Who Climbed Everest First? “Paths of Glory” Book Review

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 18, 2011      

Paths of Glory is a fictional account of Mallory on Everest. Quite amusing, old chap.

The question of who climbed Mount Everest first is perhaps unimportant to the crowd of tyros who now pay their way to the top. But it’s actually an ongoing debate in some circles. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary are usually credited with the first, when in 1953 they stood at the Everest apex — and made it back alive. But another pair might have made it long before Tenzing and his client.

In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last seen alive on Everest’s Northeast ridge, presumably headed up. While this was indeed almost pre-historic climbing in terms of today’s gear and techniques, Mallory actually had quite a bit of experience in mountaineering, and had several previous Everest attempts to his credit that included an early altitude record without supplemental oxygen, 26,985 ft (8,225 m) feet. In other words Mallory might have had the chops, so perhaps he and Irvine were first?

Many of us who track mountaineering enjoy knowing who got to the top of Everest first, and are fascinated by the possibility that long before the generally accepted premier of Tenzing and Hillary, men in the 1920s outfitted with nailed boots and wool jackets got close to the summit — and possibly climbed it. (Of course, that’s less of a surprise these days when you observe how many wankers get there with the help of guides, but still, back in 1924 they didn’t even have nylon, let alone Everest summit guides!)

When Mallory’s body was found in 1999, obviously the victim of a fall off the mountain onto slabs below the Northeast Ridge, many hoped the mystery would be solved. Alas, Mallory and Irvine’s camera was not found (it may have been carried by Irvine), and clues were sparse.

Well known alpinist Conrad Anker was the first person to come across Mallory’s body during the 1999 search. He made pertinent postmortem observations such as Mallory’s hands not showing signs of frostbite that would have indicated they’d been benighted after possibly summiting, but rather supported the theory that they’d reached a high point then turned around, and fell during the descent. (The idea being that at the rate they were climbing, and with our modern knowledge of how Everest climbs go, it is highly unlikely that if the pair had reached the summit they would have returned before nightfall.)

One crux of the debate is a feature on the climb known as the “Second Step,” which might have proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to Mallory with the gear and climbing skills of his day. During the expedition when he found Mallory, Anker tried to free climb the Step, as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do (it’s now equipped with a ladder and fixed ropes, in the continuing effort to make Everest easier.)

Anker describes the second step as being “…about 90 feet long…really exposed…drops off 7,000 feet below you.” During his attempt, Anker found himself using cams for protection while employing knee jams to make upward progress, and ended up resting with one foot on the ladder (guides keep it lashed to the cliff so people paying huge amounts of money can artificially climb the mountain). He said it “felt like 5.10 with my boots and at altitude,” and went on to conjecture that “even with a shoulder stand, I think it’s improbable that Mallory and Irvine would have done it.” On a later expedition, Anker did climb the step without the ladder, and after that experience rated it 5.9. As far as I know, he didn’t change his opinion about it being unlikely that the men made it in 1924.

But not so fast. More snow or ice on the step could have made a significant “ramp” and changed it for climbing (and indeed can do so, according to my reading). More, the crumbly rock at that altitude on Everest had to have changed over nearly three quarters of a century. Perhaps it was easier 75 years before Conrad did it.

I was scouring the library for beach novels the other day, and ran across bestselling author Jeffrey Archer’s “Paths of Glory.” The book is a well researched but fictionalized biography of Mallory and his Everest climbs. This is not a new book (published in 2009) but it perhaps escaped heavy scrutiny due to it being historical fiction, or maybe I was too busy being a skiing blogger to catch a climbing book.

At any rate, while a bit heavy on sophomoric dialog as well as containing plenty of truth stretching, I found “Paths of Glory” to be incredibly interesting and in the end a fun read.

In the book, author Archer tracks the arc of Mallory’s life. The story begins with portraying Mallory as an unusually adventurous boy, leading to the man spending a big chunk of his life on several Everest attempts (in those days, this involved many months of overland traveling not to mention lengthy stays on the mountain).

To make his writing more compelling, Archer weaves in the love story of Mallory and his beautiful wife Ruth. Such isn’t really as ancillary as you’d think, as part of the Mallory mystery arises from the fact of his avowed intention to leave a photo of Ruth on the Everest summit. Thus, the absence of that photo when Mallory’s body was found lends at least a smidgen of credence to him possibly summiting.

