Dot has a thought not connected with babies

Dot writes: I’m reading Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld’s book The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine. This was published in 1986 but revised in the wake of the finding of Mallory’s body by the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Although the Holzel and Salkeld book aims to investigate what happened on Everest in 1924 when George Mallory and Sandy Irvine failed to return from their summit bid, it starts much further back in Mallory’s life and includes a fairly full account of all three 1920s British Everest attempts. What strikes me about it so far is that the authors don’t think much of Mallory. They portray him as snobbish, disorganised, an irresponsible leader, prone to contradicting himself, and superior to other climbers of his day only in ambition. Comparing him with the Australian (Swiss-educated) climber George Finch, who was regarded as socially a bit suspect and a difficult person by other British alpinists, they clearly prefer Finch. It’s as though having chosen to investigate Mallory so intensively has aroused in them an intense irritation, as of one stuck endlessly in a tent with someone who initially seemed quite charming.

Earlier this year I read a biography of Mallory (Dudley Green, Because It’s There). I finished it thinking that Mallory was a true hero, brave, good, physically outstanding, a man not only of great talent but of fine character; I enjoyed the old-fashioned thrill of unqualified admiration, which is a luxury rarely enjoyed in the world of celebs and G2. I was intrigued enough by the contrast between the two portraits of Mallory to compare the books’ accounts of the incident in 1922 when nine porters in a party led by Mallory and Somervell were killed in an avalanche. I was quite surprised to find that Holzel and Salkeld on the one hand and Green on the other tell much the same story using exactly the same sources. It is simply the editing, and the authors’ comments (Green offers little evaluation of his own), that give so different an impression. For example, both books quote a letter from Longstaff in which he criticizes the decisions that led up to the fatal accident:

To attempt such a passage in the Himalaya after new snow is idiotic. What the hell did they think they could do on Everest in such conditions even if they did get up to the North Col.

But only Holzel and Salkeld quote the previous sentence that specifically attacks Mallory (‘Mallory cannot even observe the conditions in front of him’), or Longstaff’s assessment of his character earlier in the letter:

Mallory is a very good stout hearted baby, but quite unfit to be placed in charge of anything, including himself.

This of course is only one person’s judgement of Mallory’s behaviour in the incident; but it is clear Holzel and Salkeld afford it more weight than Green does.

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4 thoughts on “Dot has a thought not connected with babies

  1. Dear Dot,

    Thanks for the great article! As a Mallory & Irvine history buff (I was fortunate enough to be a climber on and photographer for the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition), I am always thrilled when I come across new tidbits of information about the history and mystery. Although I read Tom & Audrey’s book many years ago – when it came out – I had forgotten the passages by Tom Longstaff. Great to read them again because, as much as I admire Mallory in many regards, it is important to shed light on his entire character, which was not always up to snuff in comparison to others on the trip.

    If you are interested, read and watch some Mallory & Irvine videos on my blog at http://mountainworld.typepad.com (just search for Mallory & Irvine using the search box on the right).

    And, on a side note, congrats on the little one! We have a 4 month old – quite an adventure!

    Best of luck to you, and thanks again,

    Jake Norton
    MountainWorld Productions

  2. Dot

    Dear Jake,

    I’m delighted you like the post. I’ve got the book Ghosts of Everest that describes the 1999 expedition and I’ve visited mountainworld.typepad.com before to look at your photographs, so it’s very exciting to get your comment.

    So far all my reading on Mallory and Irvine has been in secondary sources. Comparing the different treatments of the avalanche incident has brought home to me not just how there are different takes on Mallory’s character but also how a serious assessment ought to be based on primary research. I wonder where the letters of Tom Longstaff and others are archived? I doubt I will do serious research on this topic but that’s definitely where I would start, not being able to go to Everest and look as you have.

    Dot.

  3. Dot

    P.S. Embarrassingly, my memory played me false in at least one detail in the post. Two porters were dug out alive after the avalanche and the death toll – a heavy one – was seven not nine.

    Dot.

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