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  Mallory and Irvine The Final Chapter: Face To Face with  George Leigh Mallory


FACE TO FACE WITH GEORGE LEIGH MALLORY

Author: Thom Pollard

Date: January 9, 2004 

On May 16, 1999 I came face to face with George Leigh Mallory.

After the bitter disappointment of turning back with faulty oxygen on May 1 -- the day of Mallory's discovery -- I'd lost lots of sleep over having missed one of the biggest events in modern mountaineering history. The news of the discovery spread 'round the world like wildfire. Until one contemplates the overwhelming response to this discovery it's hard to understand what it was like to miss it by a hair's breadth.

There were many unanswered questions still haunting us. The biggest of all: where was the camera? Wanting to answer that question was a galvanizing force for a divided team. We wearily descended to Base Camp under the watchful eyes of the world for a long rest before a summit bid and final search for Sandy Irvine.  We'd strongly differed in opinion on what to do with the photographs, if they should be sold and to whom we should sell them, and what to do with the artifacts.  To add to the confusion, three competing book contracts had materialized, causing a sense of paranoia in camp.

On May 13 we were back in place for our final push when a three-day storm at 25,800-foot Camp 5 blew in.  The wait only exacerbated the troublesome problems the discovery had brought us.  Even so, these long days and restless nights waiting out the storm with Tap Richards were some of the most fun I've ever had in the mountains.  But, the snowfall had made any discovery of Irvine unlikely. So, the plans were altered to include a retracing of the Mallory site. Another look might turn up the elusive camera. A metal detector would be our proverbial fine-toothed comb.

Sitting there so close to both the summit and the site of Mallory, I realized that, yes, there was something that could keep me from this long-awaited shot at the summit. Seeing Mallory would surely be a once-in-a-lifetime event that only a handful would experience. Plus, as high-altitude cameraman for Nova and the BBC, I'd felt some responsibility to be there to film should the camera turn up.

May 16.  After carrying a tent, rope and additional supplies to Camp 6 for the summit team, Andy Politz and I made our way back to Mallory's body. The sight of Mallory's foot protruding from the end of the rocks was the most powerful and humbling site of my life. It brought tears to my eyes. Carefully excavating underneath his frozen body we gently lifted him so that Andy could sweep underneath with the metal detector.

I dropped on all fours and crawled beneath to grab any object that made the metal detector blip. Quite unexpectedly, while laying flat down on my stomach, I turned upward to find myself face to face with Mallory. I gasped: "Andy, I'm looking right into his face!"  On May 1 no one had looked into his face, which was still downward to the slope.

copyright@Thom Pollard

The likeness of George Leigh Mallory was perfectly preserved, calm with eyes closed. He showed the whiskers of someone who hadn't shaved in a few days. But, most importantly, I knew at the instant of seeing him that Mr. Mallory had not suffered an agonizing death, as the May 1 team had understandably guessed.  Above his left eye, in his forehead, was a fracture the size of a golf ball. Two shards of bone stuck out from the hole. I report this not for any need to convey something gruesome, but only to tell a more exact story of how this icon of exploration history had perished.

Andy and I agreed it would have been wrong to take photographs of Mallory's face. It was getting late. We descended under a setting sun.  Arriving back at Camp 5 under a brilliant starry sky I recapped my experience to Andy -- and to my journal. I wanted to be sure that as the only person to have seen Mallory's face my reporting was correct.  Before turning in, well after midnight, our thoughts turned to the summit team and our two Sherpas who'd joined them for the attempt. After missing the discovery of May 1, it was good to have the opportunity to contribute the reconstruction of the story of Mallory and Irvine's fateful day 75 years before.

(Pollard's next article will discuss the artifacts they found, including the finding of Mallory's watch, and how most or all of the printed details relating to the watch are incorrect.)

Thom Pollard, author and motivational speaker. To book Thom
 






 

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