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The Death Zone

Mallory's Last Climb and the Ghosts of Everest

LAST CLIMB; The legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory; by David Brashears and Audrey Salkeid; National Geographic Society; 240 pp., $35

January 30, 2000|DAVID CRAIG | David Craig is the author of a trilogy of outdoor books, "Native Stones," "On the Crofters' Trail" and "Landmarks." His most recent book is "Arch," coauthored with Andy Goldsworthy

Why have I dreamed of climbing Mt. Everest every two or three years for the past 40 years? I'm walking uphill in slow motion, my boots are slithering on tilted boilerplates of iced rock. Vertical cliffs fall away below me to my left. The sky is dark and blank: I'm dreaming in black-and-white. I'm thinned by the utter aloneness of the situation, warmed by a sense that the goal, the summit, invisible beyond the skyline, is in my reach. I never get there. . . .

All this is derived from photos in high-altitude books like those under review, blended with quite gentle experiences of my own. I have never been above 6,000 feet in the mountains (in the Italian Dolomites). The fact is that the supreme mountains--the likes of Everest and K2, Mont Blanc and Denali, Annapurna and the Towers of Paine--have fused into one of the charismatic myths of our time not a tall story, an amalgam of true stories that call out to our imaginations from far off.

George Mallory died on Everest eight years before I was born. I have followed his footsteps up one of the most enticing rock-climbs on the golden-crystalled granite of Cornwall in southwest England, and his grandson's footsteps up the 1,300-foot sandstone face of the Blouberg in northwest Transvaal; George Mallory III is still climbing there and recently climbed Everest himself. Now his grandfather has been found on the north face of Everest, and many of us have looked in wonder at the photos showing the white porcelain of his lower back and left leg, lying face down on a gravel slope. The tangible lineaments of the myth have been returned to reality at last.

There are a great many corpses up there. On the expedition to find Mallory and Irvine Andrew Irvine narrated in "Ghosts of Everest," three of the climbers "stumbled into a virtual graveyard of mangled, frozen bodies." One of the climbers, Tap Richards, recalls "We found ourselves in a kind of collection zone for fallen climbers." Another member, Conrad Anker, recalls in "The Lost Explorer": "On the Plateau, we passed near the bodies of two Indian climbers who had died here in 1996 . . . the Indians whom members of the Japanese team had ignored, going for the summit themselves rather than trying to save their lives." And again: "I came around a cliff and looked into a small cave next to me. There was a dead man lying in there, somebody who'd holed up there trying to bivouac and had frozen to death. I have no idea who he was."

This charnel house is unsurprising given that out of seven people climbing Everest, one on average is likely to die. Above 25,000 feet on the world's most formidable mountains, many fall, many are killed in avalanches, many succumb to the complex physiological effects of oxygen deprivation and suffer from swelling of the brain or the lungs, which can be fatal. One veteran said that a climber at that height above sea level is "a sick man walking in a dream." Still they do it--the fanatical amateurs, the professional guides, the local people from Nepal and Tibet who carry loads for the sahibs and have begun to climb like Westerners, to experience the ferociously beautiful wilderness and for the personal fulfillment of achieving something remarkably difficult.

Several climbers could be seen as the chevaliers sans peur of the high ice: Hermann Buhl and Reinhold Messner from Austria, Eric Shipton and Doug Scott from England. To an extraordinary extent, given that he flourished before television, Mallory is the exemplar in the public eye. He died on Everest in June 1924, possibly just after becoming the first person to reach the summit. He coined one of the most laconic ripostes in the language when an American reporter asked him why he was trying to climb the mountain: "Because it is there," he answered.

Ever since the '20s, Mallory has been an icon who embodies a laid-back heroism in the face of crushing elemental forces, which the hero grapples with for the sake of the contest itself. Exploration and mapping of remote borderlands, research into high-altitude physiology, the demonstration of national prowess or "the human spirit"--all these could be claimed as motives for the sport and are claimed by its high-minded publicists.

Mallory professed none of these, although he was an idealist with a commitment to working-class education, women's suffrage and Irish home rule. "To refuse the adventure," he said in one of his American lectures between expeditions, "is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell."

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