“…the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful sand so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshhold of their high endeavor.”

— George Mallory

Life and Death on Mount Everest

The path to Everest in 1921 and 2006

No matter how immovable the many mountains may seem, the recent earthquakes in Nepal have illuminated to the world how fragile the ground beneath our feet truly is. Epicentered between Pokhara and Kathmandu in central Nepal, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed and wounded thousands, left homeless many hundreds of thousands more, and decimated the infrastructure of the mountainous country. Many more casualties are expected as aftershocks continue to set life on edge. And while officials slowly respond to the isolated communities of villages dotting the Nepali countryside, locals do what they can to help on their own. Climbers in the Himalayan mountains have felt firsthand a small portion of what the creation of the globe’s youngest mountain range may have felt like when the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian plate. That collision is still happening. The earthquake triggered several avalanches, one of which poured through Everest Base Camp like a 20-story tall tidal wave of snow, killing 18 in the process.

Apart from the tragic loss of life, the damage of cultural capital is devastating. Irreplaceable sites of archaeological significance have been obliterated. It will take years and billions to recover from the disaster (unless we forgive their debt). Unqualified aid workers streaming into the country (ala the 2010 Haiti earthquake) are not what the Nepali need. Claire Bennett suggests handouts in the short term and rebuilding sustainably in the long term. Perhaps it is too early to comment, but this horrible event may provide an opportunity for just that kind of change. The Nepali disaster seems similar to many other Asian countries that have suffered earthquakes in that an abnormally high number of deaths occur where poor infrastructure and high poverty are the norm. The average Nepali salary is roughly equivalent to $750. The most lucrative job belong to the Sherpa who are the designated guide to the Himalaya, earning several thousands of dollars per climbing season. With the advent of adventure mountaineering, climbing Mt. Everest has become a reality for people whose only qualification is the thousands of dollars for a permit, especially since the government slashed the permit price in order to attract more climbers, most of whom have no business climbing the Santa Monica Mountains let alone the most dangerous mountain range in the world.

But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Click To Tweet

The Siege on Everest

While it seems idiotic to say that karma has anything to do with the recent tragedies on Everest, there are surely some who have thought about it. Many believe that Miyolangsangma, a Tibetan Buddhist “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving”, once lived at the top of what the Nepali call Sagarmāthā, Mt. Everest. According to Broughton Coburn in his article on Sherpas for National Geographic “to Sherpa Buddhist monks, Mt. Everest is Miyolangsangma’s palace and playground, and all climbers are only partially welcome guests, having arrived without invitation.” The mountain may be a playground for the gods, but it remains a dangerous and dirty reality for all parties involved in the new economy coming to Nepal.

In his book Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis reveals the reticence of the Tibetans and the outright denial of the Nepalese to allow the British into their country. Decades of failed attempts involving stealth, subterfuge, and the cold-blooded slaughter of monks by the British finally saw the door to Everest open. But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Perhaps that ultimate quest, so nobly started, has since been taken too far. Our World, the UN University’s online magazine published a story in 2013 concerning Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest and National Geographic offers 6 ways to repair Everest. But more than the pollution that the western world brings with it, recently the mountain has been taking tribute back. Outside Online looks at 2014, Everest’s Darkest Year, in which 16 Sherpa died when a 31 million pound serac broke off of the western shoulder and plummeted onto the Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Icefall. Little did the author know that just one season later, in 2015, would his title need to be revised to Everest’s 2nd Darkest Year.

Alongside being an award-winning anthropologist, the author of fifteen books, Wade Davis, is National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence. In Into The Silence, he shows the British expeditions of the Himalayan Range—and much of the conquest of the third world—are characterized by the dualism of Britain: the manifest destiny of a deserving upper class to deliver the world from savagery and the romantic notions of misanthropic lower-middle class dreamers to be useful. The rest are just more cannon fodder for the colonies. Somewhere in the quagmire of imperialistic desires and day-to-day reality there is argument that despite the massive culling of the “savages” in the process, that there is a kind of noble sentiment, much as the Japanese continue to argue about their erstwhile Asian colonies, in the British mapping, modernizing and laying the framework for much of the modern world. In the decades leading up to the first world war, the British Empire was continuing very much in a business as usual manner in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, New Guinea, much of Africa, and of course, India.

Mercantile zeal, severe military reprisals and the subversion of the local elites all played a role in the maintenance of the Raj. But what really held it together was the audacity of the venture, the sheer gall of a small island nation that had never set out to rule the world but did so with such flair.

–Wade Davis

As George Mallory and the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition searched for a route to the summit from the North Col of Mt. Everest late in 1921, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was waiting for publication. Central to The Waste Land is the medieval Grail adventure of Parsifal, and the Fisher King, “he who is too ill to live but not ill enough to die”. The tale of the knight who seeks his own path on the pilgrimmage for wholeness mirrors on a minor scale Mallory’s own Himalayan quest, and on a major scale the search of a continent for meaning in a post-war world. Eliot was able to synthesize the hopes and fears of the western world—a world of people living inauthentic lives—in a beautiful and esoteric 64 page poem. Mallory was able to do this by pulling himself and a team of ragtag amateurs, so close to the top of the world, he became what the world needed most, a new Arthurian legend.

