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The Mount Everest Expedition of 1924


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Looking like flies crawling up the silver envelope of a Zeppelin, thirteen black dots were visible on the face of a mighty mountain, at some 20,000 feet above sea-level.

Two more were farther down by what looked to be an inverted teacup, their tiny tent. They had just beaten the world's height record for climbing by advancing it from 24,000 to 27,000 feet. But the mountain up which the thirteen were crawling was over 29,000 feet, and still unconquered.

Draw near, if you dare, to these thirteen black dots, and you will still be in time for one of the tragic adventures in the epic of Everest.

The three leaders were British climbers; they wore helmets, goggles and face-masks to protect them from the bitter cold. One of them was the intrepid Mallory, a famous name that will endure as long as the mountain itself, for he was one of the bravest and cleverest mountaineers that this world has seen. With him were two other redoubtable climbers, Somervell and Crawford, and a porter, all roped together.

Following them at intervals up the steep white face, through snow that reached to their knees, were nine care-free Nepalese coolies, three strings of them, clothed in green woollen cloth. The party was making yet another attempt on the summit of Everest.

The three Englishmen, being in the lead, and unladen, were stamping out steps for the heavily-burdened porters who carried their tent, provisions and oxygen cylinders. The snow adhered to the ice, and so there was no need at the moment to chop out steps in the glacier with ice-axes, the usual exhausting practice when climbing in these regions. But there was danger: the danger of one man slipping and dragging the others down with him; of a fall backwards into airy space; or of a bigger fall should an avalanche break away from the mountain mass above them, sweeping everything in its route down to the crevasses and peaks of the glaciers below.

They make fair progress, for the day is bright and windless. Now they approach an enormous block of ice below a pass in the mountain range which they have named the North Col, over whose tall saddle they must go to reach that snow-clad ridge which leads up to the summit still 10,000 feet away. This redoubtable North Gol, discovered by Mallory in 1922, is one of the chief obstacles to the assault on Everest. When both this Col and the crest of a steep rock-face some 400 feet high at 28,000 feet, have been gained, all will be easy. Then any babe in mountaineering can stroll over the distant snow-crest to the very top and see at last, from the highest point of the world, the sunbeams pouring over the peaks, and through the valleys of the majestic Himalayas. It is the desire to be first to reap this reward that allures them, and gives spirit to nerve and muscle as they labour upwards.

Suddenly a peculiar sound startled the climbers and their coolies - sharp, continuous, arresting. It was violent and very near, and it had the sound of a muffled explosion.

Mallory, the Bayard of the mountains, had never before heard a sound just like it, though he had heard and seen most things that happen at high altitudes. An earthquake anywhere is an awesome sight, especially when it shakes a mountain. But this was not an earthquake, though Mallory saw the surface of the snow about him break and pucker, and then begin to move swiftly downwards, carrying him with it, still roped to the other three.

What the others were doing he could not discern, for in that blinding snow-whirl everything was blotted out. Yet even in that appalling moment the mountaineer kept his head. He contrived to avoid being thrown backwards and headlong (though some of the others did not) and to struggle away from the fast-moving centre of the snow-channel. For a second or two now he seemed to be hardly in danger, though still gliding downwards and enveloped in snow. Then he did an amazing thing. Remembering that the best chance of escape from this type of predicament was by copying a swimmer, he made motions with hands and legs, as though swimming on his back, and this while still in an avalanche being carried down the mountainside.

After his first acceleration he had no impression of speed, nor of the world outside, while he continued to struggle with the tumbling snow. But presently he felt the rope about him tighten, and that his movement through space was easing up. He wondered how much he would be squeezed under the weight of the avalanche now coming to rest on his body. He was surprised to discover that when he stopped moving, his arms and legs were almost free. After a few struggles he was standing erect, surprised and breathless but unhurt, in the motionless snow, but farther down the slope which he had just been climbing. He supposed that the porter who had been roped next to him was embedded deep and dead from suffocation. Mallory pulled the rope, and to his further surprise the porter appeared unharmed like himself.

