Even as school children we repeatedly read about the attempt of Mallory and Irvine to reach the summit of Everest. And the mystery about whether they actually reached the top or not was endlessly debated even with our limited fund of knowledge. Mountains seem to evoke the romantic nature that is in all of us. Indeed it is amazing to see how people who have never ventured out for a simple trek in the Himalayas are carried away by the talk of mountains. This is a good thing and testifies to the magnificent attraction that many mountains hold for us. Nowadays with colorful pictures and documentaries of mountain climbing and rescue in the mountains, this whole area has been even more successful in drawing a greater audience to vicariously enjoy the thrills of being in the mountains.
But the undying debate about whether George Mallory( standing, second from right) climbed Everestcontinues. For three reasons ( dehydration, hypoxia, and hypothermia), I do not think he made it to the summit. Clearly Mallory was an extremely motivated and wildly talented, magical climber of his day. He represented the British generation post World War 1 that had been greatly affected by the horrors of the war. Mallory himself wrote eloquently about the devastation wrought by the Battle of Somme which he fought. It was time to rescue the British psyche from this mental slump, and his successful bid to the summit in 1924 would certainly have achieved that purpose.
Everest however had other plans. At the extremely high altitude of about seven thousand meters, the climber is breathing so hard ( hyperventilating) that a lot ofmoisture is lost this way, in addition to loss fromsweating and urinating.Snow needs to be painstakingly melted with a stove for drinking water. In all likelihood Mallory and his friend Irvine who accompanied himwere unable to melt water for drinking andwere severely dehydrated. Compare this with the successful climb of Hillary and Tenzing almost three decades later who drank plenty of lemonade and “peed” large amounts of urine on the summit.
For certain with just his tweed jacketandtrousers and hobnailed boots, Mallory was very cold( hypothermic) in the subzero temperatures at that altitude not to mention the wind-chill factor. Compare this with the heavy down jackets and well insulated boots that a modern climbers use today. Both hypothermia and severe dehydration predispose climbers to life-threatening brain and lung edema of high altitude.
Finally, Mallory felt that it was very unsporting ( therefore very unBritish) to use supplemental oxygen to help him climb. Indeed there are many climbers who have summited Everest without oxygen, but there is no question that with Mallory’s other two problems (extreme dehydration and hypothermia), severe hypoxia( lack of oxygen) is the last thing he could handle. Actually, even if he wanted to use supplemental oxygen, the oxygen apparatus of that time was so cumbersome and heavy that it may have been counter productive.
It would have been only right that this romantic figure of Mallory with his intense dedication and skill, reading Shakespeare’s soliloquies in camp, clad in his tweeds and simple boots should have been successful. But the 3 deadlyhs,(de)hydration, hypothermia, and hypoxia, got in his way to the summit.