Most of all, I enjoyed how “Paths of Glory” fleshes out what it was like to be trying for the unclimbed summit of the world, far back in 1924. For starters, Mallory and his peers began the ongoing debate about supplemental oxygen and what comprises “fair means.” They experienced this personally, as they attempted much of their climbing during Everest attempts without 02, but eventually succumbed to the big O’s effectiveness and used the primitive gas packs of the day during their summit attempt. Considering what we now know, one has to wonder if Mallory and Irvine would have been better off going oxygenless rather than carrying the 30 pound (!) sets, which still only supplied 9 hours of gas. Indeed, if you do use oxygen for altitude climbing, and run out while you’re still high on the mountain, such is a recipe for likely disaster.

Another thing that struck me was how they put together Everest expeditions back in the true “day.” You won’t believe the bureaucracy and wrangling that went on among the “old chaps” of the Mount Everest Committee of England. For example, can you imagine having to contend with the following (paraphrased from the book) before you got to go climbing? Quite amusing to read about, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.

– None of the five men seated round the table particularly liked each other…
– Chairman Sir Younghusband had negotiated terms with the Dalai Lama for the crossing into Tibet…
– Arthur Hinks was said to write up each meeting’s minutes the day before they took place…
– Mr. Reaburn was once considered a fine alpinist, but his cigar and paunch meant you had to have a good memory to know that…
– Commander Ashcroft always had a snifter with Hinks before the meeting, so he’d know which way to vote.

So, need a book for your post snow-season Mexico beach margaretta quest? Good one, just take it all with a grain of that salt on your glass rim.


Climbing Magazine, September 1999, and Wikipedia.

Also this for more than you ever wanted to know.


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29 Responses to “Who Climbed Everest First? “Paths of Glory” Book Review”

  1. Mike Marolt May 18th, 2011 10:33 am

    I could have sworn i read that the Egyptians were the first to climb Everest in an exploratory expedition where they wanted to know if the summit of Everest could suffice as a top out for one of the initial pyramids. Why they didn’t take it remains a mystery, but some theorize that the rock was too rotten and ironically to dark as a match set for the local stone samples used for the other parts of the structure.………And no, they didn’t use oxygen either, feeling that it would deminish the accomplishment of summiting in loin cloths and sandles.

  2. Lou May 18th, 2011 10:48 am

    I heard it was Tibetan monks, who didn’t even need to breath.

  3. Glenn Sliva May 18th, 2011 11:24 am

    Everyone knows the European iceman climbed it trying to bag the seven summits. I read it on the internet. Of course I’m kidding. This is fascinating and someday Irvine might just drop out of the Khumba Ice fall or one of the others. I’m still trying to believe a helicopter landed on the summit but that’s another story.

  4. Rob May 18th, 2011 12:08 pm

    Jeffrey or Lord Archole as he is known in th UK.

  5. Lou May 18th, 2011 12:56 pm

    Whatever the case with Jeffery’s rep, the book is a fun read and really gives you a sense of what great range mountaineering was like way back then.

  6. Mike Marolt May 18th, 2011 1:09 pm

    Lou, there were most definitly Tibetans on that expedition. They were carrying all the heavy crap, and were completely left out of all the publicity.

  7. Lou May 18th, 2011 2:21 pm

    Good point Mike, and the stuff was heavy…

  8. Outdoor Man May 19th, 2011 8:11 am

    Either way, what those early mountaineers had to go through is unparalleled. With the equipment they had and no knowledge on whether it was even humanly possible. It must have been intense. I had the privilege of meeting Lou Whitaker a few years back, being one of those early mountaineers it gave me a since of what kind of man it took and the dude was tough, real tough.

  9. Mike Marolt May 19th, 2011 8:23 am

    Ya, the Whitaker twins were hard as woodpecker lips. Beyond tough. Great people.

  10. Lou May 19th, 2011 8:28 am

    That’s why I liked the book, it really gives you a sense of what things might have been like back then. It actually surprised me how much they knew about acclimation and stuff like that, but I suppose experience is a harsh teacher. Knowing how well wool works as mountain clothing I feel their clothing could have been adequate, but the boots I doubt unless they were fit large, with lots of wool socks. In that case even the boots could have worked.

  11. Mike Marolt May 19th, 2011 10:26 am

    Interestingly, i was on Everest skiing when Conrad and his mate were up there filming The Wildest Dream on Irvine and Mallory. As we skied down the north col, these two guys are fully dressed in the old gear, complete with hobnob boots, the whole deal. They said it was cold at best, and they couldn’t imagine climbing that peak to 28000 like those guys did in the day, with O’s let alone without as they did the first attempt. What struck me is the foot gear. They had near vertical ice and nothing less than their skill would have had much luck. Having just the day before almost froze my feet in high tech AT boots, a down suit, all the latest greatest at the same altitude, i seriously doubt they made the summit. If they did, death would have probably been a nice alternative to what i envision they would have suffered as their lower legs thawed, let alone feet. Makes me how the future mountaineers will look at our generation…….

