“One comes to bless the absolute bareness, feeling that here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.” ~ George Mallory, from a letter to his wife Ruth during the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition
From NOVA Online:
George Mallory . . . the only person to take part in all three British Everest trips of the 1920s, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Since returning from the Great War he had become increasingly frustrated by the petty restrictions of a schoolmaster’s life and had resigned to join the expedition, with little thought of what he would do afterwards. He wrote prodigiously—to use one of his own favourite words—of his discoveries to his family and friends, revealing far more of his feelings than in his official expedition bulletins. Most of the following extracts are from letters to his wife Ruth.
28 July, to Kharta
I have been half the time in ecstasy. My first thought on coming down was that the world was green again. A month had made all the difference to the appearance of the hillsides. As we have come down lower, and nearer to the Arun valley, the appearance of greenness has steadily increased. We have crossed two passes on the way, and we have slept near two clear bubbling streams; and all that we have seen of snow mountains has been of interest, but none of that counts with me. To see things grow again as though they liked growing, enjoying rain and sun – that has been the real joy.
I collected in a beautiful ramble a lovely bunch of wild flowers. The commonest were a pink geranium and a yellow potentilla and a little flower that looked for all the world like a violet but turned out from its leaf to be something quite different; and there was grass of Parnassus, which I really love, and in places a carpet of a little button flower, a brilliant pink, which I think must belong to the garlic tribe. But most of all I was delighted to find kingcups, a delicate variety rather smaller than ours at home, but somehow especially reminding me of you – you wrote of wading deeply through them in the first letter I had from you in Rome.
Wonder of wonders! We had indication that the weather intended to change. We woke and found the sky clear and remaining clear, no dense white clouds drifting up the valley, but a chill wind driving high clouds from the north. I had a good walk yesterday with Morshead and Bullock and I started at 2 am to ascend a snow peak on the boundary ridge between this valley and the next one to the south. We had a glorious view, unimaginably splendid – Kangchenjunga and all the higher mountains to the East were standing up over a sea of fleecy cloud: Makalu straight opposite across the valley was gigantic, and Everest at the head of the valley – very fine too. But the snow was in bad condition and it’s not melting as it should; above 20,000 feet or so it was powdery under a thin crust and it was impossible to get along without snow shoes, and if it doesn’t melt properly on the glacier we might as well pack up our traps at once. In addition to this cause of despair, Morshead was going badly and I must admit to feeling the height a good deal. I’m clearly far from being as fit as I ought to be. It’s very distressing, my dear, just at this moment and altogether my hopes are at zero.
Pour out your pity, dearest, pull it up from your deep wells – and be pleased to hear that I read myself agreeably to sleep, and slept, slept bountifully, deeply, sweetly from 9 pm to 6 am and woke to see the roof of my tent bulging ominously inwards and a white world outside. It was easy enough to make out that conditions for climbing were entirely hopeless. Every visible mountain face was hung with snow, incredibly more so often than we last were there three weeks ago. The glacier presented an even surface of soft snow and everything confirmed what everybody had previously said – that it was useless to attempt carrying loads up to our col until we had a spell of real fair weather.
I ordered the whole party to pack up and go down. We were still pulling down tents and covering stores when the clouds came up with a rush and the sizzle of hard-driving snow was about us again. We sped down the hillside, facing wind and snow, down the long valley, dancing over the stones half-snow-covered and leaping the grey waters of many streams, and so at length to the humpy grass in the flat hollow where the big tents are pitched …
Just now we are all just drifting as the clouds drift, forgetting to number the days so as to avoid painful thoughts of the hurrying month. For my part I’m happy enough; the month is too late already for the great venture; we shall have to face great cold, I’ve no doubt; and the longer the delay, the colder it will be. But the fine weather will come at last. My chance, the chance of a lifetime, I suppose, will be sadly shrunk by then; and all my hopes and plans for seeing something of India on the way back will be blown to wherever the monsoon blows. I would willingly spend a few weeks longer here, if only for the sake of seeing Everest and Makalu and the excitement of new points of view. I would like to undertake a few other ascents, less ambitious but perhaps more delightful. And it will be a loss not to see again that strangely beautiful valley over the hills, and the green meadows dominated by the two greatest mountains.
Of the pull the other way I needn’t tell you. If I picture the blue Mediterranean and the crisp foam hurrying by as the ship speeds on to Marseilles or Gibraltar where I shall expect to see you smiling in the sunshine on the quayside – my dear one, when such pictures fill my mind, as often enough they do, I’m drawn clean out of this tent into a world not only more lovely, more beautifully lit, but signifying something.
My dearest Ruth,
This is a mere line at the earliest moment, in the midst of packing and arrangements to tell you that all is well. It is a disappointment that the end should seem so much tamer than I hoped. But it wasn’t tame in reality; it was no joke getting to the North Col. I doubt if any big mountain venture has ever been made with a smaller margin of strength. I carried the whole party on my shoulders to the end, and we were turned back by a wind in which no man could live an hour. As it is we have established the way to the summit for anyone who cares to try the highest adventure.
Music by Rod Stewart, “I’ll be seeing you”
For a compelling look at British explorer George Mallory, this Daily Mail article takes a look at why this WWI veteran risked his life again and again.
Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,
the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments
of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We’re near the end,
but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring
love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.
~ Katha Pollitt
- Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Leigh Mallory by George Mallory for £1.09! #AmazonUK Kindle Sports Daily Deal! (randomizeme.net)
- The Banality of Everest: (brothersjuddblog.com)