Was Sir Edmund Hillary the first person to summit Mount Everest?

Arguably for the contrarians, Tenzing Norgay was the first. The facile explanation would be something along the lines of because he led the way or he only stepped aside at the last moment so that Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand beekeeper, could overtake him in order to summit first. What is not factored into this superficial comment is that without Hillary’s finance, determination & wherewithal Tenzing would never have set foot upon the summit. Aside from Tenzing could there indeed have been an earlier person?

Even though the Tibetans & Nepalese had occupied the area adjacent to Chomolungma or Sagarmāthā, as they respectively called Mount Everest for millennia, both are unlikely candidates for two very cogent reasons: technological and religious aside from the fact that Tenzing Norgay had already attempted the climb six times previously and failed. The technological reason is that the majority of climbers require bottled oxygen in order to climb the last 3000 feet. A number of people have attempted a natural climb but that is an extreme rarity even for Sherpas. Even with supplementary oxygen, the average climber is at the limit of their oxygen endurance.

Main picture: Conrad Anker climbing Everest

To the Sherpas Mount Everest is a deity to be respected. When George Mallory led the first expedition to Everest in 1921, the local Lama baldly stated that the mountain would not take kindly to their intrusion. To appease the Buddhist Gods, a puja – a blessing of the expedition – was held

In front of the altar, offerings are made to the Gods: sampacake, yak milk butter, fried dough, fruits, chocolate, and drinks. Juniper burns continuously in a niche in the altar. All the critical climbing equipment is blessed — harnesses, crampons, ice-axes, and helmets, as well as the expedition flag. Prayer flags are strewn for 100 feet in several directions. During the ceremony, the sherpas chant along with the Lama and monks, and everyone throws rice. The sherpas raise a pole with juniper branches on the top, and it is a sign of good fortune if a gorak (raven) lands on the pole. The ceremony closes with the participants sharing food, and finally with the climbers and sherpas smearing gray sampa flour on each others’ faces — a symbol of their hope that they may live to see each other when they are old and grey.

 Staking the most likely claim to having summited Everest first is George Mallory. Let us examine his credentials. As a callow youth of about 16 years of age, George climbed the church spire at which his father was the resident pastor without any assistance – human or otherwise. At Cambridge University he met his future climbing partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. The two formed a natural team with Mallory the natural climber and Sandy the technologically adroit partner. In addition he had proved himself physically by being part of the Cambridge University rowing team. In just one respect Sandy Irvine showed a serious lack of judgment: he was embroiled in a steamy relationship with his friend’s step-mother. Even in today’s more liberal and relaxed milieu, this behaviour would be classified as abhorrent or at the very least frowned upon.

Everest base camp at night

During an epoch in which the collective delusion of the British people still bore the mantle of the God’s chosen race, Mallory wanted to achieve glory for his homeland. This era can undoubtedly be referred to as the Golden Age of Exploration. The North Pole had recently been conquered. So too had the South Pole with the Norwegian Roald Amundsen beating Scott to the Pole. Of the trilogy, only Everest remained. With a dilatory response from the rest of the world, this would permit the adventurous Mallory an opportunity to make his mark.

By now Mallory had met the love of his life, Ruth, a kindred spirit, not as far as mountaineering was concerned by rather in a soul-mateish way. What Ruth represented for Mallory was something as elusive as Everest, an amalgam of the fear of loss and desire. As somebody quite succinctly encapsulated that emotion: “When Mallory was with Ruth he desired Everest implacably but when Mallory was on Everest he mourned for Ruth and her smooth skin not next to his.”



Clearly they were a couple very much in love not yet languid or jaded from overexposure. Cambridge during this era was in ferment and the Mallory’s were part of that milieu. The forlorn hope borne fervently by Ruth was that after George’s unsuccessful 1921 expedition, sanity would prevail. Before Mallory’s first exploratory venture, Everest was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Nothing was known about Everest apart from its height. Not one single scrap of evidence; nothing about routes, zip about appropriate time of year, nada about the effects of altitude, zero about anything. Mallory would be the pioneer, the path finder.