As Mallory looked round he saw the arms and heads of Somervell and Crawford fighting upwards through the snow; though they had been some distance above him when they fell, they were now quite close. Their experience had been similar to his. It was perhaps remarkable that they had not struck each other in their struggles.

But this was no time for congratulations. Looking down, they could see but one of their three groups of porters, 150 feet below. They presumed that the other two strings of five and four were buried somewhere between the two parties. Preparing to dig for them, the climbers noticed that the porters were not coming to their aid, but were beckoning and pointing farther downwards. The other nine, through being nearer the centre, where the movement was swiftest, had been carried much lower. The climbers, hurrying downwards, hoped fervently that they were safe; but when they came to the top of a steep ice-cliff over which these men must have been swept, their hopes vanished, for below was a considerable drop. Making a detour, they came to the foot of the ice-cliff, where there was a crevasse filled with avalanche snow. They dug and soon uncovered a man who was still breathing; but the man next to him was dead.

The other porters, who had escaped, now pulled themselves together and joined Crawford in the search at the foot of the cliff, while Mallory and Somervell groped down into the crevasse, where they found a rope which convinced them that the missing men were near. Loosening the snow and shovelling it up with their hands was slow work. But the rope guided them to the lost men, the first of whom was dug up lifeless. Another was found to be breathing, though he had dropped head first for 200 feet, and was still upside-down. So tightly wedged in was he that he could only be extricated with the greatest difficulty after his heavy load of four oxygen cylinders had been cut from his back. Yet, though he had been buried for forty minutes, neither the fall nor the suffocation, to say nothing of the position in which he was found, had done him any harm. He lived and played an important part in further assaults on Everest.

But only one other porter was found. After being swept over the cliff and buried, the rest must have been dead for some time, and so the search had to be abandoned. The two who had so marvellously escaped were able to walk with the others down to the camp. All the coolies agreed that it was best for their friends to be buried under the Everest snows; and before leaving they helped to build a cairn to their memory. The porters had the soldiers' fatalistic argument about themselves and their friends. If their names were written on an avalanche, a falling stone, an ice-cliff, then they would die in the mountains; if not, they were as safe on Everest as anywhere in the world.

But that tragedy, which caused the death of seven porters, brought to an abrupt end the 1922 attempt to storm the summit, though the experience gained in that tremendous assault opened the way to still more remarkable achievements in the expedition of 1924, which is perhaps the real epic of Everest.

When Mallory was first asked by the Mt. Everest Committee to participate in an expedition to the top of the world, he accepted quite casually, without enthusiasm. But from the moment when the first expedition started in 1921, to the end of the third expedition in 1924, when he was last seen alive approaching the summit, he was the central figure of those brave bands of mountaineers who made that series of stupendous assaults.

His comrades were united in their admiration of his bravery and his prowess. They said of him that he would bear the brunt of any climb, and that when he came to an obstacle that was so formidable as to frighten the boldest spirit, he was so valiant and impatient by nature to reach the top of the world's highest mountain that his nerves could be seen to tighten like fiddle-strings. Once he had made up his mind that a certain approach was possible, however difficult the feat and however giddy the height, he would be the first man to gird up his loins and jump into the lead. Casual at the outset, but from then onwards he was the spirit and energy of the fight for Everest.

At the end of the reconnaisance expedition, Mallory, haying at last decided upon the true approach, stood and gazed on Everest, determined, like the rest, to return and win to the top. That was in 1921. Yet Everest still defies all comers to conquer it and live to tell the story. And no wonder. Though believed to be conquerable, it presents innumerable difficulties. Its main defences are its terribly low temperatures, its hurricanes and snow-blizzards, its avalanches and glaciers, and its tremendous precipices. But it has yet another protector which prevents it from being assailed too often, and, according to the superstitious, this is the greatest defence of all.

Tibet regards Everest as the Goddess-Mountain who wreaks vengeance on those who would penetrate her secrets and solve her age-old mysteries. When crops fail, when cattle die, when fires flame or disease sweeps across the windy plateaux of Tibet, blame nowadays falls on those hare-brained Britishers like Mallory and his companions who, coming from the level lands of England, dare to hazard what her own sturdy mountaineers would never attempt, the conquest of that rocky mass where lives the Goddess of mountains.