    As a side note, if you watch that film, look closely at the pan of them from a distance climbing up the north col. There are some nice ski turns, ha.

  12. Lou May 19th, 2011 10:33 am

    I have to wonder how authentic and carefully fitted the re-creating gear was. Mallory had years to perfect what was then state-of-art gear. Not saying it definitely worked, but look at what Native Americans, for example, did with their gear… it’s all about knowing what you have, knowing it well…

  13. Mike Marolt May 19th, 2011 1:33 pm

    It could be the movie gear was not as good as the original. I know from watching the movie, the kid was not in good shape and he didn’t climb to anywhere near 28K. It was an exceptionally cold season when they were shooting, but i think your point is valid. The fact is, they made it to 28K on the first attempt without oxygen and didn’t suffer much if anything other than not making it. However, having been to the spot where they turned around the first time and without oxygen myself, the prospects of the short distance to the summit was still an entire mountain away all things considered. So the argument that they made it that far, even with oxygen, still put them a tremendously long way from the summit and very late in the day. Even not considering that the step was not fixed, and that while their oxygen was actuually a fairly good set, it was very heavy. Also, Throw in the fact that the clothing on their back alone weighed a ton, and even being state of the art was no doubt very cold, and i am not sure a human being could pull it off. But then again, when you consider Hans Kammerlander climbed the peak on the same route without O’s carrying skis, and was back at ABC in less than 24 hours, what do i know………you get out in those peaks and you see complete no-names pulling off things that seem humanly impossible. Far be it for me to dispute the dream…….

  14. altis May 19th, 2011 1:51 pm

    Only last weekend I was stood in the Victory Hall in Mobberley under a portrait of George Mallory discussing him with a visitor to our local Morris dancing festival. George was born in Mobberley the son of the local vicar. He grew up in Hobcroft House here:
    and, apparently, was often to be found climbing up the drain pipes on the outside. There are more details in this brochure of sale:

    If you’ve ever flown out of Manchester airport recently you will have been very close as, sadly, the new runway stops only a few yards before the house! If you ever come this way then do visit St Wilfrid’s church where his father was the vicar and, again, George used to climb up the outside. It’s a beautiful old building and there is a stained window to the Mallory family:

  15. Tom Holzel May 20th, 2011 7:37 am

    Human thermo-regulation expert Professor George Havenith of Loughborough University (UK), has tested a rigorously accurate recreation
    of Mallory’s clothing in a weather chamber. His conclusion: “If the wind speed had picked up, a common feature of weather on Everest,
    the insulation of the clothing would only just be sufficient to minus -10C [+14F]. Mallory would not have survived any deterioration in conditions.”
    See: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/service/publicity/publications/view/springsummer08/mallory.html . Windchill was what the pre WW-II clothing
    could not keep out (although thin leather would have done a good job), and Prof. Havenith surmises this factor led to hypothermia and is what
    directly led to M & I’s death. This new scientific evidence counters the previous claims ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5076634.stm )
    that their simulated clothing, “tested” by an advocate for their summit success by prancing around at Advance Base Camp, was just dandy.

  16. Lou May 20th, 2011 10:34 am

    Tom, thanks for chiming in, very interesting stuff.

  17. John J May 20th, 2011 2:49 pm

    This is an interesting and entertaining discussion. Mike M. is killing it with the likes of “hard as woodpecker lips”. I also enjoyed “hobnob boots”. Of course, his point of view of having first-hand experience in that environment is a great contribution too.

  18. Tom Holzel May 20th, 2011 2:55 pm

    BTW, the German researcher, Jochen Hemmleb is on Everest right now with his six Austrian climbers, making another attempt to find Irvine’s body and his VPK camera. snow conditions have been atrocious, but they might clear up a bit in during May 22-25.

    See: http://www.velocitypress.com/IrvineSearch.htm for where they are likely going to look this time. (Last year they looked on the NE Ridge in a highkly improbable location.)

  19. Mac May 29th, 2011 6:39 am

    You’re taking the piss describing Sir Ed as Tenzing’s “client”!

    Any chance it’s just an American penchant for 1950’s Indian anti-British propaganda?

