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Mallory’s Last Words: Haunting Letters From Fateful 1924 Everest Expedition Now Online

George Mallory's last words, including his final letter to his wife, Ruth, are now available to read online through his alma mater.

mallory and wife RuthGeorge Mallory and his wife, Cristiana Ruth Turner; (photos/Creative Commons)
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“The candle is burning down now and I must stop.” Those were among the final words of Sir George Mallory, the most infamous casualty of those who have died trying to summit the world’s highest mountain.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of his death on Mount Everest in 1924. His alma mater, Magdalene College, is marking the centennial by digitizing his final letters for the first time.

These handwritten artifacts offer a haunting glimpse into the private life of a British mountaineer who ventured into the high-altitude “Death Zone” before anyone knew if reaching the 29,000-foot peak was humanly possible.

The location of Mallory’s body — and the question of whether he and his partner, Sandy Irvine, summited Everest before succumbing to the elements — long remained one of mountaineering’s most enduring mysteries.

george mallory 1924 expedition
Members of the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition: Mallory is highlighted third from the left; (photo/Creative Commons)

When his body was finally found in 1999, the letters were found wrapped in a handkerchief and stuffed in a pocket. The final letter, dated May 27, 1924, was intended for Mallory’s wife, Cristiana Ruth Turner. Addressed to “My Dearest Ruth,” it shows that Mallory was well aware of the likelihood of losing his life to the pursuit of Everest.

“This has been a bad time altogether,” Mallory wrote to his wife 12 days before venturing up the mountain for the last time. “I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door and onto a world of snow & vanishing hopes — & yet, & yet, & yet there have been a good many things to set on the other side.”

George Mallory Letters: An Enduring Mystery

It’s still unclear if Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before dying. The body of Irvine and the camera they took with them have never been found.

If ever proven, an earlier summit of Everest would drastically alter the history of alpinism. The ascent of Everest was first claimed by Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the world’s most famous mountaineer by finally reaching the summit with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Mallory, whose fateful 1924 expedition was his third attempt, knew the odds were stacked “50-to-1 against us,” he wrote to his wife. As an experienced climber and war veteran, he knew what he was talking about.

Other letters published online include Mallory’s recollections of two previous expeditions to Everest, as well as his experiences fighting in World War I.

sandy irvine and camera
The body of Mallory’s partner Sandy Irvine, and the Vest Pocket Kodak camera they took with them, have never been found; (photos/Creative Commons)

Although Mallory was one of the most talented climbers of his generation, he probably wasn’t able to overcome Everest’s difficulties, according to Conrad Anker, another famous alpinist who discovered Mallory’s body in 1999.

”It makes me sad to be on the skeptical, debunking side of the debate,” Anker wrote in his book, The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest. ”I believe there is no possible way Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit.”

The Perspective of History

Of all the letters published online, it’s Mallory’s final letter to Ruth that resonates the most, much like the heartbreaking final words of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. In his last days alive, Mallory details his expedition’s slow grind up the mountain, setting up camps for acclimatization while feeling a sense of growing dread.

He describes a coughing illness as “fit to tear one’s guts.” Then there’s a near-death fall into a crevasse that he failed to spot under the thick snow.

“In I went with the snow tumbling all around me, down luckily only about 10 feet before I fetched up half-blind & breathless to find myself most precariously supported only by my ice ax somehow caught across the crevasse & still held in my right hand,” he said. “Below was a very unpleasant black hole.”

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay after summiting Mount Everest in 1953; (photo/Creative Commons)

Everest has changed a lot since Mallory’s death. Nearly 7,000 people have now reached the summit. Photos of hundreds of bottlenecked climbers lined up on the roof of the world can make a once-terrifying mission seem more like a trip to Disneyland.

Mallory’s letters remind us of a different time, when a 37-year-old looked up toward the heavens, and risked his life to get there. When a reporter asked him why, Mallory’s response became the stuff of legend:

“Because it’s there.”

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