Base camp

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 6

MALLORY (GEORGE LEIGH) Series of thirty-four autograph letters and cards, all but one signed, to Lytton Strachey; together with a black-edged memorial envelope with his name painted [by Dora Carrington], St John's Vicarage, Birkenhead, Pythagoras House and The Old Lodge Magdalene College, Cambridge, Charterhouse, Haileybury, Dartmouth, Camberley, Paris, Roquebrune, Valentia Harbour, and SS Sardinia nearing Colombo, 1909-1921

Base camp

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 6

Base camp

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 6

Base camp

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 6

A new cache of letters from the mountaineer George Mallory to Lytton Strachey has just been discovered. They reveal an adventurer who was eager to explore not just Mount Everest, but also his own sexuality, says Robert Macfarlane

The story of George Mallory seems at first a dark fairy-tale. Three times in four years he was drawn to attempt the summit of Mount Everest. Each time the adventurer left behind his wife and three small children to risk himself for the peak, though he had only recently survived duty as an artillery officer on the Western Front.

In 1921, as part of the exploratory British Reconnaissance Expedition, Mallory turned back at 23,000 feet on the North Col of Everest, gateway to the final phase of conquest, driven down by a wind "in which no man could live for an hour". On the ship home that autumn he dreamed of seeing "the solemn facades in Pall Mall and perhaps Bloomsbury in a fog" – and vowed that he would not return to Everest "for all the gold in Arabia". But he was back the following spring. Just below the North Col he retreated again, driven down this time by an avalanche that killed seven of the nine sherpas accompanying him.

In 1924, aided by oxygen, Mallory finally made it beyond the Col. He was last seen through a telescope by the expedition geologist, Noël Odell, at more than 28,000 feet: "a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step", close to the base of "the final pyramid". Then the scene "became enveloped in cloud" – and Mallory, along with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine – disappeared into the mist of myth. Three times he tried, and on the third time he died, days short of his 38th birthday.

I was 12 when I was first told of Mallory by my grandfather, a mountaineer and diplomat who had put up new routes on peaks in the great Ala Dag range in southern Turkey. His heavy wooden-hafted ice-axe was taller than me, and his long wooden skis were taller than him. Perhaps because of my grandfather, I could only imagine Mallory in terms of Himalayan adventure and romantic death. He embodied a heroism so bright that it cast the rest of his life into shadow for me.

Over recent decades, though, we have begun to arrive at a more nuanced picture of Mallory, especially of the life that preceded Everest: his involvement with the Bloomsbury group, Fabianism, radical education, queer culture and the First World War. Mallory the hero, the imperial angel, the icon of integrity, has become someone very different – and much more interesting.

Just as we think we have caught up with Mallory, suddenly he surprises us all over again. Thirty-four handwritten letters and cards from him to Lytton Strachey have now come to light. The collection will be offered in June's Fine Book Sale at Bonhams Knightsbridge. The earliest letter to Strachey dates from 1909, when Mallory was still an undergraduate at Cambridge; the last was written in 1921 on board SS Sardinia, the ship on which Mallory sailed to Calcutta, to begin the overland approach to Everest.

Mallory was introduced to Lytton Strachey in May 1909 by Lytton's brother, James, a fellow undergraduate at Cambridge. Lytton graduated the year before Mallory arrived, and had moved to London to pursue what would become a brilliant career as a biographer. The brothers kept up a steady flow of gossip by telephone and letter, and took pleasure in both matchmaking and heartbreaking. When Lytton was told by his brother about Mallory, he expressed his desire to meet him. And when he did, Lytton was smitten. "Mon Dieu! George Mallory!" he raved in a famous letter to the artist and Bloomsbury Group member, Vanessa Bell on 21st May. "My hand trembles, my heart palpitates ... he's six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face – oh incredible – the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an imaginable English boy." Mallory would end up sleeping unhappily with James, and corresponding richly with Lytton.

Mountaineers and climbers often talk about 'the best line' up a route or face. It is a phrase both pragmatic and aesthetic. The best line can sometimes be the safest and the easiest – minimizing objective hazards (avalanche danger, rock fall, poor protection).

But the best line can also be the most beautiful – naturally and sinuously joining parts of the whole, flirting with risk, enjoying the thrill of exposure. Mallory was renowned for the grace of his climbing: the way his body seemed to acquire a rhythm of movement that approached vertical dance. He was a graceful writer, too, and these newly discovered letters to Strachey show him as an elegant risk-taker with the pen as well as the rope. Gossipy, bitchy, sexy, reflective, here we see Mallory as a young man experimenting with his sexuality as a manner of speaking as well as a means of behaving.

A candid letter dated November 30th 1909, for instance, sent from La Souco in the Maritime Alps, commiserates with Strachey about the grim Cambridge weather, but consoles him with the reminder that the city is filled with "so many young men from whom to choose suitable and worthy companions". "I myself have found that it is the young always whom I desire," adds Mallory, almost absent-mindedly to himself. A letter from Paris the following year suggests a new level of candor between the men: Mallory addresses Strachey as "a wicked old sodomite" with a harem: "your Antonious and your Rupert and your beautiful young Lamb".

Reading his letters to Strachey brings the usual keen pleasures of manuscript archives: smudged ink, creased folds in the thick paper, the variant sign-offs ("Yrs. sincerely, George H. L. Mallory"; "yrs. ever affectly, George Mallory"; "G.M".) There are also some fine one-liners – "I have an odd prejudice against climbing in dress clothes." "But then the truth always is so shocking & probably nobody is monogamous" – from the man who, when asked by an American reporter why he wanted to climb Everest, would coin the best-known one-liner in exploration history: "Because it's there."

Most fascinating, perhaps, is watching Mallory's passions shift and change during those twelve vital years. Writing to Lytton as an undergraduate, he is impulsive, coquettish, and liquid in his language and identity. As early as 1910, though, his thoughts are starting to turn from love to climbing, and from the Fens to the Alps: he dreams of "wonderful new expeditions upon the giants of Zermatt & the thrill of exploring". By the time of his marriage to Ruth Turner, an architect's daughter, the ardor of his correspondence with Lytton is clearly cooling. And once he is aboard SS Sardinia in 1921, the distance between the men is palpable: "A letter will pursue me to Tibet," the last letter ends, "if you address it Mount Everest expedition c/o Postmaster Darjeeling. Please give my love to Duncan [Grant] when you see him. Yrs. ever George Mallory."

Read in order and read in full, these letters trace a subtle line between these parts of Mallory's life. Loops and echoes abound, joining the impetuous student to the obsessed Everester. "I am in the most ridiculous state," wrote Mallory playfully to Strachey shortly after they met, "madly energetic & too lazy to do anything but walk up mountains". It was that mad energy – that laziness – which would eventually compel Mallory to leave his friends and family, and to climb into the cloud at the base of the "final pyramid" on Everest in 1924.

Robert Macfarlane is an academic, travel writer and author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. His latest book is Landmarks.

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