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 George Mallory

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Caro
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PostSubject: George Mallory   Tue 31 Jan 2012, 02:05

I’ve just been reading a review by writer and mountaineer Philip Temple of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. When I think of George Mallory - not often but when people wonder if he and Irvine were first to reach the summit of Everest mostly – I suppose I consider him a gallant, brave but ultimately unsuccessful climber. Unsuccessful once, anyway.

This book seems, from the review, to be more damning. At least I think it is the book that is, it might be the reviewer: he begins by saying “The thesis of Wade Davis’s Into the Silence is that most of the men who first attempted Mt Everest...had seen so much carnage on the Western Front that death had no hold on them. They accepted a degree of risk that would be unacceptable before the Great War.” Then the review says, “the reality, as always, is more complex,” and talks of Mallory being a risk-taker as a mountaineer long before the war and willing to “leave behind a wife and young children and put his life on the line to harpoon the summit”. (The harpoon comes from a comparison with Moby Dick.)

It then continues, saying the project was less to do with the Great War than the British Imperial mission. Comparison with Scott, and no lessons learnt. “Mallory’s selfishness and big bungles do come through [the mass of detail in the book]: his desperate last-ditch discovery of the route to the North Col in 1921; his decision to climb to the col in 1922 that caused the death of seven porters; his decision to continue on that resulted in his and Sandy Irvine’s deaths in 1924. Overarching the Mallory story is a tale of command mismanagement and decision-making that was the genuine legacy of the Great War. The attempts on Everest failed not only because of the physical challenge, but also because of social, class and political considerations that saw the best climbers excluded and the use of oxygen counted as hardly fair play. The Great War metaphor here is cavalry against the machine guns.

Class and politics were still part of the British Everest equation even in 1953, when top New Zealand guide Harry Ayres was excluded because he was a professional...When the colonial Ed Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, the British Imperial mission was finally extinguished.”

That ends the review and I am not absolutely certainly whether he means it was extinguished because they had completed it as a British expedition, or - what I assume - because people not quite British had completed it.

I haven’t really heard of Mallory’s selfishness before, though have heard oddities of British fair play ideas in unsuitable situations. Is this how Mallory’s legacy is generally seen? or is this a more revisionist idea?

Caro.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: George Mallory   Tue 31 Jan 2012, 20:19

There is a point in all that about the "imperial mission" which makes sense to me. Prior to the Great War Britain had produced and feted eminent explorers who, with the possible exception of Scott, had more or less a dual agenda in that they saw themselves, and were generally seen, as agents of imperial expansion. This expansion might be in terms of spreading "British culture" or bringing a peculiarly British version of christianity to the heathens, or it might be more transparent in that the expeditions were undisguised attempts to secure raw materials and territory for British use, or to gain an advantage in international transport and trade. The war changed this dynamic utterly, though it was to be a while before the reality dawned on the common British person that this old model of empire had died in the mud of Flanders.

What replaced it was however a reasonably good facsimile. Britain still termed itself an empire as before, and as before it still produced eminent "explorers", though the point of this new "exploration" was increasingly presented in terms of unique personal achievement and national pride for its own sake rather than in terms of acquisition of new national assets as before. Otherwise however the language used to describe these achievements, the mechanisms by which they were put in motion, the social classes from which the aspirants were recruited and the manner in which their feats were publicised were almost exactly the same as before. It appeared a seamless join, and the achievments of later explorers were placed solidly in the tradition of those earlier whose motivations, as well as the results of their efforts, had been so different.

In that context the rather dismissive character assessment of Mallory above makes some sense, though the role the Great War played in producing a man like Mallory was more subtle than stated just with regard to risk-taking and contempt for fatal danger. His was a generation just prior to that which produced the new kind of British (and Commonwealth) pioneers with which we are now so familiar - the Malcolm Campbells, the Edmund Hillarys, even the Richard Bransons - whose motivations were personal and whose contribution to Britain on the basis of their achievements was primarily one of a sense of prestige "loaned" by their compatriots from their having been first to do something.