During the 1920’s Nepal was closed to Westerners. Not realising the enormity of the task at hand, the party set off through Tibet which lies north of Everest. Unbeknown to them, they had embarked on a three month odyssey. Through frigid streams they forded, up and down forlorn hills, valleys and passes often crossed by humans for the first time. Their first view of Everest was after two months when the whole mountain in its full regal majesty clothed in a cloak of sparking white interspersed with speckles of grey.


The party spent a full month investigating all possible paths to the foot of the mountain. With time fading fast, they discovered the glacier which even today is used as the entrée to the grand mountain itself. With funds running low, they trudged their way back.

In the wake of a second unsuccessful attempt during which seven Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, Mallory was ill-consolable. He was not self-exculpatory. He placed the blame squarely on himself, harbouring grave misgivings about ever attempting the climb again claiming it was foolhardy.

It was now during a trip to the United States that Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question by a New York Times Reporter, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” Mallory retorted “Because it’s there.” In climbing circles, these are known as the “most famous three words in mountaineering”. There have been questions over the authenticity of the quote, and whether Mallory actually said it. Some have suggested that it was a paraphrase by a newspaper reporter, but scrutiny of the original report in the New York Times leaves this unresolved. The phrase was certainly consistent with Mallory’s attitude.

Khumba icefalls

Khumba icefalls

Ruth’s apprehension was offset by Mallory’s vaulting ambition to be the first Englishman on the pinnacle of Everest. It was now that the once idyllic relationship took a decided turn for the worse. It was not that their relationship was rent asunder but rather the attraction of the mountain mistress, the ultimate femme-fatale held sway over Mallory. He was entranced, quite impervious to rational argument. Both remained steadfast in their earnest beliefs – he for the fatal attraction – and she for a living husband. Nothing could allay her fears. Their daily correspondence from a world apart suggests a healing of the rift as he sailed to the Orient. One mistress would never satiate Mallory. As a token of his affection for his Occidental Mistress – Ruth – he solemnly declared that this journey would be his last for these forbidden fruits. In contrition he carried a photograph of Ruth in his top pocket. Every night as he scribbled a quick note to Ruth brim full of love and hope for the future, he would place that photograph in front of himself. It reveals the face of an intelligence woman, a woman before her time, a loving woman.

Mallory on right and Sandy Irvin

Mallory on right and Sandy Irvin

This would be Malloy’s fateful 1924 attempt at conquering his luscious, delectable and ultimately unobtainable mistress in the East.

“Sandy” Irvine was the technical expert. He had completely redesigned the oxygen cylinder apparatus which was now both more practical and more functional. Their climbing attire bore all the hallmarks of the fashion of the day: flannel shirts, wool sweaters, tweed jackets, gabardine knickers, hobnailed leather boots, and the like.

Ruth Mallory

Ruth Mallory

On the 8th June, the pair set off on the final part of their journey. The most intricate portion of the climb was the so-called Second Step, an almost vertical section. Tricky at the best of times, with a 1000 foot drop if they misjudged a step, with the effect of the altitude, it was well-nigh impossible. To assist the climbers over this section, during 1975 Chinese climbers fastened a ladder permanently to this rock face.

Below them following their progress on camera was their support team.

George Mallory

George Mallory

The last time that the pair was seen was 800 feet below the summit moving in a westerly direction towards the peak. By all accounts they were moving briskly – this is relative expression at that height. Perhaps it should read purposely. The swirling clouds of an approaching monsoon descended and neither person was seen again.

Mallory's frozen legs

Mallory’s frozen legs

What has been in dispute over the years was whether they had attained the summit but then been killed in the atrocious weather conditions on the way down. In contrast would Mallory’s courage, resilience and steely resolve in thrall of his summit mistress have been compromised by his solemn promise to his earthly mistress – Ruth – not be foolhardy in his attempt. Intensely conflicted with his objective in sight, he might have adopted either course of action.