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Wade Davis – Into The Silence The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

A part of this subconscious desire to conquer and yet be the benevolent rulers, for the British, was to discover the unknown. For more than one hundred years the cartographers of the Survey of India had triangulated and established every measurement of the subcontinent, save the youngest and tallest set of mountains in the world, the Himalaya. The biggest difference between the initial forays into the Himalaya frontier with those of today were that they began in Darjeeling rather than Nepal, a country that remained closed off to the British until after the second world war. In fact, the largest initial obstacles, other than getting to the remote northeast corner of India and acclimatizing to the severe altitude of the mountains themselves, were political considerations. Tibet wanted nothing to do with the British, and Nepal, a more established state at this time, was completely unwilling to to allow a survey team carte blanche to roam its valleys and peaks. Still, somehow the British made inroads into Tibet, with Brigadier-General Cecil Rawling, the Brit that had first explored the Himalaya and the foothills of Everest in 1903, who along with more than 500,000 others died at the Battle of Paschendaelle in 1917. There is the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a de facto invasion of the country and massacred hundreds of the monk militia at Guru. Despite this unspeakable act (which helped lead to Chinese control), Younghusband had become mystically entranced by the beauty of the country and wrote eloquently about it for the rest of his life. He became the president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919 and, together with the Alpine Club, championed the reconnaissance of the Himalaya as the Chairman of the newly created Mount Everest Committee. When permission was finally granted by the 13th Dalai Lama for the 1921 expedition, it was an extremely unpopular decision with the other highly placed monks, who thought the British partly crazy for uselessly seeking to climb into such a dangerous scenario, and partly believed them to be a gang of spies. This paranoid belief eventually barred any member of the Survey of India from future inclusion on the climbing team, which with their surfeit of expert mountaineers became one of the reasons why the first campaigns resulted in at least some kind of failure.

Just having emerged from World War I, the career militarists who led the expeditions favored a militaristic siege style of expedition. This was to be an assault on the mountain and they needed a plan of attack. Almost the entirety of the team involved had miraculously survived the hell of the Great War and as such most were searching for some kind of meaning to make out of all the death. Davis calls conquering the tallest mountain in the world (and mapping yet another the unknown frontier to boot), a “gesture of imperial redemption” for a country that, despite it leading to no tangible result, except as Mallory famously put it when asked while on tour in the U.S., “because it is there,” could be what both the men involved and the British public at large very much needed to revive the old English pluck.

Yet ignorant of the impending danger lurking at every cruelly beautiful rise and somehow flailing through the journey without completely destroying themselves, the first campaigns led by General Bruce could be likened to infants toddling about in a minefield. The naïveté of the ingenue Brits, who didn’t know that they should all be failing horribly and so actually merited a measure of success, even as the bureaucracy of the Everest Committee committed mistake after mistake, turns out to be something of an asset, and is exemplified by the absent-minded dreamer George Mallory, an idiot-savant of a mountain climber who almost single-handedly pioneered the northern route to the summit. It was only the lack of understanding the nature of the Himalaya connection with the subcontinent’s summer monsoon season, and the onset of winter, that prevented a serious attempt. So blinded by their own westernized hubris the team thought merely missing the winter snows would be sufficient and so didn’t depart for Darjeeling from England by steamer until early April 1921, and didn’t begin the arduous trek through the Chumbi Valley until May, spent June and July stumbling around the Rongbuk valley and its glaciers, were stalled by the monsoon in August and September, finally reaching the path to Everest, deranged and bedraggled, sometime in October.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Everest Panoramas by Howard-Bury, C.K. The Mount Everest Expedition.

Yet it was not Mallory who found that path, but Edward Oliver Wheeler, Canadian surveyor, who in stealing away on his own to photograph found passage through the East Rongbuk glacier below the Lhakpa La pass. It wasn’t until September that Mallory, Bullock & Wheeler used the Lhakpa La pass to become the first westerners to reach the North Col of Everest and set the modern route to the mountain. Though considered a mere surveyor by many, Wheeler was an accomplished climber, having grown up ascending the Canadian Rockies, as well the chief photographer of that first expedition. Apart from the capturing the minds of subsequent climbers and the British public, his photographic efforts may have more rapidly brought about the development of the modern portable camera:

He carried the camera, a supply of eleven glass plates, as well as notebooks and pencils in a stout leather case in a knapsack that weighed some thirty pounds. The theolodite broke down into to parts, each stored in a protective wooden box. Together with the tripod, this added another twenty-seven pounds. The leveling base for the camera, spare plate holders, measuring tapes, three-cornered canvas bags to fill with dirt or stones to steady the tripod, and other miscellaneous items brought the total field kit to nearly 100 pounds. In addition, there was the supply of glass negatives, which Wheeler had packed himself, wrapping each plate in dry botanical paper, then placing them individually in one-inch protective sleeves in tin-lined boxes, which he personally sealed with solder. Each of these boxes weighed thirty-two pounds. He would secure and develop 240 images.

