Thinking back to Mallory's day, one of my saddest senses is that there's nothing left to conquer. Mallory lived in a golden age in that way – men could sit and dream of conquering Everest." Jeffrey Archer is sitting and dreaming in his penthouse apartment in London, explaining his obsession of recent years. "I mean," he continues, "I would like to conquer Everest, but it doesn't have quite the same appeal any more. Part of the romanticism has gone. I joke that there will be a café on the summit, the way we're going."
Gazing out at the panorama from Archer's eyrie, with the summits of the Houses of Parliament in the distance, it is easy to become lost in the romance of George Mallory (the subject of Archer's latest novel), who disappeared on Everest on 8 June 1924. Climbing the mountain may now have been tamed to some degree by hi-tech equipment; guided parties frequently make the ascent. But, back in the Twenties, it was like going into space. And it gave us one of the key moments in the history of adventure.
There can be few who don't know the story: at 12.50pm, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were spotted through a gap in the clouds, the summit a few hundred feet above them, the grail within reach. Neither was seen alive again. Whether or not they reached the top is one of the great mysteries of exploration.
More than 80 years later, Archer isn't the only one mesmerised by the story. In May, another book, The Wildest Dream: In the Footsteps of Mallory by Mark MacKenzie, will be published, telling how Mallory's last climb was recreated for a feature-length documentary by the British producer Anthony Geffen, also called The Wildest Dream, which sets out to answer the mystery.
For Archer, the fascination is with the man himself, rather than the did-he-or-didn't-he riddle. "I've never written the life of someone," Archer tells me, "but Chris Brasher, the steeplechase gold medallist in Melbourne, an old, old friend who I knew a little when I was running, said, 'Jeffrey! You don't seem to realise that the best story that's never been told is George Mallory! He's more interesting than Shackleton, his story is better than Scott's, and you're the one to do it!'"
Of those three, the most romantic British explorers of the early 20th century, Mallory is the most enigmatic – and the most intriguing. Ernest Shackleton is famous as the streetwise survivor, almost getting to the South Pole but turning back. Robert Falcon Scott's bitter struggle for the Pole ended in defeat and death in March 1912.
Scott's sacrifice, coming before the horror of the Great War rather than after it, secured his place as a very British hero in a way that Mallory's disappearance on Everest 12 years later did not. Perhaps that's why Archer was initially not interested in what Brasher had to say. "Chris's enthusiasm and energy were always the same for everything. But I loved him, I loved him dearly, and then he died and I thought the least compliment I can pay him is to get a book on Mallory and see what he was going on about. And I thought, 'My God, he's right.'"
Archer's passion for Mallory resulted in years of obsessive research, a screenplay, and now a novel, Paths of Glory, fictionalising the life of the Everest climber. Published 10 years after the American climber Conrad Anker discovered the paper-white, mummified remains of Mallory at 26,670ft, Archer's novel is just the latest attempt to pin down the complex allure of a man whose physical prowess and intellectual ideals earned him the nickname Galahad.
Mallory faded from view after his death. He had never allowed himself to be used as a nationalist symbol in the way Scott had, and so there was no myth to debunk. But that last, tantalising glimpse of him, and the sheer courage of what those early climbers attempted, in their gabardine coats and wool sweaters, their hobnailed boots and feeble ropes, meant that Mallory's story survived.
Since the mid-1980s there has been a trickle of history books and documentaries – becoming an avalanche after Anker's discovery – reviewing in great detail Mallory's Everest climbs: a reconnaissance in 1921, the first attempt in 1922 and, in 1924, the last climb. There has been an admired biography by Peter and Leni Gillman, and even a prose poem by Charles Lind recreating Mallory's psychological state on that June day.
Much of this attention is focused on that conundrum: an abandoned oxygen bottle, the time Mallory's watch stopped at, a missing photo of his wife Ruth, the fact that his snow goggles were folded in his pocket – all held up as evidence that Mallory and Irvine could have been returning from the summit when one of them fell. But, despite the discovery of Mallory's body, the mystery remains unsolved.
