“The unexamined life is not worth living”—thus we are warned by Socrates.
So--sex, politics, war, and character--I think examining a particular mixture of these in George Leigh Mallory’s life can explain why he died in 1924 in a storied disappearance on Mt. Everest—and his fellow climber Sandy Irvine too, in Mallory’s wake. Mallory and Irvine, part of the third British expedition, were last seen alive near the summit in a first ascent attempt, then disappeared in a cloud and never returned. Mallory’s body was finally found in 1999, but there has been inconclusive evidence of what happened and whether theirs was a first ascent. Irvine has never been found. 1
My purpose here is to use what seems to me Mallory’s transparent history to help us get past the time-honored response many climbers—and the public—seem to accept as explanation for climbing: Mallory’s “Because it is there”, or Reinhold Messner’s -- “There is no answer. I am the answer.” I think Messner was more right than he knew. Such responses are not explanations, but ways of keeping a secret; nonetheless, while Messner is saying he cannot tell, he hints at explanation in pointing to himself. There are real explanations for volunteering in any dangerous sport if we care to know enough, and I invite readers to consider Mallory’s history from a different, perhaps unique, perspective for an explanation. Finding an explanation through Mallory can provide a new and useful way climbers may explain themselves really—if they will; this can also tell us what happened to Mallory and Irvine.
I am not writing about how Mallory died, which addresses such as equipment, clothing, weather, and so on--technical mountaineering issues. I am writing about the compelling social, political, and psychological forces that seem to have hidden in plain sight in Mallory’s history and created a doomed climb. I will lay out first what I think were key influences in each area, and then the evidence for their roles.
We should consider the political and social influences of the time that may have affected the way he managed his homoerotic impulses, including why he married, the way he was married, his choice of mountaineering among all sports, and his choice of climbing partners.
We should also look at his war experience and apparent consequent trauma symptoms, and also at the evidence of psychological character and its affect on his climbing. Finally, we should note that in Britain, the ascent of Everest was promoted in print and lecture hall as an expected imperial redemption and distraction from the human and economic costs of World War I; the prospect of heroes’ laurels pressured climbers to seek that fame —a known temptation for Mallory, for personal reasons beyond those of most.2
On contributing personal characteristics, I am concerned with two as an influence on the fatal climb. For one, there is much direct and indirect evidence Mallory was at least bisexual, perhaps essentially homosexual, but in any case he clearly preferred the company of men—and this would have made mountaineering attractive to him in an era of male-only climbers. His sexuality is not of interest here per se, except insofar as it affected climbing Everest. There is also evidence of a very important other personal characteristic, that if true would bear heavily on his lack of career, his pursuit of Everest, again on his marrying, the way he was married, and the way he climbed: that is, Mallory seems to have been strongly narcissistic.3
Further, the war of 1914-1918, in which Mallory volunteered for 16 months and served at the Western Front as an officer of artillery, is very important to understanding him. We know from the biographers, quoting Mallory’s letters, that he was nearly killed twice. He also saw many dead, dying, and badly wounded, including in each category men he knew. (Davis 2012: chapters 5, 13). (Hoyland 2013: 34) Combat veterans are especially vulnerable to trauma symptoms during and after these circumstances—especially in long tours of duty such as were the case in World War I, or as we have seen in U.S. multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mallory came away from the war with serious trauma symptoms—and kept them. Those symptoms can impair judgment and performance in varying degrees. To add to the trauma, he saw others killed and also was nearly killed on Everest in each of the three British expeditions before disappearing in the third one.
Before I discuss Mallory’s trauma symptoms, I should start with his pre-existing character, because with trauma acquired in adulthood, trauma symptoms are laid on top of an already formed character, and that character helps or hinders in dealing with those symptoms. In Mallory’s case, the unattended symptoms and a narcissistic character may have interacted to make judgment and behavior profoundly worse in mountaineering.
