Because he was there...

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The Independent Culture
Did he just tug that tweed jacket tighter, gaze blankly over the incomparable panorama of arid Tibet, and let his mind slip into exhausted nothingness? The finding of George Leigh Mallory's body is a reminder that dying on Everest is easy. Since returning from the mountain a year ago, my most chilling and recurrent thought is what an immense relief it would have been to sit down, steady the gasping for breath, and try and shut out the wind and blinding sunlight. But what an effort it would have been to move again. Everest still holds the bodies of those whose numbed minds gave up the struggle.

For mountaineers, active or armchair, the questions revived by the finding of Mallory's body, 2,000ft below the summit of the Mother Goddess of the Earth, remain the same - did he and partner Andrew Irvine make the first ascent, and how did they die? So far, the US team who found the Englishman's remains have shed no light on either of these mysteries. The search goes on for the Kodak "vest pocket" Autographic camera which, it is believed, could reveal whether the pair reached the 29,028ft summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay staked their place in history on 29 May 1953. However, even the discovery of Mallory's body is a thing of wonder.

Mallory was the golden hero of British mountaineering at a time when it was the preserve of upper-middle-class gentlemen of generally a rather aesthetic bent. A Cambridge radical who became a teacher, he was idolised by members of the Bloomsbury set. Lytton Strachey described Mallory's body as "vast, pink, unbelievable - a thing to melt into and die". Duncan Grant painted him in the nude.

He and Irvine were last seen on Everest's summit ridge at 12.50pm on 8 June 1924. The expedition, led by Major Edward Norton, had approached from the Tibetan north side of the mountain, as was then a political necessity, Nepal being closed to Westerners. Geologist Noel Odell saw two black spots moving up a rock step. "Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud," he wrote in a dispatch to The Times. Odell thought the pair had been on the Second Step at 28,200 feet, though 10 years later revised his estimate to 300 feet lower following the discovery of an ice-axe, believed to have been Irvine's.

Mallory was 38, a family man who adored his wife, Ruth, and wrote her intimate, poetic letters from Everest. Irvine was a 22- year-old graduate with a zest for climbing and the strength to carry the heavy oxygen equipment. Viewed in such simple terms, they were not so much different from the climbers crowding Everest today, except for the poetry. Yet I, like any other climber who has been on the Big Hill, cannot but marvel at how the pair managed to get so high.

The body discovered by the US team was dressed in heavy tweed and a pair of leather boots. Think about it. Only gamekeepers obliged to follow a Victorian dress code would go out dressed like that, and even then on Scottish hills. I set off from Everest's South Col at 26,000 feet - the opposite side of the mountain to the 1924 route - encased in specialist goose-down-filled salopettes and jacket, said by the manufacturers to be comfortable down to -30C. Beneath the down I wore lightweight thermal layers, whereas I presume Mallory and Irvine at best had woollen shirts.

Thick leather boots and gaiters were probably fine while the pair were moving through dry snow, but as soon as they slowed or stopped, the icy cold, which has caused the loss of so many blackened, frostbitten fingers and toes, must have penetrated. Only in the last five years has a truly effective cold-beating boot been developed. Oxygen equipment is much lighter and more efficient than the "bloody load" Mallory complained of, and specialist glacier glasses keep out the blinding sun. Today, climbers rarely carry anything like the loads of the early pioneers, with well-paid Sherpa teams establishing a succession of camps up the mountain, and preparing such food as an altitude-racked body can digest.

But clothing, equipment and food are only a part of the transformation of Everest climbing. Once Odell's "fascinating vision" had vanished, he had no way of contacting Mallory and Irvine. Nor did Lord Hunt, leader of the 1953 expedition, have any way of contacting Hillary and Tenzing. But today, teams keep in contact with the Base Camps via radio, relaying weather forecasts, calling up oxygen, food or medical supplies, and help. Radio contact was invaluable for the expedition I was a part of last year when a Sherpa had his leg smashed by a hurtling block of ice as we climbed the Lhotse Face.

Radio contact almost certainly limited the death toll when eight climbers died near the South Col in a storm in 1996. In a deeply poignant part of that drama, it also enabled New Zealand guide Rob Hall to say good night to his wife, who was thousands of miles away, before he perished, too drained to make the physical effort to save himself.

Whether Mallory slipped or died of exhaustion remains part of the mystery. Here is another change from the past 75 years. Slips still happen but, for climbers ascending by the "trade routes" used by commercial expeditions, there is usually the security of a fixed handline placed by advance teams, often of Sherpas. How different it must have been for Mallory and Irvine, picking their way up steep snow and ice and over towering rock barriers which no person had ever set foot on before. Finding a route up any unfamiliar mountain is time-consuming. On one where even the late- 20th-century climber cannot take more than five or 10 paces without resting, it must have seemed endless.

Even a camera, of course, will not tell us how the pair felt during their pioneering effort. Mallory had a reverential, almost mystical attitude towards mountains, and one suspects he would recoil from seeing Everest staked, roped and crawling with people as it is each spring at the end of this century. Whether or not he and Irvine reached the top, they had pushed the psychological barrier as hard as can be imagined. Since Hillary and Tenzing completed the quest, more than 800 people have reached the top. But for all that and the carping about "package holidays" to Everest, very real physical and mental barriers remain.

When my own attempt ground to a halt on the South Summit - about 300ft lower, and half a mile away from the real top - my first thought was "thank God". US guide Eric Simonson (coincidentally, the leader of the team that has just found Mallory's body) had unaccountably run out of rope to complete the route. Before the blow of not being able to reach the top sank in, my first thought was that the pain was over. I was able to push my oxygen mask hard against my face and suck in the cool draught until my chest stopped heaving. One eye was haemorrhaging and my beard was frozen both to my oxygen mask and my jacket collar. We were deep into the grimly named "Death Zone", in which lack of oxygen dulls the brain and debilitates the body.

So, of course, was Mallory, which makes it easy to imagine him just sitting down in the snow and succumbing. He might have yearned for Ruth and his three children. In a final note, he had promised "We'll do ourselves proud" - and they did. More memorably, he had declared Everest was to be climbed "because it was there".

There might be more mysticism to this reply than droll rejoinder. Everest becomes an obsession. There are climbers on the mountain this season who have exhausted themselves on its icy flanks several times before, and will do so again if not successful. The sickness gnaws at me, too. Mallory's spirit lives on.