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Authors: Conrad Anker,David Roberts

The Lost Explorer

BOOK: The Lost Explorer
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A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claimingof the American West

Escape Routes: Further Adventure Writings of David Roberts

In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest

Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars

Mt. McKinley: The Conquest of Denali
(with Bradford Washburn)

Iceland: Land of the Sagas
(with Jon Krakauer)

Jean Stafford: A Biography

Moments of Doubt: And Other Mountaineering Writings

Great Exploration Hoaxes

Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative

The Mountain of My Fear

Rockefeller Center
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New York, NY 10020

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Copyright © 1999 by Conrad Anker and David Roberts

Maps copyright © 1999 by Clay Wadman

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form

& S
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc

ISBN 0-7432-0192-2

eISBN-13: 978-0-7432-0192-6

To the shining memory of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine



Snickers and Tea

Mon Dieu!—George Mallory!


Mallory of Everest


Teeth in the Wind

The Second Step




—Courtesy of the American Alpine Club Library, Golden, Colorado

On June 15, the day before leaving Base Camp for home, the surviving members of the 1924 Everest expedition wrote their names on a piece of paper, leaving space on the left for the signatures of the team’s ill and absent leader, General Charles Bruce, as well as of the vanished Irvine and Mallory. These were clipped from letters received and notes written on the mountain and pasted in. The original page was later bound into a copy of
The Fight for Everest
, which was published in 1925.



, I grew up steeped in the legend of Mallory and Irvine. Indeed, the long, rich narrative of mountaineering contains no more stirring or enigmatic chapter. As a teenager, clumping up a stony ridge toward the wind-lashed apex of some nondescript peak in my native Colorado, I often conjured up that heroic pair, angling into the sky on June 8, 1924, fighting their way higher than human beings had ever climbed, as they closed in on the summit of Mount Everest.

At that moment, ten days shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, George Leigh Mallory was Britain’s finest mountaineer. A man blessed with a preternatural gracefulness, with beauty and charm that dazzled his friends and admirers, he had become obsessed with reaching the highest point on earth. His partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, a relative novice at twenty-two, still an undergraduate at Oxford, had nonetheless proven himself the perfect acolyte in this quest for an alpine grail.

What the leader of the 1924 expedition, on which Mallory and Irvine were lost, wrote afterward rings true today—Mallory was “the greatest antagonist that Everest has had—or is like to have.” And Irvine, though destined ever after to languish in the shade of Mallory’s fame, remains, in the vignette of another teammate, the epitome of the “natural adept…. He could follow, if not lead, anywhere.”

At 12:50 on the afternoon of June 8, 1924, climbing solo to 26,000 feet in support of the summit duo, Noel Odell saw the
clouds part briefly, giving him a fugitive glimpse of a pair of figures far above him, outlined against the sky, “moving expeditiously” over a steep step of rock and ice on the northeast ridge, less than a thousand feet below the top. This has come down to us as perhaps the most haunting sighting in the annals of exploration. Then the clouds closed in, and Mallory and Irvine vanished into history.

With the sole exception of Amelia Earhart, no lost explorer in the twentieth century has provoked a more intense outpouring of romantic speculation than George Mallory. The question of what happened to him and his young companion, of how those two brave men met their fate, is knotty enough. What spurs the imagination to a higher flight is the possibility that they might have reached Everest’s summit before they died—twenty-nine years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the mountain’s official first ascent. If Mallory and Irvine had succeeded, they could have laid fair claim to having pulled off the greatest mountaineering feat ever performed.

Thus the mystery of Mallory and Irvine was handed down to all later generations of climbers. But for me, at age eighteen, the conundrum took on a more personal dimension. As a freshman at Harvard, I drifted into the circle of the university’s mountaineering club, which at the time comprised the most accomplished gang of college climbers in the country. Among the six or seven especially talented and flamboyant upperclassmen, who had already notched their belts with such daunting Canadian summits as Logan, Waddington, and Stiletto Needle, one in particular became first my hero, then my mentor, and then my friend and partner.

Scraggly-bearded, soft-spoken, quicksilver smart, slyly iconoclastic, brilliant on vertical rock and ice, absentminded as a dreamy preschooler, Rick Millikan seemed cut from a Viking mold. On an autumn weekend at the Shawangunks, in New York state, Rick dragged me up the hardest and most exhilarating rock pitch I had yet tackled; that January, he broke trail along the frozen crest of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, as I struggled to keep up in a -30º F. gale.

Sometime during that freshman year, I learned that Rick was George Mallory’s grandson. Born in 1941, Rick of course had never known his illustrious forebear. His mother, Clare, the
eldest of Mallory’s three children, had been eight when her father disappeared. She remembered much about him, and she passed down her stories to her three sons.

As Rick and I became good friends, we sometimes talked about Mallory. He believed his grandfather had summitted that June day so long ago; pressed for a rationale, he fell back on intuition. “Those guys were good,” he said, if memory serves. “They knew what they were doing up there.”

Rick’s other grandfather was Robert Millikan, of the famous oil drop experiment, who had won the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics. Clare Mallory had married Robert Millikan’s son, Glenn, only to watch, one day in 1947, as her husband was killed as he stood beside her, in a climbing accident in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. I knew little more about this catastrophe than the bare facts: Rick’s father had been hit on the head by a falling stone, in a fluky concatenation of minor miscalculations on a small cliff in the middle of nowhere. He had died instantly. At twenty, I was too shy and awkward to probe further, or to ask Rick to recount the mishap that had cost him his father at an even younger age than Clare had lost hers.

BOOK: The Lost Explorer
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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