world's most dangerous climbs while Houlding is a hugely respected speed climber.

The man whose last journey Anker has become obsessed with since the discovery of his body, wore fashionable clothes which reflected his public persona in Britain when he began his own ascent, 83 years ago, and other climbers clamoured to wear the same. An immeasurably attractive Cambridge radical turned teacher who was idolised by London's Bloomsbury set, Mallory was described by the writer Lytton Strachey as "vast, pink, unbelievable, a thing to die for". By 1924, he had made two unsuccessful bids on Everest (in 1921 and 1922) and, with a wife and three children to support and sales for a forthcoming New York literary tour disappointing, he needed the financial benefits which a successful attempt on the summit might bring. His companion, Irvine, was a shy 22-year-old engineer who had learnt to ski just months before the expedition but was picked for his supreme physical attributes. He was a rowing and squash blue at Cambridge and performed superbly on a British Arctic expedition.

The new expedition has spared few details in seeking out the clothes these men would have worn. The inventory includes woollen trousers, soft puttees (strips of cloth wound round the legs), hobnail boots with Alpine nails and Burberry jackets. The jackets, based on those the explorer Shackleton had worn in the Antarctic, were especially made for the original team, with pouches sewn into Irvine's, who complained because there were no pockets. Now, as then, there are also wool and silk vests, as well as long-johns, light and heavyweight silk shirts and hand-knitted Shetland wool jumpers. There are also rabbit fur-lined helmets, also worn by First World War fighter pilots, which have been popular with an expedition team more accustomed to thermal-lined acrylic ski hats.

Though it is so far, so good for the mountaineers - the expedition's medical officer, Monica Piris, tells the website that "people are bearing up to the sufferings at this altitude quite nicely, [especially] since some haven't been this high before - there is undoubtedly far worse to come". Thick leather boots are fine for tramping through dry snow but not so good in the icy cold which has been the cause of so many frostbitten digits over the decades.

That said, the clothing might have some unexpected benefits, if the results of a three-year research project undertaken by Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton and Derby universities is anything to go by. Drawing on the discovery of Mallory's clothing, this suggested that the garments might not have been quite as primitive as they seemed. The layered natural materials used to construct the garments were excellent at trapping air next to the skin. The clothing and footwear were also 20 per cent and 40 per cent lighter respectively. However, the team will switch to some modern gear later in the climb. "Continuing in wool would be too risky," said Anker. "It might be possible on a warm day. But I wouldn't do it." The new expedition will also be free of many other burdens faced by Mallory and Irvine, of which clothing was only one.

The team is climbing with relatively lightweight oxygen equipment (12lb aluminium canisters, with sophisticated masks). Their predecessors trudged up with four oxygen bottles mounted on each man's frame, which weighed 33lb. It was an impossible load for one man to carry to the roof of the world so on their last push, Mallory and Irvine carried only two bottles apiece. In a message left behind at dawn after their last night in a tent at 26,800ft, Mallory remarked: "The oxygen is a bloody load for climbing [but we have] perfect weather for the job."

Mallory also left behind the magnesium flares that morning, useful as a signal to those below should he and Irvine get into trouble, and this provides another marked contrast to the current team's highly visible, online progression up Everest. While the new team have foregone neither laptop computers nor satellite phones and have radio contact with base camp, the 1924 duo were on their own. Once, the geologist Noel Odell saw two black spots moving up a rock step in 1924 before "the whole, fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud" (as he wrote in a dispatch to The Times). Communication was limited to laying out blankets in a prearranged code to signal a problem and there was, of course, no one down there to bring Mallory's much-loved foie gras up the slopes when supplies ran short.

Other anachronisms abound - including the plastic glare- resistant goggles which the new team is wearing while broadcasting to the website - but the Altitude Everest project, which is ascending through the northern route, will provide a new sense of the effects which the climb took on its famous predecessors. A biometrics project will monitor how altitude changes their bodies as they reach the realms of jet aircraft. Their heart rates, oxygen levels, altitude and air temperature will all be recorded with the data updated on the website daily. It might be as close as anyone will get to understanding the physical toll exacted on two of the most celebrated men in moutaineering history who, in Mallory's immortal words, ascended Everest simply "because it was there".

Though a record number of climbers - 514 - have scaled the mountain this year, include a Nepali who achieved a record-breaking 17th ascent and a Briton who made the first mobile phone call from the top, none has climbed into the unknown quite like they did. In the last of many notes to his wife, Mallory told his beloved wife Ruth: "We'll do ourselves proud." And they did.

SOLUS: Hoedl's Haven