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His Wildest Dreams

New Mallory biography addresses more than Everest



The image of George Mallory that usually flickers through one's mind is of a thin mountaineer clad in goggles, hobnails and tweeds, making his way over dangerous ice falls and rocky moraines towards the summit of Everest with his inexperienced young partner, Sandy Irvine, in tow.

But there's another side to the famed climber of Everest -- equally as daring and just as intriguing.

A Fabian free-thinker in the wake of Victorian repression, a champion of women's rights, a teacher and a father who struggled to support his family, a devoted but often absent husband, a sexually liberated member of the literary Bloomsbury group, a soldier, a beauty with "the mystery of Botticelli, and the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print," a pastor's son and a legend, Mallory was a thoughtful and conflicted young man who enchanted nearly everyone who met him.

In The Wildest Dream, the first full account of George Mallory's life, journalists Peter and Leni Gillman examine a man whose idealistic fascination and love for the world around him may have been his fatal flaw. Via telephone from his home in south London, Peter Gillman discussed the book with the Independent.

Indy: How long have you been researching Mallory and Everest?

Gillman: At least 30 years. I've been a journalist for 35, I hate to admit, and I've always been a mountaineer. Some of my earliest pieces were about some of those Everest veterans I interviewed, like the photographer, Capt. John Noel, who was on the '22 and '24 trip. Also Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory and Irvine alive. I was just writing his words on my screen when you rang.

The legends are so powerful, so potent, that you really become involved in them, and you really want to know what it was like for those people. I was very consumed with the question, as everyone else was, "[Did they make] it to the summit?" It's just absolutely compelling.

Indy: Were you in close contact with the Mallory family?

Gillman: Yes, yes certainly. I went to southern California to meet his daughter Clare in person. [George's son] John and his son George came over from South Africa, and we took him back to the house where he'd been born, the house in Godalming in Surrey. I think there's a photograph of that in the book. It was the first time he'd been back since he left it in 1924.

They gave us enormous help, especially Clare. She had wonderful memories, stunning detailed memories, of life with her parents. I also came away with new photographs and letters from the visit with her.

Indy: Did you, in the course of writing the book, find yourself as enthralled with George Mallory as so many writers have been?

Gillman: Absolutely. I know that bio-graphers are meant to keep their distance, but our admiration for him grew and grew. We thought he was a man of high ideals who very much wanted to be true to his beliefs and his feelings. He was very modern in that way. I hope we developed some kind of kinship with him [in the book], to help understand him.

[His] was the classic lure, the dilemma that climbers face. In the end, I mean, he was a climber, and climbers do make these choices. It was a painful decision between [his wife Ruth] and the mountain. I guess he thought "I can have both; I can go and have the mountain and come home and have her as well."

Indy: Your book deals with Mallory's purported homosexual relationships more than any other. How has this been received by his family and by the mountaineering community?

Gillman: In general, we're receiving very broad acclaim for having written the first full narrative of his life. We have at last addressed the issues of his homosexual relationships in the Bloomsbury and Cambridge periods and have established that he had one short and unhappy [homosexual relationship]. By and large people have given a very mature response, and said, "Here we are, we've addressed the truth, and told it."

His relations like the book very much, indeed. Clare is quite happy about it. I think we were a little worried about how the male side, John Mallory and his son George, might respond, but they've been very generous about it and George in particular has said that it has given him a very fine, new appreciation of his grandfather. Leni and I decided you can't discover a truth like that and not write it because, otherwise, what's a biographer for?

Indy: Very often the word "obsession" is used in reference to the way George felt about Everest. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Gillman: I think that "obsession" is absolutely wrong. There were so many other things in his life, which is one reason we wrote the biography. That term is very unfair to him, because it underrepresents the extent and complexity of his other interests. When he came back from the second trip in 1922, I think he put Everest aside and almost hoped and assumed it wouldn't come back into his life. He knew what he was up to, he knew what the odds were, and he knew what life was about. He was passionate when he was there, and he really wanted to climb it, but that certainly doesn't make you obsessed.

Indy: Conrad Anker free climbed the Second Step (a large rock wall that must be climbed in order to reach the summit from the Northeast Ridge) in 1999 and rated it a level of 5.10 AO, supposedly at or above the limit of George's abilities. Still, do you personally think George could have, or did, climb it?

Gillman: I think he could have done it. You see, Conrad climbed it in about 5 minutes. The Chinese are the only other people to have sort of free climbed it [in 1975] and it took them about three hours, and somewhere in between is the time in which Mallory could have climbed it. I think the great problem is, could he have got Irvine up it as well? That's a very difficult question.

I think all the evidence means they probably didn't [make the summit]. You've got the whole problem of did they get up the Second Step, and could they get back down it against the whole question of where were they when Noel Odell saw them.

Indy: Odell said that he saw them near the base of the summit pyramid, but then later questioned himself.

Gillman: "One step below the summit pyramid," I think he said. I think he saw them on the Second Step. But I'm only basing that on other people who have gone there, and stood where Odell stood, and looked up the line that he looked up and matched his description. I go with them.

Indy: Have you ever been on Everest?

Gillman: I went to Tibet in 1992 to write about the Chinese occupation. And by great fortune we came back overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu and saw it across the plains from Tingri. I haven't been nearer than that.

Indy: Do you have any plans to get any nearer? Perhaps climb it?

Gillman: I think I'm too old. I'm 58, you see. I think basically that my knees are too worn out. I wish I'd had the chance 20 years ago to go. I would love to see those places and I'm very grateful to have seen it from Tingri. I'd love to have had the chance, but I think it's gone now.

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