The story of George Mallory’s 1924 failed and fatal attempt on Everest is perhaps mountaineering’s greatest unsolved mystery. Last spotted 250 meters from the summit, Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine disappeared from view and would never be seen alive again. When Mallory’s body was eventually found in 1999, Irvine’s body never was. The mystery of whether they reached the summit before they perished on the mountain has never been solved. Yet this was not Mallory’s first attempt on the summit; the story of his incomplete ascent two years earlier in 1922, is not as well known. This new book, launched in time for the centenary of the attempt, treads new ground by telling the story of the very first expedition on Everest.
The 1922 expedition, which started with a reconnaissance trip into Tibet in 1921, was undertaken amid the fervor of the race to the so-called third pole. In the dwindling years of the age of exploration, Everest was one of the last things remaining to be conquered. Britain, much to its chagrin, had been beaten to both the north and south pole and desperately wanted the imperial pride of claiming a British victory for climbing what they considered as their own mountain, as the route to Everest lay through British India.
While Mallory became the most well-known member of the expedition, due in no small part to his mysterious death in 1924, the story is far broader than him alone. Drawing on a great resource of letters, diaries, photos and maps, Conefrey provides well-rounded portraits of the major protagonists and their backgrounds before their attempt on the mountain. There are detailed accounts of the obsession that took hold among some of the group, and of the squabbling and arguments that took place all too frequently.
The biggest challenge wasn’t the physical demands of climbing, but the diplomatic minefield that surrounded getting permission to climb Everest. Straddling Tibet and Nepal, which were both closed off to the world, it was a supreme challenge to get access to the mountain. Funding for the expedition was also a considerable hurdle. Conefrey skillfully portrays the mishaps, mistakes and calamities that befell this first western expedition on Everest once it finally got underway. Despite the many years of planning, the team was hopelessly poorly equipped with regards to clothing and suffered from a lack of food despite taking 813 cases of provisions, including 24 bottles of champagne.
Yet while they failed to summit in 1922, the expedition generated a huge amount of knowledge, mapping and more and had a big impact on mountaineering, pioneering the use of oxygen, and the use of more technical clothing as opposed to knitted sweaters. Conefrey explains all these advancements in great detail.
Everest 1922 contrasts the real sense of danger and unknown faced by Mallory to the modern day VIP Everest experience, open to those whose wallets are thicker than their experience. Yet the lament over a lost, wild Everest might not find many sympathizers among the Sherpa community who have found a steady source of income from its mountaineering industry. Nor was an expedition rife with imperial symbolism unsullied from the bragging rights that are decried by Conefrey when describing the modern Everest industry.
As the author acknowledges in the first few pages, there is a real paucity of Sherpa or Tibetan voices in this narrative due, Conefrey explains, to a lack of written records from the Asian members of the expedition. While the expedition’s westerners are all described individually with personality and ambition all well-delineated, the Sherpa and Tibetan members of the expedition are inevitably reduced to a collective entity.
Despite this perhaps unavoidable incompleteness of the narrative, Everest 1922 is an enjoyable, if at times somewhat nostalgic, romp through the pioneering days of Himalayan mountaineering and an engaging and sympathetic portrayal of the almost forgotten 1922 Everest expedition.