Book review: Last Hours on Everest, By Graham Hoyland

Mallory's attempts to conquer the 'Third Pole' show the human costs of climbing Everest
  • @SimonCalder

You have never read a book like Last Hours on Everest. In a world full of literary misadventures, that might seem more a threat than a promise, but fortunately the mountaineer and documentary-maker Graham Hoyland has created a towering work full of twists and turns, like the backdrop.

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"The Gripping Story of Mallory & Irvine's Fatal Ascent", as it is subtitled, is ostensibly an analysis of a failed attempt at climbing the world's highest mountain. Yet it also maps Hoyland's own journey – which, since he became the 15th (or possibly 17th) Brit to reach the summit of Everest in 1993, has not exactly been all downhill.

"Mount Everest has been my arena," he begins. "I have spent over two years of my life on the mountain, returning there again and again." The draw? The essence of humanity: "It is a moral crucible in which we are tested, and usually found wanting. It has cost me my marriage, my home and half my possessions. Twice Everest has nearly killed me. But I find it utterly addictive."

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were lured to the world's highest mountain in 1924. In an age when patriotism was so important, Everest was seen as the "Third Pole" – an opportunity to avenge the heroic failure of Scott to be first to reach the South Pole. The pair died in the attempt, and – for the next 75 years – disappeared. "No trace can be found, giving up hope," was the message from the search party.

When Hoyland was 13, he met "Uncle Hunch" – a distant cousin named Howard Somervell who planted the seed of the idea that would come to dominate Hoyland's life. Somervell had nearly died in a failed attempt on Everest days before Mallory and Irvine, whom he met coming up as he descended, and to whom he lent his Vest Pocket Kodak camera. "So if my camera was ever found, you could prove that Mallory got to the top." Thus began Hoyland's quest to find Mallory's camera – and perhaps learn what happened on that day in June 1924.

In 1999 he embarked with a team to search for the camera. Hoyland was hit by altitude sickness – which can strike arbitrarily – and descended to Base Camp. His fellow climbers, armed with Hoyland's research and prognosis, found Mallory's body, without the elusive Kodak. Since then, arguments have raged over the likely fate of the 1924 expedition. After studying previously lost meteorological records, Hoyland concludes that "a commonplace accident" took the lives of the man on whom the British Empire had pinned its hopes. "I believe he was seduced by Mount Everest, against his better instincts, and paid the price." Hoyland's failure to find the camera led to a more important discovery. "I now realise I was seeking something else: a purpose to my life. That enlightenment might not have come had I been successful."