While it is generally futile to attempt clinical diagnosis at a distance, occasionally sufficient biographical information is public enough to do this to some degree. Thus we may say that Churchill and Lincoln suffered major depression, that U.S. President General Grant had an alcohol use disorder, that Hemingway had post-traumatic stress disorder. More current is a clinical evaluation of a recent U.S. president (Frank 2013). So also with Mallory-- there seems adequate public biographical information, as I hope to indicate.
The basic features of narcissistic personality disorder are pervasive grandiosity, lack of empathy for others, and need for admiration. The onset is in early adulthood and manifests in different contexts. While virtually everyone has narcissistic behavior from time to time, most of us cannot be described as fully narcissistic—just as we may have lapses of conscience that don’t qualify us for a full-blown diagnosis of sociopath. Whether Mallory could be described clinically as having all the features to qualify as having a complete narcissistic personality disorder, I leave to others; however, some of the following are narcissistic traits, and some of his behaviors show several traits at once:
First, his need for admiration. We could start with the photo gracing the jacket of the Gillman biography (Gillman 2000). Mallory is seated on a table so his eyes are level face-on with those of a standing onlooker (the photographer). He is nude, his knees drawn up and his feet held by his hands in front of his genitals, so that his forelegs splay on either side of his erect torso and head in the middle. It is a phallic pose, set by the gay artist Duncan Grant, a leading figure in the Bloomsbury movement that included many famous artists, writers, and intellectuals, a number of whom were openly homosexual or bisexual. Mallory is quoted in several sources as telling Grant, “I am profoundly interested in the nude me”. This was a sustained interest of his: see the photo of him posing nude before other climbers at a river crossing in the 1922 expedition.4
Mallory also seems also to have socially displayed himself before numbers of gay men at Cambridge and within the Bloomsbury group, whether to have affairs is uncertain, but certainly to be admired for his beauty, accepting invitations to private meals and social events with them, as mentioned in a number of their letters. Both he and they were aware of his beauty and the effect it had on these men. Thus by various biographers excerpts from Lytton Strachey: “Mon Dieu—George Mallory—when that’s been written, what more need be said? ....My hand trembles, my heart palpitates…For the rest, he’s going to be a schoolmaster, and his intelligence is not remarkable. What’s the need?”5 Mallory’s letters show he had at least one brief affair with one of the brothers Strachey in the Bloomsbury circle.
There are many examples of Mallory’s grandiose sense of self-importance and lack of empathy. One of his acts, repeated often and perhaps bearing on his choice of Irvine to summit with, was to take younger inexperienced men into dangerous climbing situations. He was a teacher, some of these were students of his, and he was chided for this behavior by his pre-war climbing partner, Geoffrey Young—but also by others. (Gillman 2000:120) (Hoyland 2013: 55, 246)
This could, at one stroke, have provided him with dependent grateful and admiring acolytes, possible sexual interests, and isolation from women (these are several interwoven constant themes). It was this that may have happened to Irvine, it was character-borne behavior, and importantly whether there was sex or not, it was a consistent pattern and could be dangerous to the novice 22 year-old Irvine.
Another example of grandiosity combines a sense of self-importance with a fantasy of unlimited ability, and also a sense he is special. It is in a letter to his wife Ruth late in the 1924 attempt, referring to the final assault plan, in which he says in effect that the entire plan is his and it is nearly unthinkable that he won’t summit. And then there was his opinion, expressed in a letter to his wife in 1924, that his fellow climber Odell and two others had “no guts” in comparison to him (Odell, who searched alone for Mallory and Irvine for two days at 28,000 feet without oxygen). Or that Tibet was “a hateful country inhabited by hateful people”--though the climbers used them as porters under very heavy loads in dangerous parts of the expedition (Davis 2012: 248).