Even that last sight of him, glimpsed by fellow climber Noel Odell, has proved a vague and slippery piece of evidence. Alone at an altitude of 26,000ft but hundreds of yards from where Mallory was struggling up through the thin air, Odell watched as mist cleared from the summit ridge. His first diary entry records only that he saw the men near the base of the final summit slopes. Later, he reported seeing a figure reaching the top of what he later said was the Second Step, a steep cliff barring access to the upper section of Everest's North-east Ridge. Soon after, the figure's companion – who must be Irvine, the less experienced climber – joined him. Then the cloud rolled back in.
It is this final glimpse of two men striving towards the summit of the world that is the enduring image of Mallory's final climb – Galahad reaching out for the Holy Grail. But, over the years, Odell contradicted himself about what it was he actually saw. And the question remains: could Mallory have physically climbed the Second Step, the last barrier before the summit?
That's what Geffen's film set out to prove. To recreate the conditions Mallory and Irvine faced in 1924, a ladder placed by a Chinese expedition in 1960 was removed. With only two exceptions, all the hundreds of climbers who have been to the summit by this route used this ladder to get over the Second Step. Standing in for Mallory and Irvine are Conrad Anker, the man who found Mallory's body, and Leo Houlding, a young climber from Cumbria. Both Anker and Houlding climbed the step without bottled oxygen.
"Conrad fell off after his crampon skated on the rock," Houlding recalls, "and he landed in the snow. That shook him up. Then he spent ages messing about and ended up climbing directly up the face, which was harder." Houlding followed Anker up the route a 1920s climber would have taken, a wide crack in the rock to the left. But if he fell, then swinging across the step could have been disastrous. "Break your leg up there," Houlding says, "and suddenly it's a serious situation."
Most modern climbers leave the top camp on Everest – higher than Mallory's was – at midnight or 11pm the previous evening to make sure they have enough time to reach the top and be back in camp before sunset. Because they were filming the Second Step, Houlding's team, led by veteran guide Russell Brice, set off at 3am so the climbers would be properly lit.
They still made the summit by 10.30am, where they spent an hour shooting. It took them just eight hours to make it all the way down to Advanced Base Camp. "We were drinking beers that night," Houlding says. So does he think Mallory climbed the Second Step? "People go on about how the Second Step is a 90ft cliff, but to climb it, it's more like a 12ft cliff. There's a gully and an exposed step, but [that section] is not hard. Then there's a snow patch and the vertical section. It was easy. I was a bit disappointed. I'd been worrying whether I was going to be able to do it. They could have done it. No question."
But if they were on top of the Second Step, how did they get down it? Mallory carried no pitons or anything to fix a rope. "The hard section is really short," Houlding says. "If you weren't at 28,280ft, you could probably lower yourself on to your arms and drop. They could have tied off a boulder and left the rope. They could have done these things but they probably didn't."
If they really were at the Second Step at 12.50pm, Mallory and Irvine were too late to reach the summit with any chance of making it back by nightfall. Houlding believes that, far from pressing on, the men died in the squall that drove Odell back to his tent after the last sighting.
Solving this riddle – whether the Englishmen Mallory and Irvine beat the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Tibetan-born Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit – isn't Archer's aim. Although – surprise, surprise – Archer puts his man on the summit, it is Mallory's scintillating back-story that grabbed his attention; his life was as mesmerising as his disappearance. "It inspired me so much," Archer says. "I got so excited."
Fate and his own brilliance put Mallory at the centre of progressive intellectual and cultural life on the eve of the Great War. Born in the summer of 1886, he was an adventurous child, growing up in rural Cheshire, the son of a clergyman and a clergyman's daughter. "'Impossible' was a word that acted as a challenge to him," his sister Avie recalled. No tree was left unclimbed.