Superstitious Tibetans and Indians who live round the Himalayas are convinced that Everest will never yield up her secrets. She stands alone in a sea of mountain peaks, her central pyramid rising to the highest point on earth. Her summit is the remotest and most inhospitable spot we know. She is no broken craggy peak, but a prodigious mountain, a Gibraltar of the skies, her rocky mass coated over with a thin layer of powdery snow. This is constantly being blown about by the chill winds, and so Everest is generally wreathed in a snow-mist. Southwards towards Nepal there are tremendous unscalable precipices, but from the Tibet side there runs that ridge which, approached from the North Col, may one day carry some dauntless climber to its dizzy peak.

But it is difficult to get a permit to climb Everest - almost as difficult as it is to make the climb - for the Tibetans do not want to suffer from the vengeance of the mountain. Yet permits have been granted, and others will come.

For ages men have feared and shrunk back from the dreaded mountain; and yet we are not even certain that Everest has not been climbed. Three Englishmen may have won to the top before the mountain slew them. One of these was an eccentric youth named Wilson; the other two were Mallory and Irvine, whose names in 1924 thrilled through the world, like those of Scott and Oates some years before.

Mallory and his friends were sent out by an Everest Committee, but Wilson, who believed that expeditions can be over-organised, despised the help of comrades. He believed that a quick dash by a lone unauthorised climber had more chance of success, and he certainly deserved it, if only for his superb audacity. Wilson seemed to personalise the legend of "Excelsior," but the strange device that he bore on his banner as he struggled upwards was: "Contempt of all authority and every precedent."

Wilson was an airman; that is to say, he had just become one when, thirteen years after the first reconnaisance of the mountain, he flew from England to India, sold his aeroplane, and, avoiding the officials who endeavoured to prevent him, took a company of porters to within striking distance of the summit. Then he set out alone to achieve the goal, leaving orders with his porters that if he did not return in a fortnight they were to go back. He was last seen struggling up the final slope. Afterwards his body was picked up at the foot of the mountain; he had been killed by a tremendous fall. Whether he had slipped on the way down, or been blown over on the way up, none can say. But he made a gallant lone attempt which for sheer daring is hardly likely to be surpassed.

The two great climatic problems of Everest are thin air, which makes breathing so difficult, and the monsoon which, coming early in June, may melt the snows and ice and make the ascent or the return impossible. The expedition of 1924, in which Mallory made his third fight for Everest, passed up through Tibet in splendid weather. Morshead, who had distinguished himself in the 1922 effort, was unable to be in the party. One of Morshead's exploits had been to crawl down a steep slope, when a sick man, just to retrieve a rucksack containing necessary provisions, which had slipped down to the edge of a precipice. Other well-known climbers in the 1924 party were Somvervell, Norton, Odell, Hazard, and a strapping young fellow who had done wonders in sport in Spitzbergen, named Sandy Irvine. This youth was a born mechanic and nothing delighted him more than when the party had reached some narrow shelf and spread their tent high up on the mountain, to tinker with the oxygen apparatus, or do other mechanical work far into the night. Though only 22, Irvine was mentally and physically a full-grown man able to hold his own with Mallory and the others, who were twelve years older. Sandy's great idea was "always to play for the side," and although he hoped "to have a shot at the summit," he was quite prepared to fit in cheerfully with any proposal which would take him in or leave him out.

Irvine would join with the others in chaffing Mallory, who was somewhat of a highbrow, though his figure looked absurdly boyish and graceful for a man of 37.

A quip that was thrown at Mallory one night in camp was that the best thing which the Russians had done was the extermination of the intelligentsia.

Somervell, who had participated in the avalanche, was a doctor whose services were often unexpectedly needed. As on that tragi-comic occasion when he was suddenly called to attend one of the porters who had broken his leg through falling on the ice with a load on his back. This man had been Somervell's servant as they passed through Tibet, during which time the doctor had lost some articles of clothing. While setting the leg, Somervell made a discovery - the whereabouts of his lost underwear!

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