Seldom -- apart from the aftermath of a presidential election -- does a reviewer confront four books on precisely the same event. What sent so many writing teams scurrying to their computers was the discovery, earlier this year, of a body on the north face of Mt. Everest, some 27,000 feet above sea level (and roughly 2,000 feet shy of the summit). This was no ordinary corpse. It wasn't even the one the expedition was looking for. This was the deep-frozen body of George Mallory, the legendary English climber whose 1924 disappearance on the world's tallest mountain, along with that of his partner, Sandy Irvine, has haunted climbers ever since. The burning mystery about Mallory and Irvine has been twofold: Did they reach the top of the world, and how did they die?
Mallory's fame rests equally on prowess and savvy. He was handsome enough to be gushed over but either unaware of this quality or skilled at simulating cluelessness. He climbed with a grace that observers called "fluid" and "supple" and indicative of "economy of effort." He was fearless and determined and, after his involvement in two previous, failed expeditions to conquer Everest, near-desperate to succeed. In addition to his personal stake, there was British honor to uphold. "The English had failed to be the first to reach either the North or South Pole," write the multiple authors of Ghosts of Everest, "and were now determined that `the Third Pole,' Everest, would be theirs." Meanwhile, in answer to an American reporter's query about why the urge to scale Everest, Mallory had either memorably said or allowed himself to be represented as having memorably said, "Because it's there." Great copy.
But Mallory was also noted for his absent-mindedness: "He is a great dear," observed the leader of an expedition in which Mallory took part, "but forgets his boots on all occasions." Then there is a question of judgment in his choice of a summiting colleague. Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, 22 to Mallory's 37, was a mountaineering tyro, strong but inexperienced, a recent Oxford graduate (Mallory was a Cambridge man) more renowned for rowing than climbing. He was a looker himself, and some have speculated that Mallory was infatuated with the younger man. But Mallory seems to have been happily married, and Irvine had something else going for him that may have trumped all other values: a pronounced knack for tinkering and fixing. The oxygen apparatuses that Mallory considered vital to success were prone to malfunction, and Irvine was probably tapped for the final push as a glorified mechanic.
Whether the two men succeeded is the subject of longstanding dispute. Another expedition member, Noel Odell, said that he saw them at a formation known as the Second Step, a mere 850 feet below the summit, before clouds swirled up to obscure them. (Later, under pressure from skeptics, Odell demoted the sighting to a lower spot on the mountain, but his eyesight was notably keen and he committed his first observation to paper shortly after making it.) After that glimpse, Mallory and Irvine were never seen or heard from again.
Until earlier this year, that is. (In the interim, the Englishman Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first documented ascent of Everest, in 1953. By now, the number of climbers who have stood atop the mountain runs to four figures.) On May 1, 1999, the ace American climber Conrad Anker detoured from a course mapped out for him by a German grad student named Jochen Hemmleb. Both a climber and a kind of high-altitude detective, Hemmleb had squirreled away so much material on Mallory and Irvine that it threatened to engulf his Frankfurt apartment. By poring over the record, especially the discovery of Irvine's ice axe in 1933 and a Chinese climber's account of having stumbled upon an "English dead" in 1975, Hemmleb thought he knew roughly where Irvine's body might have come to rest. After many difficulties, he helped cobble together an expedition that could test his ratiocinations in the field -- that is, on the mountain itself. When Anker discovered a body that turned out to be not Irvine's but Mallory's -- with a broken leg, broken ribs, punctured forehead and multiple abrasions, plainly the result of a fall -- the expedition was vindicated in the splashiest possible way.
The Lost Explorer, Anker's account of the find, is concise and well-written. In alternating sections, his co-author, David Roberts, lays out the background to the Mallory-Irvine disappearance, and Anker relates what happened in the spring of '99. In doing so, Anker takes a few jabs at Hemmleb, who comes across as a stereotypical Teutonic pit-boss, giving each climber "what he called the `research manual' -- it was an eight-page, spiral-bound, laminated notebook telling us how, why, and where to search" and slapping numerical difficulty-ratings on various routes "without his ever having seen Mount Everest!" (The exclamation point is Anker's.)