George won a mathematics scholarship to Winchester, where his housemaster, Graham Irving, introduced Mallory to rock climbing and took him to the Alps in 1904. It was a transforming experience. Big mountains snagged Mallory's imagination and never let go. After Winchester, he went up to Cambridge, reading history at Magdalene under the supervision of Arthur Benson, the history don who provided the words for "Land of Hope and Glory". Like almost everyone who met the young climber, Benson was entranced.
On the fringes of Rupert Brooke's circle at Cambridge, named the Neo-Pagans by Virginia Woolf, Mallory enjoyed friendships with James and Lytton Strachey. Brooke confessed to feeling dull in his company. Strachey was more direct. "Mon dieu! George Mallory!" he wrote to Woolf. "My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words – oh, heavens!"
Mallory's muscular beauty attracted both men and women. Duncan Grant painted him a number of times, as did the French artist Simon Bussy. The extent of Mallory's homosexuality is much discussed, but it seems likely that an awkward encounter with James Strachey was the limit of his experimentation. Mallory proved resolutely straight after Cambridge.
The future Bloomsbury set and Mallory's sexual exploration play little part in Archer's story. "They all get a mention," he says, a little defensively, "but it would have been a very different book. It was a problem, not least because I live at the Old Vicarage in Grantchester, where Rupert Brooke lived. But the story is about Mallory reaching the summit of Everest. The interesting thing about the Bloomsbury Group is that they didn't know he climbed."
That's not quite true. It was more the case that the Bloomsbury lot weren't interested. Mallory's climbing mentor, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, hosted parties at Pen y Pass, below Snowdon, every Easter. A broad cross-section of Cambridge intelligentsia joined in, doing Neo-Pagan things like nude swimming. But ultimately, it was on intellectual high ground where the prizes were won. Mallory understood that well.
Archer chooses instead to focus on the tension and jealousy created by Mallory's torn allegiances as the final 1924 expedition loomed. Should he stay with Ruth, his beautiful wife, or return to Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Everest, usually translated as Mother Goddess of the Earth? And close students of Archer's work – Kane and Abel, First Among Equals – won't be surprised to find a keenly fought rivalry between two alpha males; the tolerant, Fabian George Mallory and his Everest team-mate George Finch, abrasive, opinionated – and Australian.
Like so many of Mallory's Everest co-stars, Finch was a remarkable man. Raised and educated in Switzerland, he was a talented climber who believed that using bottled oxygen was the only way anyone would reach the summit. As an equally brilliant scientist (Finch, the father of the actor Peter Finch, was later a Fellow of the Royal Society) he helped to devise the heavy and fickle oxygen sets Mallory and Irvine were using when they set off on their last climb.
Finch himself was nowhere near the mountain. Having done brilliantly during the 1922 Everest expedition, the Mount Everest Committee dumped him from the team for 1924 for a host of reasons, from organising his own lucrative lectures on the Continent to being a pushy colonial. Archer advances the idea that if Finch had been with Mallory, rather than the less experienced Irvine, then success – and survival – would have been the likely outcome.
This notion has already caused a ripple of controversy in Australia. Archer is delighted. "I think the Australians are going to be up in arms about this. They're already saying, 'Why did you stop our man going to the top? You stopped us and then you gave it to a New Zealander.'"
Archer also gives a starring role to a fictional Sherpa as a probable candidate to share in Finch's thwarted glory. The idea of an Australian and a local native reaching the top ahead of the imperial might of the Royal Geographical Society clearly fills Archer with glee. "I hate snobbery," he says. "I've had a passionate hatred of snobbery all my life. It's clear that if Finch hadn't been an Australian, if he'd gone to Oxford and Cambridge, preferably Cambridge, he would have gone with Mallory. They stop him because he was an Australian educated in Switzerland."
Freed from the shackles of historical accuracy, Archer creates a host of anachronisms and fictional events to advance his story. Mallory literally climbs his way into Cambridge, he shins up the Eiffel Tower, and he catches an eyeful at the Moulin Rouge. Some of these imaginings you wish really had happened, like Mallory's encounter with Scott of the Antarctic at the RGS, just before his final journey south – two men who couldn't turn back.
