Saturday, June 8, 2013

Last Hours on Everest, by Graham Hoyland

In honor of Mallory and Irvine's walking into the clouds 89 years ago today (June 8), I present Graham Hoyland's Last Hours on Everest: The Gripping Story of Mallory and Irvine's Fatal Ascent. The book is both biography and history, with Hoyland detailing his life's quest of sorting out what happened to them in their final moments and whether they made it to the summit. Also, Hoyland writes a portrait of his uncle (er...cousin), Theodore Somervell, who climbed alongside Mallory and Irvine in 1924's Everest expedition, and who inspired Hoyland to go looking for the Vest Pocket Kodak that might prove that they made it to the summit. The book provides a fresh look at the evidence (including a bit of new information) surrounding their disappearance, providing the most comprehensive review of the details in a single location to date. Hoyland sees Mallory as the active participant in the duo, and he tries to sort out his character and state-of-mind during the climb, using Mallory's writings and those of his close friends.

Hoyland has had a long relationship with Mount Everest, primarily in a professional role as a filmmaker, but with a decided personal interest. It's interesting for me, as a veteran Everest reader, to see him emerge from a personality in others' Everest books (such as Blessed's The Turquoise Mountain or Hemmleb's Ghosts of Everest) to an Everest author. I've been wondering what he might have to say, as other authors tend to make him sound terribly interesting, but never go into detail about him. Though his 1993 ascent makes him the 15th Briton to climb to the summit, his participation in the 1999 expedition that discovers Mallory's body gets him the most attention and causes him the most grief. He returns to the mountain several times afterwards, in ways related to the search for Irvine, including trying out a first-rate replica of Mallory's clothing below the North Col.

There has been quite a number of books adding to the knowledge of Mallory and Irvine's fateful climb. Hoyland explores many of them, discussing their relevance to the story and defending what he sees as the proper representation of these two climbers. (It's a little strange to read of someone else who's read all these books beside myself...) He's clearly opposed to Unsworth's idea of Mallory, has some problems with Davis, calls Robertson's book a hagiography, and generally shows how hard it can be to pin down the personality of George Leigh Mallory. He shows that Hozel's early ideas about 1924 are clearly wrong and that his later conclusions aren't all that far from his critics'. He's impressed by Hemmleb's spirit and dedication, but thinks he might be going a bit far in drawing conclusions.

The physical evidence is ultimately what captures Hoyland's attention, whether Irvine's ice axe, the found oxygen cylinder, or Mallory's body, possessions, and clothing. His detail work here is what makes the book. He shows what each piece of evidence might mean and what it cannot mean, going through the information with surprising insight. He pulls together the analysis of many experts, who go over everything from the trauma on Mallory's body, to the true value of the types of clothing he wore, to the minute physical geography of Everest, to the interpretation of the meteorological data from 1924. Using all of the evidence he presents, he then reconstructs, to the best of his ability, Mallory and Irvine's final climb. Hope you like it!

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