Having reached the North Col and been turned away, yet still miraculously alive (save for Keller) the team, defeated but not dismayed, through the Everest Committee, quickly geared up for a second expedition in the spring of 1922. Though they were much earlier than in 1921 the group were still disadvantaged by several key factors:

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Self portrait of John Noel, filming the ascent from Chang La, the North Col in 1922

E.O. Wheeler, the Canadian surveyor who found the path to the North Col, was discluded due to politics rather than talent. The team would miss his variety of skill. The 48-year-old Colonel Strutt, was made new “climbing leader” by General Bruce largely due to him being a highly decorated military commander. The team still had little idea of the true route to the North Face and wasted precious time between the end of winter and the oncoming Monsoon Season searching various paths. Though they had the use of oxygen tanks, this was the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), and all involved had little idea how lack of oxygen affected humans at high altitude. Many preferred to go without, to their detriment. The attitude of “real men don’t use bottle air” likely still holds some kind sway to this day. All this in addition to insufficient equipment (clothing, tents, food) and equipment failure (those damn oxygen tanks), as well as the lack of any decent idea about how the monsoon rains affect weather at the top of the world. They would not make the peak. The wishy-washy method of finding a route in time plus the unpredictability of the monsoon made ascent impossible and put the climbing team in more unpredictable and dangerous situations where making life and death decisions too casually caused the death of seven porters in an avalanche on the descent from the North col.

Despite the unrealistic pressures of the militarists for success at all cost versus the mountaineers more realistic view yet equally deranged undertaking, the addition of the photographer John Noel was crucial to the future of the mythical Mount Everest in the eyes of the western world. He would go on to make two documentaries about his experiences in the Himalaya and be key in fundraising to get the team back to the mountain in 1924.

There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration--to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Click To Tweet

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Mallory’s Route up the North Face

While the remainder of 1922 was reserved for soul-searching the Everest Committee was committed to another shot at Everest. Despite bankruptcy that delayed them an entire year and a continued military style leadership that was more political than practical, it had become abundantly clear that Mallory was the only one who could attempt and truly have a shot at the peak, but he needed more than just an adequate team, he needed to believe. The mountain had changed Mallory in ways he had never suspected possible. Despite all of his newfound fame at home he was almost destitute, still away from his family for the most part, having to work as a teacher for disagreeable men, yet enjoying no sense of the exhilaration of exploring such a place as the Himalaya, where men dared not go. After having been so close to the top, one can only imagine the solitude he felt at the bottom, where he was just another regular joe amongst the rest of the lowly rabble of society. It was for his wife that the decision cost him any sleep, for soon enough he was neck deep in preparations for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition.

The elderly head of the expedition Charles Bruce was soon struck down with malaria and succeeded by Edward Norton, an officer and a capable climber. On finding the route and establishing camps higher and higher along the way to the North Col, Captain Geoffrey Bruce (the brother of the General) along with Mallory made the first summit attempt. Abandoned by their porters and having to set up camp themselves in torrents of icy wind without the use of oxygen, they soon descended to a lower camp and met Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell on their way up. It was here that Norton set the confirmed world record climbing altitude of 8570 m which was not surpassed for another 28 years until the 1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition. But he too was turned away due to climbing difficulty and lack of oxygen, while his partner Somervell nearly died on top. On the way down, he passed Mallory and the engineering student Andrew Irvine, who had decided to give it one last attempt, this time with oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air–a very difficult, if not impossible free climb. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory could have faced.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did the photo go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

It is an understandable passion, to see a mountain and want to scale it, for good or ill, we will never stop the quest to explore our world. Whether it be the honorable act of mountain climbing corrupted or one of profitable oil drilling gone bad, the world will not wait for permission. Come what may, we act now and beg for forgiveness later. In the rush to outpace death we often invite it to our own–and those less advantaged’s–doorstep. But what is the alternative? To wait for life to snuff itself out, whittling away at a lump of wood on the porch, or to seek it out, even to the extremes and damned be the costs, for the glory of humankind? There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration–to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Beyond whether man’s desire to attain the peak of Everest (or any other absurd activity) at any cost merely “because it is there” is right or wrong, should we not rather look toward the plight of the many and spend our precious time and limited energy on fixing our homes and neighborhoods? Or as Sogyal Rinpoche says:

All too often people come to meditation in the hope of extraordinary results, like visions, lights, or some supernatural miracle. When no such thing occurs, they feel extremely disappointed. But the real miracle of meditation is more ordinary and much more useful.


Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury and George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston
Climbing Mount Everest, 1922, The Epic of Everest, 1924, by John Noel
Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011, by Wade Davis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas Broughton Coburn, National Geographic (magazine).