I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.
I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall. Several were in Welsh, whose titles I didn’t understand so ignored, but I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni & Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.
I started to read The Fight for Everest first. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.
Some 30 years on, I have still marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, some 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:
There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud…
Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.
No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.
On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. All the clothing labels showed the same. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.
Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.
Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business. Latterly Reinhold Messner has been celebrated as the greatest climber in history, making the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen and the first climber to ascend all fourteen world peaks over 26,000 ft. but the fate of George Mallory makes him the most revered climber for me.
The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world, the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, of horizon and zenith. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.
Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there, which has been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.
It turns out that Mallory actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip: The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes.
I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was possibly the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet, which Mallory had climbed. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.
Mallory epitomises unwavering ambition and the attitude to succeed. He has focus and clarity on his goals, and also a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:
- Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. They see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
- Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.
- Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.
- Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
- Highly motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
- Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.
If you’re anything like me, you need to remind yourselves every now and then why you’re working so hard every day. Sometimes if you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work.
Likewise, my mantra is that if you don’t have an appetite for turning up everyday, getting some disruptive thinking going into new opportunities and giving a ‘personal best’, then you’ll just get lost in life’s busy shuffle and something must be wrong with your internal compass.
I don’t want to live my business life with any regret. At times it is not easy, and has all sorts of unexpected twists, but Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.
As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this? – and you have the answer from Mallory, because it’s there. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest, because it’s there.