It goes without saying that without evidence from Everest itself, all but the most fervent supporters will be gullible enough to accept the claim that Mallory summited first. Ample proof was required but none existed until recently.

Notwithstanding that lack of evidence for the past 70 years there has remained an enduring fascination with the possibility that Mallory did indeed summit 29 years prior to Edmund Hillary. Such are the stuff of history; endlessly fascinating, riveting and engrossing to the general public.

Everest desecrated with waste

Everest desecrated with waste

Then Conrad Anker entered the scene from the left side.

Acknowledged as one of America, and indeed the world’s finest climbers, Conrad Anker was dismissive of making an attempt to summit Everest. Rather for him, the previous unclimbed supposedly unclimbable peaks around the world. His cynicism was bolstered by the fact that according to Conradian wisdom even the “athletically challenged” person was able to climb Everest.

Conrad Anker

Conrad Anker

Life changing events change one’s focus. Foremost amongst them was the death of a close friend and climbing buddy, Alex Lowe. Alex was killed in an avalanche which very nearly claimed Conrad’s life as well. Unlike Conrad, Alex had family – a wife Jenni and three children.

In awe of the possibility that George Mallory had indeed climbed Everest in 1924, 29 years prior to Edmund Hillary, Conrad agreed to participate in an expedition to uncover Mallory’s body. With a team, they covered the area which encompassed Mallory’s likely routes. On a whim, and contrary to instruction, Conrad strayed from the planned search area.

Conrad and Jenni Anker. Jenni was Alex's wife before his tragic death in an avalanche

Conrad and Jenni Anker. Jenni was Alex’s wife before his tragic death in an avalanche

Some oddity struck Conrad. Conrad had noticed something lying in the snow in the distance. What attracted his attention was the matt non-reflective surface totally unlike snow.

Conrad’s piece de resistance would be this monumental discovery. It was Mallory’s body. Contacting the rest of the search party by radio, they clambered across to examine it closely.

The cause of his death was immediately apparent: an ankle with a compound fracture. Mallory had probably been injured in an avalanche. In spite an extensive search in the surrounding area, Sandy Irvine’s body has not been found.

All of Mallory’s kit and other equipment were found including a hotel bill and his name tag on an item of clothing. Everything was accounted for.



All except for one precious item: the photograph of Ruth that Mallory had agreed to place on the summit as a sign of his affection for her.

It was missing.

The most likely explanation for its absence was that Mallory had indeed placed it on Everest. According to this line of reasoning, Mallory would only have been killed on his descent.

If that reconstruction is indeed correct, Mallory would have been the first person to summit Everest.

Then there were the countervailing possibilities. These countered either that Mallory had misplaced it on his trip upward or it had been lost as part of the helter-skelter fall as part of the avalanche; both equally valid possibilities and reasonable assumptions.

A Sherpa carrying a 90kg pack

A Sherpa carrying a 90kg pack

Without definitive proof, the possibility that Mallory beat Hillary by almost three decades is both a tantalising possibility and a bone of contention for future generations where it will remain.

The iconoclast in me favours Mallory but my head disavows that possibility.

Mallory would have been a worthy champion


Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker

Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker

What I am curious about is whether Mallory would have been sated after his conquest of Everest or whether he, like a lapsed addict, have been drawn by more audacious challenges?


  • An excellent book, “Into Thin air”. I have read it twice and it is worthwhile reading again
  • A stunning movie, “The Wildest Dream” starring Conrad Anker as Mallory and Conrad Anker as Conrad Anker. I have watched half a dozen times
  • Dates and italicised paragraph from Wikipedia
  • Photos from Google
  • Photographs from National Geographic: http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/everest-revealed-photo-gallery-by-renan-ozturk/?utm_source=NatGeocom&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=adventure_20150924&utm_campaign=Content&utm_rd=1057690694



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