This is dishy and amusing stuff, but Anker himself seems to be guilty of smugness. In addressing the question as to whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before perishing, the credibility of a 1960 Chinese expedition has taken on unexpected prominence. The sticking point is the redoubtable Second Step, access to which was precluded for many years because the north (Tibetan) side of Everest was off-limits during that period. (The successful Hillary-Tenzing Norgay expedition attacked the mountain from the south, via Nepal.) The Second Step lost much of its bite in 1975, when another Chinese expedition installed a ladder at the Step's most difficult pitch; in Anker's words, "all subsequent ascents of the north ridge have used the ladder and/or the fixed ropes now strung in place on the Second Step."
In 1960, that pre-ladder Chinese group surmounted the Second Step, they claimed, after one climber took off his boots, stood on the shoulders of another in his stocking feet, and hoisted himself up. This sounds dicey, and otherwise their account is skimpy on details and riddled with Chinese communist cant. What's more, none of the climbers in the group "had more than five years' experience in the mountains." As Anker reports, "A lot of Western climbers felt then, and many still feel that the Chinese ascent was a hoax."
Anker himself tried to recreate the ladderless climb of the Second Step that Mallory and Irvine would have to have made to summit before their deaths. He almost succeeded, but at a crucial juncture he rested one foot on a ladder-rung. To oversimplify only slightly, the reasoning goes that if Anker couldn't free-climb the Second Step, neither could have Mallory and Irvine. "There is no possible way Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit," Anker writes.
But wait. In an appendix to their book, Hemmleb et al. cite evidence from a movie shot by the 1960 Chinese team to show that indeed they did master the Second Step: A vista seen on film, the authors argue, could have been captured only by a cameraman above the Step (and they print a photo taken by a later expedition, which indisputably negotiated the Second Step, for comparison). Anker seems to have been unaware of this evidence, but if the Chinese could have given each other a boost in 1960, so could Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Hemmleb et al. lead the reader through a number of scenarios covering what might have happened to Mallory and Irvine on that last day; without reaching a firm conclusion, they're inclined to think the pair might have bagged the ultimate peak. This thorough sifting of possibilities makes for fascinating reading, and, with its well-chosen illustrations and handsome design, The Ghosts of Everest is the standout among these books.
As you might expect from a National Geographic publication, Last Climb is stylish and nicely illustrated, though the photos run heavily to black-and-white shots of the 1924 expedition, with few images of the recent discovery. Lost on Everest, by Peter Firstbrook, who filmed the 1999 expedition for the BBC, is strong on Everest history and fable, less so on the recent, sensational discovery, but overall quite entertaining. He plausibly guesses that, whether or not the pair made it to the top, Mallory fell while on the descent, the rope linking him with Irvine broke, and the latter was left to die of exposure.
The top of Mt. Everest, in Firstbrook's helpful description, is "a surprisingly small area no bigger than a billiard table." Someday we may have a definitive answer to the question of whether Mallory and Irvine, rather than Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, were its first visitors. Mallory had pledged to leave a photo of his wife up there, and either he or Irvine carried a camera. If either the photo or the camera turns up, the truth may become clear.
Why worry about these last artifacts and details? That's easy. Because they're there.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
Mallory and Mt. Everest
GHOSTS OF EVEREST
The Search for Mallory & Irvine
By Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson and Eric R. Simonson,
As Told to William E. Nothdurft
The Mountaineers. 205 pp. $29.95
THE LOST EXPLORER
Finding Mallory on Mount Everest
By Conrad Anker and David Roberts
Simon & Schuster. 191 pp. $22
The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory
By David Breashears and Audrey Salkeld
National Geographic. 239 pp. $35
LOST ON EVEREST
The Search for Mallory & Irvine
By Peter Firstbrook
Contemporary. 224 pp. $24.95