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Last Hours on Everest: The Gripping Story of Mallory & Irvine’s Fatal Ascent By Graham Hoyland, Collins, £20

For all — armchair mountaineers and actual ones — who have been bitten by the Everest bug, there are two names — perhaps more than Hillary and Tenzing — that are unforgettable. The names are those of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine. Their names are remembered because of the mystery that surrounds their disappearance high on the North Face of Everest on June 8, 1924. Did they disappear going up or coming down? Had they been on top or was it a failed attempt?

The mystery was heightened when in the summer of 1999, Mallory’s body was discovered on the North Face at about 26,760 feet. It was clear that Mallory had fallen and broken his leg and had lain there waiting for his death. This came as a shock and a surprise to everybody since the assumption had been that if anybody had fallen on that fateful day it would have been Irvine, who was a novice on the mountain whereas Mallory was the expert known for his experience and his climbing skills.

So what had happened on the slopes of the North Face in the death zone? What happened to Irvine, whose body is yet to be found? And what happened to the Kodak camera (belonging to Howard Somervell) that Mallory was carrying with him on the ascent?

From a very young age, Graham Hoyland was not only obsessed with Mount Everest but also with what had happened to Mallory and Irvine. These obsessions grew out of his meeting Somervell and listening to him tell the story of that expedition. Hoyland was a child when this happened but the mountain and the two men refused to leave him.

Hoyland became the 15th Briton to climb Everest and has been on the mountain on nine expeditions. He was responsible for finding the body of Mallory. He is thus very well placed to tell the story of Mallory and Irvine’s ascent. The broad contours of the story are not unknown but Hoyland’s retelling is vivid because of the innumerable new details he reveals and also because of his intimate knowledge of the North Face and the difficulties that climbers face on that route.

The book has two distinct parts, although the two parts are interwoven to form one seamless narrative. One part is autobiographical, where Hoyland describes his growing fascination with the mountain, the story of his climb and his efforts to find the bodies of Mallory and Irvine and Somervell’s camera. In the other part, Hoyland writes as a historian to reconstruct the pioneering efforts to chart a route to the mountain and of the first expeditions. This part contains very fine portraits of the early climbers.

The historical section naturally brings him to the 1924 expedition and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. This forms the core of the book.

Before the two climbers set out on their final ascent, a new record had already been established by the expedition. In Hoyland’s words, “[Edward] Norton and Somervell… pulled off one of the most remarkable climbs in history. Without oxygen, and while not at all fit, they had climbed together to 28,000 ft (8,510 m) on a new route on Everest and had the mountaineering judgement to turn back before they got into serious trouble. Norton’s record of 28,126 ft (8,570 m) stood for 55 years.’’

The words “without oxygen’’ are worth underlining. Somervell, Norton and Noel Odell all climbed in the death zone without supplementary oxygen. Both Norton and Odell would set new feats of endurance when above 8,000 metres they would go out to look for Irvine and Mallory. It was Odell who last saw the two climbers through his telescope when they were climbing just below the Second Step. It was a momentary glimpse before clouds engulfed them.

Hoyland is very convincing in his argument that Mallory and Irvine could not have attempted to climb the Second Step on their way to the top. It would have taken them an enormous amount of time and might even have proved to be impossible. Modern climbers use that route because they can use the aluminium ladder that the Chinese expedition left there in 1975. Mallory, with his experience, chose to traverse under the Second Step to go on to what is called Norton Couloir.

Hoyland’s examination of all the available evidence leads him to abandon his fond hope that his two heroes were the first to climb Everest long before Hillary and Tenzing. Hoyland establishes from old weather readings that around 2 pm during Mallory and Irvine’s ascent, a severe storm (as severe as the one that hit the mountain in May 1996 when more than 10 people died) arose. Exhausted by bad weather and oxygen starvation, the duo decided to descend; and on their way down on the ice slabs covered by fresh snow, Mallory made one fatal error that killed them both. Hoyland suggests very convincingly that Mallory probably suffered not one but two falls and this explains where his body was eventually found. And Irvine? The whirling blizzard claimed him. His corpse awaits its discoverer.

Hoyland has written a gripping book. It evokes the atmosphere that prevails on the higher reaches of the Everest massif. His close knowledge of the terrain and the routes enlivens his narrative. Most importantly, he, like a good historian, is willing to jettison his theory in the face of the available evidence. His initial hypothesis was that Mallory and Irvine had succeeded, but he ends on the sad note that they had failed. Till Irvine’s body or the camera that Mallory carried is found, the last word on the last hours has probably been said.