15 things Tanis Rideout didn’t know about Everest and George Mallory before writing Above All Things
1) The use of oxygen – now a staple in all high-altitude climbing – was thought to be unsporting in the 1920s, the equivalent of using steroids in sports today. There were great public debates about whether gas should be used to reach the summit, and whether the conquest would count if it was. Of course, this was during a time when they were climbing with ropes tied around their waists.
2) George Mallory once complained that he found Toronto too cold – this after having spent two seasons on Mount Everest.
3) “The Death Zone” is the name given to the area – generally agreed to be over 8,000 metres or 26,000 feet – at which there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life for long. Everest’s peak is 29,000 feet high.
4) George Mallory and Sandy Irvine climbed Everest in leather hobnailed boots, silk puttees, tweeds, gabardines, and windproof suits designed by Burberry (yes, that Burberry). Today’s climbers have access to insulated, hard-plastic boots, down suits, and top-of-the-line tents and sleeping bags.
5) People did and continue to take ridiculous things with them to Everest. The manifest for the 1924 expedition included several cases of 1911 Montebello Champagne, 44 tins of foie gras, and 6 Hudson Bay Blankets (“not to be used by the coolies”). The expedition train stretched to nearly five miles.
6) The list of possible dangers faced by Everest expedition members in the 1920s was not limited to frostbite or altitude sickness – climbers also faced malaria, dysentery, wild animals in the jungle lowlands, extreme sunburn, dehydration, falls along precarious trails, and runaway donkeys.
7) George was absent from home for almost four of the ten years he was married to Ruth. He was away for close to a year during the First World War, and then often at Everest and in North America during the last four years of his life.
8) There was a special section of the Everest Committee dedicated to following up on the strange suggestions submitted by the public for how to get to the summit more easily. Roscoe Turner from Corinth, Mississippi, offered to fly up in his crop duster and climb out with a ladder made of grass and steel tubing.
9) There is generally no burial on Everest. There are bodies scattered along the mountain routes, some still clipped in to ropes no longer in use. They are often named for their identifying features, such as “green boots.” Climbers simply don’t have enough energy to move the bodies. Mallory’s body was buried under rocks by the team that discovered it in 1999.
10) In 1924, it took five weeks to travel by boat from England to India, and the cost of passage was roughly £30.
11) Everest these days is big business. It costs a climber between $70,000 and $100,000 to join an expedition.
12) Everest is so enormous it has its own gravitational pull. When it was first measured, the surveyors had to account for how much the weight of the mountain would pull off the theodolites (the devices used for measuring angles) in order to get a proper reading.
13) Twenty-one-year-old Sandy Irvine had an affair with the stepmother of his best friend, Dick.
14) The Second Step – a large outcropping of rock on the summit ridge – now has a ladder attached to it, put there originally by a Chinese team in 1975. It isn’t known whether anyone managed to free-climb it previously – perhaps George and Sandy did, perhaps the Chinese team that claimed to in 1960 – but Conrad Anker recently free-climbed it, proving it could be done. The Chinese also paved a road to Everest Base Camp for the 2008 Olympic torch run.
15) Everest is growing taller. There’s been some recent controversy over the exact height of the mountain – and arguments about whether the snow on top of it should count towards its height – but it is getting taller, as the tectonic plate it sits on continues to push it upward.