In 1924, with little to show for its bitter victory in WWI, Great Britain needed heroes. The mountaineer Mr George Mallory, a key member of the first expedition to attempt to scale Mt Everest, provided his country with an apparently uncomplicated one, and he continues to embody the qualities his compatriots believe define their race: amateurism, bravery, the ability to look good in tweed and dignity in the face of disaster.
Mr Mallory's story is one of glorious failure. Born in the north of England in 1886 he was introduced to mountaineering by a teacher at Winchester, his public school. His athleticism was such that he rowed for his college, Magdalene, during the three years he attended Cambridge University, while continuing to climb in the UK and in Continental Europe. He became a schoolteacher after university, and served as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during WWI.
Mr Mallory embodies the qualities his compatriots believe define their race: amateurism, bravery, the ability to look good in tweed and dignity in the face of disaster
In 1921 he turned his attention to the challenge that made him famous. Resigning from his teaching post, Mr Mallory joined the British Reconnaissance Expedition to map Everest and look for potential routes up to the summit - he wrote to his wife to tell her "we are about to walk off the map". A year later he returned to climb the mountain, and reached 8,225m (the summit is at 8,848m) before turning back due to bad weather conditions; at the time Mr Mallory objected to the use of oxygen. He was attempting to scale the highest mountain in the world without oxygen, while wearing a wool suit and a felt hat. Failure was, arguably, the price Mr Mallory paid for elegance.
However, Mr George Finch, an Australian who was also part of the expedition, was more forward thinking and used oxygen (and the world's first goose-down jacket) to reach 8,321m. The idea that the first man to conquer Everest might be Australian was, it appears, unacceptable to the Royal Geographical Society's Everest Committee, the organisers of the expedition. It viewed the facts that Mr Finch was divorced and had accepted money for lectures as reason enough to bar him from taking part in subsequent expeditions.
On 8 June 1924, the mountaineer set off for the summit of Everest. He was not then seen until 1999, when his well-preserved body was discovered at 8,160m by a team of climbers
Mr Mallory reluctantly agreed to make another attempt on Everest, but without Mr Finch in the group, and joined Brigadier General Charles Bruce's expedition in 1924. On 8 June Mr Mallory set off for the summit accompanied by Mr Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, who had been selected because of his ability to get the best out of the primitive oxygen tanks. Mr Mallory was not then seen until 1999, when his well-preserved body was discovered at 8,160m by a team of climbers shooting a television documentary about him. His injuries suggest he was killed by a fall, but whether or not he was at the time climbing towards, or descending from, the summit is not known. Mr Irvine's body has never been found.
While speculation about the success of Mr Mallory's ascent is irresistible, ultimately it's also futile unless new evidence emerges. Anyone interested in the real story should read Mr Wade Davis' gripping, and comprehensive, book of 2011, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. This gives an unrivalled assessment of Mr Mallory's role in the RGS expeditions, as well as a traumatic explanation for what drove him, and the expedition's other members, to adopt such a fearless approach in their attempts on the summit.
Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher, Features Editor, MR PORTER