Mallory never seemed to understand that this was the role he was consigned to in the new order, and if you read his papers and letters you can see that he was absolutely convinced his achievement would not only be a source of pride to his compatriots but a platform upon which British influence could be enhanced, expanded and therefore his country prosper. This had once been true of such endeavours but no longer. It was probably Mallory's luck that he didn't live to see how wrong he would have been.
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PostSubject: Re: George Mallory   Tue 31 Jan 2012, 22:25

The book being reviewed was 570 pages long and went fairly thoroughly, I gather, into all 26 people involved in the three Mallory expeditions, so it's a bit hard for a reviewer to condense that into a page, especially since I think Philip Temple then put his own ideas onto that. If the thesis is as stated, then Wade Davis must have gone into it with a detailed analysis, though perhaps a good part of the book was taken up with following their journeys up the mountain.

Perhaps Mallory would have changed his ideas of his world and his place in it as he got older, or realised the world had changed. There was another world war only 15 years later. (Equivalent of 1997, which feels like yesterday.)

New Zealanders always rated Sir Edmund Hillary highly because he didn't just climb Mount Everest and rest on his laurels, or use it to promote himself or for commercial purposes or even for aggrandisement of New Zealand (though NZers themselves may have used it that way) - he spent the rest of his life helping the people who the mountain 'belonged' to, the Nepalese, building them scholls and hospitals and airfieldsand, as far as I can tell, getting onside with them, enjoying and respecting them and having them enjoy and respect him. He was made an honorary Nepalese citizen. Maybe Mallory might have found a similar reward. I don't know what exactly brought Hillary to do this. It seemed to come after a 1960 expedition looking for the yeti. That's seven years later - in seven years Mallory might have changed his focus, if he had lived. Start of the depression.

Cheers, Caro.

(I must learn to write this sort of thing on Word, since I can't seem to copy it once it's here. Let me post it before I lose it all. Can always add something later.)
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: George Mallory   Wed 01 Feb 2012, 13:46

You could well be right and Mallory might have adapted his approach as times changed and he grew older. We'll never know, though the signs weren't promising. By the 1920s at age 37 he was still exhibiting all the arrogance and contempt for "foreign" culture one associates with the worst kinds of imperialist bigotry and which for which he'd earned some local contempt in Nepal already.**

He also seems to have had an extremely petulant streak, especially if he didn't get his own way. His letters to the Royal Geographical Society in which he stuck up for his friend George Finch, who had been barred from the next Everest expedition on the grounds that he was divorced and had earned money professionally from giving lectures (what a load of plonkers they were!), were admirable for their tenacity in defending his friends' honour but woefully childish in their content and prima-donnish in the threats he made of withdrawal from the venture should they not give in. In the end it was he who did an about-face (just as he did with the use of oxygen, of which he'd spoken scathingly right up until a few weeks before he used it himself).

All in all, I imagine, a chap one wouldn't want to have along with one on a pub crawl.



** He earned some retrospective contempt too. I always liked edmund Hillary's response when asked if he thought that Mallory could actually have been first to the summit. "We will probably never know," he answered, "but, speaking personally, I can't see how someone can be said to have conquered a mountain if he climbs its height on the way up but then falls his way down again. If you don't reach the bottom, you're still on the mountain."
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PostSubject: Re: George Mallory   Wed 01 Feb 2012, 21:13

I haven't read any book Hillary wrote but in his autobiography written in 1999 he said, "When climbers die on a mountain, the underandable reaction of family and friends is to say that they died doing what they enjoyed most and their bodies rest on the mountains they loved. However, I've never had any desire to end my days at the bottom of a deep crevasse - I've been down too many of them for that to have much appeal.
I'm a somewhat fearful person and would prefer to go peacefully if that were possible.I should even like my ashes to be spread on the beautiful waters of Auckland's Hauraki Gulf to be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place where I was born.Then the full circle of my life will be complete."

That sounds good to me, though I would hardly think he was 'somewhat fearful', not the way some of us are, anyway. I am quite pleased that my eldest son, quite keen on mountain climbing, has basically given it away after his marriage. Though we have a lovely photo of his wee son, less than a year old, holding onto a rock face with his feet over the edge, and no sign of anyone holding him safely.

I think I must read more of Mallory - I didn't know he was quite so contemptuous of safety or cultural sensitivities. You would think climbing the mountains in an area would automatically give you some empathy with the locals, especially since the Sherpas gave so much help to everyone. Makes me wonder why people are so keen to find that he did reach the summit first - I suppose that is still an understandable desire to see a British person on top.

Caro.
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