Thursday, March 17, 2011

George Leigh Mallory: A Memoir, by David Pye

I wanted to read a special book for my 100th blog post, but David Pye's George Leigh Mallory: A Memoir took a little longer to arrive than planned. Since the work is now in the public domain (published 1927), you can always buy a print-on-demand version for as little as $15. I had the opportunity, however, to read from a borrowed first edition. I'm a fan of reading from older books, and this one has especially nice paper and printing; the printer, John Johnson, even included his name on the endpapers.

Pye was a close personal friend and climbing partner of Mallory's, and more than any other I've read, Pye's book reveals the personal, rather than the legendary, attributes of the man of Everest. (Dudley Green comes in a well-written, but more academic than familiar second in his Because It's There.) He includes in his memoir a number of letters from Mallory to him and other close friends that show a much more complete man than the energetic climber and man obsessed that you find in the official accounts and the history books. While this book includes Mallory's three trips to Mount Everest, it gives them equal space with his many other passions and activities that filled his life. Instead of the traditional review, I thought it might be fun to share some unlikely or otherwise interesting quotes from Mallory's writing found in George Leigh Mallory:

"A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony. Andante, adantissimo sometimes, is the first movement---the grim, sickening plod up the moraine. But how forgotten when the blue light of dawn flickers over the hard, clean snow! The new motif is ushered in, as it were, very gently on the lesser wind instruments, hautboys, and flutes, remote but melodious and infinitely hopeful, caught by the violins in the growing light, and torn out by all the bows with quivering chords as the summits, one by one, are enmeshed in the gold web of day, till at last the whole band, in triumphant accord, has seized the air and romps in magnificent frolic, because there you are at last marching, all a-tingle with warm blood, under the sun. And so throughout the day successive moods induce the symphonic whole---allegro while you break the back of an expedition and the issue is still in doubt; scherzo, perhaps, as you leap up  the final rocks of the arete or cut steps in a last short slope, with the ice-chips dancing and swimming and bubbling and bounding with magic gaiety over the crisp surface in their mad glissade; and then, for the descent, sometimes again andante, because, while the summit was still to win, you forgot that the business of descending may be serious and long; but in the end scherzo once more---with the brakes on for sunset."

"The great majority of men are in a sense artists; some are active and creative, and some participate passively No doubt those who create differ in some way fundamentally from those who do not create; but they hold this artistic impulse in common: all alike desire expression for the emotional side of their nature."

"I was just wishing the other day that I could know the individual minimum, as I call it to myself, for every one---the least a man would be content to leave behind as his share of life accomplished. Wouldn't one know something if one could know that?"

"We must think with all our minds; . . . think with imagination and sympathetically; think passionately and, not less, think calmly, without prejudice and critically---think, and when we think, devote ourselves to learning what is right for England."

before descending the Lhakpa La at the end of the reconnaissance of 1921: "I begin to feel that sort of malaise one has before putting a great matter to the touch. At what point am I going to stop? It's going to be a fearfully difficult decision; there's an incalculable element about other men's physical condition, and all the more so under these strange conditions. I almost hope I shall be the first to give out!"

during the 1921 reconnaissance: "I sometimes think of this expedition as a fraud from beginning to end invented by the wild enthusiasm of one man---Younghusband, puffed up by the would-be wisdom of certain pundits in the Alpine Club, and imposed upon the youthful ardour of your humble servant. Certainly the reality must be strangely different from their dream. The long imagined snow slopes of this Northern face of Everest with their gentle and inviting angle turn out to be the most appalling precipice, nearly 10,000 feet high . . . The prospect of ascent in any direction is about nil and our present job is to run our noses against the impossible in such a way as to persuade mankind that some noble heroism has failed once again."

before the third attempt that killed seven porters in 1922: "Frankly the game is not good enough. The risks of getting caught are too great; the margin of strength when men are at great heights is too small. Perhaps it's mere folly to go up again. But how can I be out of the hunt?"

from his last posted letter before disappearing into the clouds: "I can write but one line. We are on the point of moving up again and the adventure appears more desperate than ever."

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