The Quest to Conquer Everest, “The Third Pole”

Mount Everest

Mount Everest. Image: flickr/Volvatella

1853 was the year when it all began. A young officer in the British Colonial Army, Sir Francis Younghusband, was reportedly the first man to make plans to ascend the highest mountain on earth, Mount Everest. His travails in the subcontinent, especially in India, Nepal, and Tibet, had given him good knowledge of the region. He had traveled widely through the three countries and, having done some study of the mountain from all sides, he believed that Everest could be climbed. His enthusiasm led him to form an Everest committee in London whose members consisted of individuals from the renowned Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society.  However, his repeated efforts to gain permission to organize an expedition to ascend Everest met with little success. The British bureaucracy of the time was just too difficult an obstacle to surmount, especially since the government had little interest in something as ‘frivolous’ as climbing mountains.

The early 1900s saw a flurry of exploration activities, with an American, Robert Peary, claiming to have reached the North Pole in 1908, followed a year later by yet another American, Thomas Cook. The British, a mighty race at the time, decided then to be the first to reach the South Pole.  However, here too, their search for supremacy was thwarted in 1911 when the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, beat his British rival, Robert Scott, to the post by a good one month’s margin. Now something really big needed to be accomplished to restore the pride of the mighty British Empire. Thus, conquering the highest mountain on earth became a fixation, and Mount Everest “The Third Pole”, for the British.

And so it came about that, in 1914, Younghusband was finally given permission to organize an Everest expedition. As fate would have it, World War I broke out just then and all plans had to be shelved for the time being. Finally, in 1921, an expedition was sent, not to ascend Everest, but rather, to find the most suitable route for climbing the peak. The team, under Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury, consisted of two scientists, one physician, and six climbers, including George Leigh Mallory, who would later become a legend.  The expedition set out for Everest in May, with Darjeeling as the starting point. During the journey, the physician, Dr. George Kellas, had a fatal heart failure, and became the first person to have died on an Everest expedition. The rest of the team carried on. Its climbers managed to climb up to 7,060 m, from where, having had a good view of the North Ridge, they concluded that they had found a good route to the summit.

The next year, in 1922, a second expedition consisting of two members of the 1921 team, Mallory and Henry Morshead, and 11 others, including some very experienced climbers, took off from England with the singular objective of summiting Everest. The expedition’s attempts at reaching the peak were dramatic, to say the least. First, Mallory, Edward Norton, and Howard Somervell managed to reach 8,145 meters. However, the combination of strong winds and freezing cold was overwhelming, and so they descended the mountain. Some days later, their compatriots George Finch and George Bruce made the attempt. They could not summit the peak, but they did set a new record by being the first to reach 8,325 meters. Finally, on June 3, Mallory, Finch, and Bruce, along with 14 hardy Sherpas, began another attempt to reach the top. On the way, near the halfway point, they were met by an avalanche that took the lives of seven of the Sherpas.  Expectedly, the expedition was abandoned.

Back in England, a third expedition was planned for 1924. Mallory was of course chosen to be a part of the team. This time too, the weather was not fortuitous, with strong winds and heavy snowfall that continued for a whole month. The team’s members made several failed attempts at summiting the peak. However, Edward Norton set yet another record by climbing up to 8,540 meters, just 300 m short of the summit, so tantalizingly close. The third attempt involved George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Starting off from the North Col on June 6 with eight Sherpas, they spent one night at Camp 5 at 7,600 meters. On June 8, they set off on their final bid to conquer the highest mountain on earth.

They reached about 8,500 m, that much can be ascertained by the fact that another team member, Noel Odell, had climbed up to the highest camp, and that is from where he saw Mallory and Irvine at that height. That, in fact, was the last he saw of the climbers, because soon after, clouds blocked his view. When the view cleared again, Mallory and Irvine had disappeared from sight, never to be seen again. What happened to them, how high they climbed, whether they reached the summit or not, it all remains a mystery till this day. Seventy-five years later, in 1999, Mallory’s body was found halfway up the North face, lying on a rock ledge. However, the eternal question that echoes through the lore of Everest still remains unanswered: “Did Mallory succeed in summiting Everest? Was he the first man to do so?”

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