Other brief examples: Mallory was at best an intermittent school teacher, yet in 1920 he wrote the Secretary of the Union of the League of Nations for a job, citing his experience as a lecturer and historian and his interest in literature and politics and concluding he should be hired because the most important thing about him was that he thought and felt passionately about international politics. Then there was the time he lectured the Governor General of India on governance, while a dinner guest on one expedition. Companions at Cambridge also noted many opinionated pronouncements—as did administrators in schools where he taught.
Perhaps the most startling displays of lack of empathy occurred with those most dependent on him: his family. He chose to be in activities that absented him five long periods in the ten years of his marriage, including being absent to climb in the Alps with his gay climbing partner Geoffrey Young one Christmas at the time of birth of his son. All this in a dangerous sport without, so far as is evident, considering the feelings of, or possible consequences to, even his children (remarkably, he once admitted he was not much interested in his daughters, but did want a son). Proof that he could not understand the feelings of others is painfully reflected in a sad lament by his grown son John, commenting after John’s son summited Everest in 1999 and after George Leigh Mallory’s corpse was found. John said that while he was proud of his son’s achievement and his father’s, he would so much have preferred to know his father than to grow up in the shadow of a hero, as some saw him.6
I do not know how it was between John and his son—but John Mallory was five when his father George Leigh Mallory disappeared in 1924.
There is yet more to the narcissism here: exploitation of others to achieve importance. It is possible Mallory married Ruth to disguise homosexuality in a hostile society; we have observed this in others. He may also have married her for reasons less sympathetic for us: his father-in-law gave them a house and a lifetime income that was comfortable enough at first to maintain the house and car, three children, and three servants. Mallory was basically set for life provided he also worked—but his wife was left to take care of the children, run the household, and manage what became thin finances while he was away many times for months on end not working.
And on Everest, for just one climbing example, in the last expedition in which Mallory was convinced the summit could only be reached with oxygen, the biographer Davis notes that Mallory gave priority to oxygen equipment over sleeping bags for porters. They carried up the equipment for his ascent, and were expected to sleep overnight with only blankets at 21,000 feet. (While in this short article it is not possible to show all the evidence for each narcissistic characteristic among several, I intend here at least to alert readers to consider this interpretation in the biographies).
It is worth addressing the question of Mallory’s sexual orientation because it may have been one element among several that drew him to climbing, combined with his narcissism and the trauma-driven self-destructive and fatalistic symptoms I describe further on. His physical abilities played into this, a relatively new sport with few in it, where he could stand out. To the extent that sexuality drew him to climbing, in combination with these other elements it helped endanger him—and Irvine.
Homosexual men in the West have found at least the following as socially acceptable ways to be disguised in hostile societies: sports; the military; all-male schools; the artists’ or Bohemian life; the Catholic priesthood—and occasionally, marriage to a woman (and even having children). Of these six, Mallory chose five, even persistently volunteering for war when he had an exemption. Part of the reason for seeking such cover, of course, especially in Britain in Mallory’s day, was that homosexual activity was illegal—if a man were caught, he could be sent to prison, or chemically castrated. Another reason was social opprobrium—possible even now in mountaineering biographies, where denial of all indications of Mallory’s sexuality is astonishing, almost as if something were amiss if the most famous climber of the early twentieth century should be gay.
The most extensive arguments I have seen opposing the view that Mallory was gay are, the quality and number of loving letters he wrote his wife, and that everyone in Mallory’s age and social groups was experimenting with sex (boys, artists in the era, intellectuals). Mallory’s marriage and children are pointed to as proof that he outgrew, so to speak, the experimental.
Against the first argument, note that Mallory had to write many letters precisely because he so often volunteered to be at great distance from his wife. He may have had to write them if he wanted to hold onto the marriage in part for its conveniences as well as for any real love—which, at a distance and in a limited way he seems to have had for the only woman we know he was sexual with. He went three long times to Everest, also to the Alps, to war, to the U.S., to Canada and around Britain to lecture about Everest—added up, years away in a short marriage. Against the second argument, there obviously had to be homosexuals in the schools and Bohemian groups—students, teachers, artists—who were not experimenting at all with who they were, as Mallory apparently was not.7 Homosexuality did not just spring from the brow of Zeus in the late 20th century.