  20. Lou May 29th, 2011 7:08 pm

    Just embracing diversity.

  21. Mac May 30th, 2011 3:46 am

    Only in America eh? Well someone has to maintain the US reputation for willfull ignorance abroad now that George W isn’t around.

  22. brian h May 30th, 2011 8:24 am

    Mac-I’d guess Lou’s engaging in a little historical deconstruction. It’s something that showed up over here in the sixties in an attempt to counter our sense of self importance. As in would Lewis and Clark have made it across the west without Sacagawea?

  23. Lou May 30th, 2011 8:47 am

    Yep, I have to say it occurred to me that perhaps Hillary wouldn’t have made it without Tenzing? And more, that Mallory didn’t have a Tenzing along for his last push…

    More of a thought experiment than anything, but fun to practice some historical deconstruction of our climbing history.

    Knowing how most climbers nowadays wouldn’t make it up Everest if it were not for guides and porters (if not helicopters, fixed ropes, and oxygen tanks), one has to work that back to how things progressed for those who pioneered that mountain. Again, as a thought experiment (otherwise known as day dreaming?)

    I’ve still got respect for Mount Everest and the climbers who do a good job on it, but when that guy landed the helicopter on top, and now that they’ve got cell service, I have to admit that mountain has achieved sort of a weird status in my mind. On the one hand, still the highest peak on Earth and you still have a good chance you’ll die trying. On the other hand, not that exciting…

  24. Tom Holzel May 30th, 2011 8:48 am

    Or, almost as important, would they have made it without the Girondani air rifle they took, able to kill deer at 50 yards, fire up to 20 rounds in as many seconds and do so nearly silently–much to the astonishment of the Indians?

    See .http://www.beeman.com/history.htm. Dr. Beeman found this priceless historical treasure and presented it to the U.S. Army.

  25. Ern August 20th, 2011 8:03 pm

    Not yet mentioned is the fact that Irvine was relatively inexperienced and other party members were surprised at Mallory’s choice to select him for the final assault.

    And IIRC when Mallory was found a loop of rope was tight around his body suggesting that the two were roped together, one lost grip and went for a slide, the other braced but the rope broke (the ropes of those times were not esp. strong). Since Irvine’s body has not been found, maybe he was the one to lose it and drop down the other side of the ridge. In any case, Mallory suffered some major fractures before coming to rest.

    As for variation in cover: definitely. It was really only the chance level of poor cover that led to the discovery of Mallory’s body.

    It seems that before this last attempt, Mallory had started to become fatalistic.

    There was the std Brit stuff about character and pluck over preparation and gear; why else choose Irvine? Maybe for Mallory the point had arrived where he was prepared to risk all on a valiant attempt.

  26. jeff e of the gwn January 12th, 2012 9:14 pm

    Ern, you pose an interesting question as no one of import talks much about the rope , and your question remains mallory had an injury and the rope broke, why?

    But, something must have happened. Perhaps your right , or perhaps mallory was belaying himself down , from where irvine could not follow ( this has been postulated) and the rope broke, he survived that mishap but with an injury and kept going only to fall again , break his leg and get a head injury and then died in that spot.
    the thing is a body was seen up higher then mallory, and many who have studied this think it was irvines, they also suppose that the snow bank/ shelf he was lying on gave way .
    if at that time his remains fell down the kangshung face, there is not much chance of finding him.
    IF his body went down the same side as mallories, it there in a fall line from the ridge. but it may not be intact.

  27. Ern January 12th, 2012 9:44 pm

    I guess I’m assuming that all Mallory’s injuries were sustained during the fall. But yes, it’s possible that an injury preceded and precipitated the fall.

    Anyway, there’s a new title for Everestphiles, Wade Davis, Into the Silence.

    It suggests that Mallory was prepared to push on and risk death regardless of conditions. An attitude that was a product of the closeness to death of so many of his generation courtesy of WWI as well as the very British idea of the glory of the Empire.

  28. Tom Holzel October 6th, 2013 1:17 pm

    A major new Everest book is out: “Everest, the first ascent,” by Harriet Tuckey (a Brit). FASCINATING deep background on the politics behind the organization of the 1953 expedition, Hillary’s role in it and subsequent Himalyan adventures. See here for my review of this important and fascinating new work.


  29. Bijaya Ghimire January 28th, 2015 6:56 am

    I believe on my faith that the Yeti climed the Mount Everest first. Yeti i said to have mystic power. It disappears when seen by someone. People don’t see Yeti on the summit when they are together because they are subtle.

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