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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

People who saw him climb in the Alps and on British cliffs just before and after the Great War marveled at how at home he was in the steep places. On ice, "[h]e cut a superb staircase, with inimitable ease and grace and a perfect economy of effort . . . so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place, above all on slabs, that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness." On rock, "[h]e would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve . . . a continuous undulating movement so rapid and so powerful that one felt the rock either must yield, or disintegrate." He was also beautiful and therefore doted on by highly influential members of the gay culture based in London's Bloomsbury.

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Sheer inborn prowess and a steely determination to develop it at all costs will always enthrall and perhaps inspire us, whether the exemplar is discovering a law of nature or running a mile in less than four minutes. What makes the mountaineering form of achievement so difficult morally is the mortal risk run by the protagonists. Most mountaineers are also offspring, lovers, fathers-mothers, husbands-wives. As Mallory was about to make his third and, as it turned out, last attempt on Everest, he wrote to a Cambridge friend, "This is going to be more like war than mountaineering. I don't expect to come back." He did not say this to his wife. When he died, he left her a widow and his three children fatherless. They are still alive, and their testimony in the case of their father's death is a poignant running motif in "Ghosts of Everest," "The Lost Explorer," "Last Climb" and "Lost on Everest."

To set out to find the bodies of Mallory and his companion Irvine on that huge wind-swept pyramid was an extreme quest. To find one of them among the ice-seamed crags demanded the brilliant mountaineer's intuition of terrain and snow behavior, which was brought to the project by Anker, probably the strongest member of the 1999 expedition led by Eric Simonson. Jochen Hemmleb, a researcher-climber with a consuming absorption in the least detail of the Mallory affair, had pinpointed the likeliest resting place for the bodies and expected the climbing team to systematically comb an area the size of four football pitches. The snow-dusted shale slabs were precarious, and a fall would have dropped the climbers 7,000 feet to the Rongbuk glacier.

First Anker found a body with broken legs, the right arm sticking out as though waving, the face eaten off by ravens. It was wearing up-to-date equipment. So he went on contouring to the right, beyond the search zone, guided by his sense of the "rock snags and outcroppings . . . like a river, with eddies downstream from boulders"--a sense which "has to be intuitive. The more experience you have, the more you absorb on a subconscious level." Then he saw the corpse face-down in frozen acres, made visible by the whiteness of that naked back. When his teammates joined him, they all thought that this must be Irvine's body. As stones were carefully pried away, the evidence became clear. The tag on the collar said "G. Mallory." The pockets of his clothing contained, among other things, a letter from a friend, some bills, a beautifully vivid red and blue handkerchief with his monogram, a box of matches, a fingerless mitten, a rusted knife and scissors, an altimeter, a pair of tinted goggles, notes with checklists of food and oxygen cylinders and a tin of Brand & Co.'s Savoury Meat Lozenges.

All this is poignant enough, and the fine color photos of these things in "Ghosts of Everest" re-create in perfect detail the climber's means of staying alive. The most potent image, of course, is the body itself, and here is where the moral difficulties arise. The close-ups of the body taken by Richards and Jake Norton show the ragged jersey and breeches and the broken climbing rope sticking out of the broken stones; the bared back, left upper arm, left buttock and left leg, all white and sheer as china, the very picture of the dead. It's impossible to keep from one's mind the look of a Michelangelo--the dead hero, his marble torso sagging, his arms outstretched, pinned at the wrists. The excess in this seeing of a likeness between Mallory and Jesus is a measure of the cult that has grown up since the climber's death three generations ago.

The expedition climbers were wholly respectful. They investigated and photographed the body--finding that ravens had eaten into the stomach and exposed its contents, which included "seeds and some other food." Then they buried it completely, a hard job at that height among slippery, freezing stone. Finally they spoke over it a funeral service prepared by the bishop of Bristol, England.

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