“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
– Thomas Grey "ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD"
“Because its there” – attributed to Mallory, the response to a question as to why he ‘bothers’’ (to risk his life to climb Everest)
That the book was about one of most romantic-tragic character in history who has always fascinated me – George Mallory, was one of the main reasons that I picked up the book. I have always enjoyed Archer’s short stories collection but not his longer novels, so this required a leap of faith of sorts…But the subject matter and the undoubted talents of the writer swung the balance.
And I have not regretted that decision. From the first page of the book, the book sweeps you into an era that was the last great eras of human exploration, an era that ended in man’s final conquest of nature, a victory of the frail human body over all the odds thrown against it. It was an era when explorers and adventurers were arguably as much a celebrity that movie stars, if not more at certain occasions. It was an age when both the North and South Poles fell, when man started to conquer the airspace. The age ended with the landing on the moon bringing to a close the era of heroic explorers and discoverers. It was also during this age when many of the highest mountains of the world were conquered. This book is about this final conquest. And what high mistress of the mountains is there other than Chomolungma (or as we know by the British given name – Mt Everest). When did Everest yield and to whom? to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, as we have been taught or did it yield to the intrepid George Mallory thirty years earlier, who when last seen before he disappeared in the mist near the summit, was a few hundred feet from the highest seat in the world?
The controversy has not been resolved yet, even though Mallory’s frozen body was found a few years ago by climbers. The evidence on his body threw open fresh controversies since the photo of his wife Ruth was not found on his body. He had promised Ruth that he would put her photo on the summit when he climbed it.
This book takes us on a fictionalized account of the life of the climber and offers an opinion on what really occurred in 1924 after Mallory and Irving (his climbing partner) disappeared from view.
The main bulk of the book is devoted to knowing Mallory as a man rather than a legend and in this I feel that in this regard, Archer is excellent unlike what many other reviewers feel. We come across a man who is liberal in his thoughts and open to criticism and alternate views. In many ways, he is a man ahead of his time – especially in regard to women empowerment. Remember that at this time women did not have the right to vote and their education was frowned upon. His indomitable attitude to everything (especially to anything that needed climbing!!) is also brought out well. His skills as a mountaineer was astounding and he was proclaimed a genius even in his lifetime…
The book dwells at length on the fairy tale romance between Mallory and Ruth, the woman he fell in love at first sight and to whom he remained faithful and completely in love till the end. It was a love story which make the stuff of legends. His impassioned letters to her starting with “My Dear Ruth” have become one of the most well known correspondences in history. His last letter to her was almost prophetic and makes for emotional reading.
To woo her, he risked arrest by climbing a national monument in Venice!!!. An illustration of the love between them comes across when Ruth gives up security to encourage Mallory to go on his last fateful climb even though he had decided to give up climbing to stay with her since he did not want to lose her. She understood that men like Mallory can only rest when they had conquered what beckons them. The exchange in this regard between Ruth and Robert Scott’s widow is poignant and one of the hallmarks of the book.
The book is ultimately about the fatal attraction between Mallory and Mt Everest. It was the final frontier for a mountaineer and Mallory was arguably the best man available to conquer the heights. But a combination of bad luck (WWI) and the prevalent ‘climbing ethics’ (called the amateur code – which included looking down on use of oxygen) prevented him from attempting the summit seriously until he was in his mid-thirties. So when he climbed his fateful climb, he knew very well that this was the last chance to imprint his name on history. He was also unlucky to not get George Finch, the only person he considered his rival, as his climbing partner due to the imperial frostiness (They did not want an Australian and a divorcee on top of a mountain which they considered theirs).
Of course we may never know what caused Mallory to never come back to safety and to Ruth and the book also leaves the question hanging though Archer does make him the first conqueror of the mountain.
The book is fast paced and covers all aspects of his life. And because you know what is going to happen in the end, the chronicle of his short life becomes even more evocative. You almost wish that he did c0nquer the mountain. But even if he didn’t, he set an example for all the men to follow – by his open minded attitude, his leadership qualities, his humanitarian approach to climbing (when he gave up an attempt on the top because of an injured partner when he could have gone on – a contrast to many modern climbers who forget this alpine spirit) and above all for his spirit of adventure…
One of my unforgettable reads…