How much value does a fictionalised account like this have? Isn't it just whimsy? Archer is adamant that his version is true, if not correct. He brought in the Everest historian Audrey Salkeld, whose research has influenced most of the recent attention paid to Mallory. "I had Audrey check every line, so if I did anything wicked, she would simply say that's not possible, Jeffrey."
Salkeld is cautiously supportive when I ask her what she makes of Archer's Mallory. "His portrayal is not untrue to Mallory. I can recognise my Mallory in him." Salkeld has spent decades gathering evidence and reflecting on the complexities of Mallory's story. Even now, she says, new facts and ideas emerge.
In Archer's novel, Mallory is a good, but essentially uncomplicated man torn between realising his ambition and protecting his wife and family. The real Mallory, Salkeld suggests, was more complex, with creative and political urges he would have pursued had he returned from Everest. "Although he was born in 1886," Salkeld says, "Mallory was not a Victorian. He tried to live who he was. That's one of the reasons he appeals to us today." Unlike Scott, Mallory didn't see his exploration as bringing honour to the Empire. Striving on Everest was more about the universal human condition. When asked by a journalist on a lecture tour in America in 1923 why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied famously: "Because it's there."
Mallory, as a moderately left-wing humanist, was eager to spread his intellectual wings. His closest friend on Everest was the missionary surgeon Howard Somervell, who shared endless conversations with Mallory, waiting out bad weather on Everest in their tent. "In general, he took always the big and liberal view," Somervell recalled. "He was really concerned with social evils, and recognised that they could only be satisfactorily solved by the changing and ennobling of individual character."
What he needed, Salkeld suggests, was to get up Everest and get on with the rest of his life. If Mallory reached the top, financial security and a career that would suit his intellectual ambitions would be gained at a stroke. Fridtjof Nansen, of the generation before Mallory, leveraged his polar travels into a career with the League of Nations. Why shouldn't Mallory do something similar? After three expeditions, close to middle age, Mallory badly needed to leave Everest behind.
He also needed to repair his marriage. Although his relationship with Ruth is presented by Archer as being essentially sound, his prolonged absences had taken their toll. There is also speculation about his relationship with the suffragette Stella Cobden-Sanderson, whom Mallory saw in America in 1923. A letter from her was found on Mallory's body in 1999, fuelling speculation that they had an affair.
Mallory's biographer Peter Gillman also worked as a consultant on Geffen's documentary. He agrees that the marriage had been in trouble in 1923, but is not convinced by the idea that Mallory might leave Ruth. "All we've got is that one letter," he says. "Its tone is friendly, not sexual. Stella is being open, but Mallory was an emotionally open and accessible man. His letters would invite that kind of response."
But Mallory seems to bring with him an enduring sense of mystery. Stella's letters, rumour has it, were bought up by Mallory's brother Trafford, later Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Ruth's letters to Mallory on Everest that year also disappeared. Why? What did they reveal that meant they were concealed or destroyed?
There's little mysterious about modern Everest. The difficulties and risks Mallory faced have been neutered by miles of fixed ropes and technical advances, not least in oxygen equipment. Everest has been given over to commercial expeditions guiding clients to the summit. That business has transformed the local economy.
Some changes are for the better. Leo Houlding's northern accent would have been frowned on by the RGS in 1924. The greatest challenge now, he says, is trying to climb without bottled oxygen. "We did a few sections without to see what it's like. Well, it hurts. I think I could do without to see what it's like, but I wouldn't want to. It's grim. It's like being utterly knackered all the time, whereas with oxygen you're thinking, this is a nice view."
For Archer, and many others, none of these details matter. Everest now is not as Everest was then. Once nature's great feats have been mastered, they change for ever. If hundreds of people had walked on the Moon, would it still inspire as it did when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap?
