Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition

Image of Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition
Release Date: 
May 1, 2024
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

“Conefrey tackles the man, the mission, and the myth of George Mallory, starting with his childhood and boyish love of adventure, leading to his untimely, and youthful, death . . .”

When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously said, “Because it is there.” And it is “there” that Mallory’s body has lain, mummified, for a century, marking him as a three-time loser to Everest in bids to scale its summit.

In Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition, Mick Conefrey’s fascinating entry into Everest lore, the reader gets “there” inside the mind of the determined Mallory who, along with his climbing companion, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, simply vanished in June of 1924.

Conefrey also puts the reader “there” alongside the search team that discovered Mallory’s broken body on the slopes of Everest in 1999, the apparent result of a fall. Irvine’s body remains missing.

Left unanswered is the question that has plagued the climbing world for 100 years: Did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit before meeting their apparent demise? It was nearly 30 years after the failed 1924 expedition before Everest was finally conquered—if such a word can be used. Perhaps “summited” is a better word; arguably, no one conquers Everest.

One of the first things done by New Zealander Edmund Hillary, part of that successful 1953 team, was to “look for evidence that Mallory and Irvine might have preceded him to the summit, but he found nothing.” The truth is that the question remains unanswered because, absent eyewitness testimony, it is unanswerable. It does, however, leave plenty of room for debate.

“Every version of [Mallory’s and Irvine’s] final day is of course theoretical, and in every instance there are contradictions and problems in fitting all the ‘clues’ together. It’s perhaps why Mallory’s story continues to fascinate so many people.”

Conefrey’s recounting of the 1999 search for the bodies of Mallory and Irvine is, in many respects, as fascinating as the story of the 1924 mission itself. Previous searches, failures all, focused largely on the unanswerable “did they make it?” aspect of the mission. As the author writes about the day that Mallory’s body was discovered, it was “day one of their search for Everest’s Holy Grail: a camera that had gone missing seventy-five years earlier when George Mallory made his final, fateful attempt on Everest.”

The hope was that the camera, which had been loaned to Mallory but “had never come back,” might contain undeveloped, but still developable, film of photographs that might have been snapped from Everest’s summit. If so, the eye of the camera could provide that necessary eyewitness proof of Mallory’s full ascent.

But they didn’t find the camera. Instead, the team found the man himself, confirmed by DNA samples, his “ancient body almost frozen into Everest . . . arms stretching upwards . . . .” Some have pointed to those upstretched arms as proof that Mallory failed to reach the top, as if in his dying moments he still aspired to move upward.

The fact that Irvine’s body has never been found has led to a belief that his body had fallen off steep cliffs, never to be recovered. And, as mysteries are wont to do, the “did they make it?” mystery has propagated conspiracy theories. For example, some have posited that Irvine’s body was found, and spirited away, by a Chinese team and that film in his camera had been destroyed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the 1924 expedition involved the use, or non-use, of oxygen. The author describes it as a controversy over the “sporting ethics” of using “artificial aids” in an ascent. One could have substituted the term “steroids” for “oxygen” and modernized the debate.

Yet it was a real issue in mountaineering at that time, particularly in light of the necessity of carrying large numbers of oxygen sets—“primitive in design and heavy and awkward to wear when climbing”—when every additional ounce added to a climber’s burden might impact life or death. It’s an open question whether the 1924 failure can be even partially attributed to oxygen issues.

The author notes that a central question in the “did they make it” dispute is “did they have sufficient oxygen to get to the top?” The answer, he says, is murky. But emerging evidence suggests that “the 1924 oxygen apparatus did not work well and may have contributed to Mallory and Irvine’s demise.”

In logical fashion, Conefrey tackles the man, the mission, and the myth of George Mallory, starting with his childhood and boyish love of adventure, leading to his untimely, and youthful, death on the slopes of the world’s highest mountain. Tragic, yet somehow fitting for a man of his background and character. As the expression often cited by James Dean goes: Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Even if that corpse is frozen in perpetuity on the heights of Mount Everest.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Conefrey notes that the unanswered, or unanswerable, questions about Mallory resulted in “mythical projections” of him as a “medieval knight or, more recently, the incarnation of adventure itself.” Because of the way Mallory died, and his young age, “[b]efore long the myth started to replace the man.” The legend, in another word.

Fallen is valuable in many respects, not the least of which is its grounding of the myth in reality. Mallory was, in fact, a flesh and blood human being with flaws and foibles just like those who have never attempted to conquer anything more than an afternoon nap, dreaming dreams on a couch, much less Mount Everest. The key fact that distinguishes Mallory might just be his willingness to get off that couch and chase those dreams.