Mallory's courage and determination are obvious. But was the sacrifice justified? Mallory's tent-mate Howard Somervell certainly thought so. As a surgeon, he had seen the worst suffering of the Great War. But writing about Mallory's death, he thought the risks worthwhile. "Surely death in battle against a mountain is a finer and nobler thing than death whilst attempting to kill someone else. The loss of these splendid men is part of the price that has been paid to keep alive the spirit of adventure. Without this spirit life would be a poor thing, and progress impossible."
Incredible journeys: When adventures go wrong
In 1909, after eight attempts over a 23-year period, the American explorer Robert Peary became the first person to reach the geographic North Pole. Or did he? On his return, he discovered that Frederick Cook was claiming to have already reached the pole in 1908. Cook could not provide sufficient scientific evidence to verify his achievement, but also seems to have been the victim of a sabotage campaign by Peary's supporters, desperate not to lose face. There were substantial discrepancies in Peary's account of his team's final approach to the pole. But though his claims were challenged by some, most credit him with reaching the pole first. He retired on a generous rear admiral's pension and received many honours. The mystery as to which man, if either, actually reached the North Pole first, endures. The only certainty is that Peary's records were subjected to far less scrutiny than those kept by Scott.
Captain Scott of the Antarctic
When Captain Scott reached the South Pole in January 1912 to find the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had got there first, he predicted the long journey home would be "dreadfully tiring and monotonous". It turned out far worse, and Scott and his fellow adventurers all perished en route. Yet his diaries were retrieved, the giddy highs and desperate lows of their expedition reconstructed and the spot of their death and the group's achievements honoured. Scott was a British hero until 1979, when Roland Huntford wrote a book questioning his achievements. Huntford blamed Scott's foolhardiness for the team's failure and their deaths, calling him a "heroic bungler". Recent attempts by adventurers Ranulph Fiennes and Bruce Parry to revise Huntford's view of the expedition and restore Scott's reputation have been partly successful. Incompetence or bad luck? The real reason for Scott's failure remains a mystery.
Besides being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart broke a number of flying records, wrote best-selling flying adventures and campaigned for women's rights. None of that saved her from a mysterious end in 1937. That year, she attempted a circumnavigational flight of the globe that was due to finish with a leg between Honolulu and Howland Island, a remote patch of coral between Hawaii and Australia, but she disappeared. The obvious explanations are that she crashed and sank, ran out of fuel and sank, or landed on some stretch of uninhabited land and perished. No one has ever discovered where Earhart and her plane went down – her last radio transmission shows she thought she was at Howland Island's charted position, which turned out to be incorrect. Soon all contact was lost. No remains were found, and Earhart was pronounced dead two years later.
Round-the-world yachtsman Donald Crowhurst was last seen when he set sail in October 1968 from Teignmouth in Devon. Crowhurst was one of nine contestants attempting a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the world, but he realised his boat was woefully inadequate soon after setting out. It is believed he dropped anchor somewhere in the South Atlantic, with the intention of nipping back into the English Channel, months later, when the other competitors approached the finish line. During the race he made infrequent and ambiguous radio announcements giving his position, in the hope, one assumes, that his logbooks would not be closely scrutinised. As the other sailors began to drop out and fall behind, however, Crowhurst realised he might end up winning the race. His log entries and radio transmissions became increasingly strange and on 10 July 1969 his boat was found empty. From piecing together logbooks discovered aboard his boat, it is assumed he jumped overboard, driven insane by his failed ploy.
Despite technological advances, extreme-sports fans still risk their lives for adventure. Last October, 41-year-old Briton Jeremy Hoyland set off on a jet ski in Indonesia. He was accompanied by four friends, but stayed at sea when they returned to shore. Hoyland sent a text message to one friend at around 2pm to report a problem with his machine, and contacted them again at 6pm to say the vessel was sinking. Since then there has been no word from him. His wife, Jacqui, is hopeful he may have landed on one of Indonesia's uninhabited islands, and continues to search for her lost husband.
Profiles by Sophie Morris