Moreover there were a few well-known gay climbers, those whose class rank or money allowed them to be less discreet. One of them was a handsome, first rate climber named Geoffrey Young, ten years older than Mallory, who invited the young man for vacation in Italy, to be followed by a summer of climbing in the Alps in 1909 (Young had a practice, probably for safety, of affairs outside of Britain). When Mallory said he would like to accept but could not afford it, Young paid his expenses—and so Mallory spent the summer with him—and in later times. If we heard of such an offer from an older male and accepted by a younger woman, both of whom dated heterosexuals, we could be forgiven if we concluded there was an affair. The biographer Davis asserts, without attribution, that there is “no suggestion” that Young and Mallory became lovers.8 Here is mine.
I will not argue the other possible evidence written about this point--it is everywhere in the biographies and denied at great pains. For instance, in her biography of Irvine, his great niece seemingly denies the influence of Mallory’s sexual inclination, and his habitual recruitment of young, inexperienced men to climbing, by totally leaving out mention of these facts noted in Mallory’s correspondence and in other biographies. (Summers 2000)
But I will conclude here with the issue of Mallory’s attraction to Irvine. While it is clear from letters that Mallory found him attractive, and notably monopolized his company from the day they left Britain for the last try, they may not have been lovers. Mallory could keep his homosexual urges in check as long as he got other things from men, gay or not, especially young ones: admiration, and usefulness.
Consider: Mallory argued to the expedition leader in 1924, Colonel Norton, that he wanted Irvine because the latter was good with the oxygen equipment, and was strong. The Everest climber Odell, 34 years old and at that point much more experienced, had acclimated, was strong, and could use the oxygen even if he did not have Irvine’s mechanical ability. But if Odell had summited with Mallory the glory would have to be equally shared; or, as an equal there might have been differences about whether to go up or down at some point.9 Irvine’s fate was sealed importantly as an acolyte.
And beyond Mallory’s complicated probable influence, might Irvine’s death be also a result of failure of command responsibility, and even of the influence of the war? As biographers point out, after two previous Everest expeditions the Everest Committee knew of the many dangers of the mountain (the Committee chose the climbers). (Unsworth 1989: 105) (Davis 2012: 145-146; 493). Was it ethical to select a novice climber, a man of 22 who had not climbed above 6,000 feet on a Norwegian island, who was inexperienced in snow and ice climbing, whose gravitas could not be equal in decisions to those he was with? Of the 26 British climbers in the three expeditions, 20 had been officers in the war; Irvine, too young for the war, was chosen for physical strength and mechanical ability (with oxygen apparatus). It might almost appear he was used for national purpose—British redemption at Everest-- by those of higher class and military rank, as were the young men thrown into the front ranks of the fighting. (Davis 2012: 95, 109, 480) (Unsworth (1989: 466)
I focus on World War I threats to Mallory of death and dying because they are traumatic for most. Whether directly attacked or made aware of deadly threat to themselves through exposure, many so exposed are subject to Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms—and on my reading, Mallory had at least several. PTSD symptoms can seriously interfere with judgment and performance, up to and including causing death. To the trauma of war, Mallory soon added actual and threatened death experiences in each of the later three Everest expeditions—seeing others die, nearly dying himself (and he had nearly died in an Alpine fall before the war). At this distance over time it is possible to miss some symptoms in Mallory, and of course in the war veteran climbers with him whose biographical histories are less public (but whose war traumas biographer Davis details movingly). Here, however, are the ones I notice in Mallory:
Foreshortened future—this is the belief that one essentially has no natural or long future, that there will be no major success in life, that life may even end prematurely. This belief can come and go, surprising those surviving past imagined death dates. Mallory took this view of himself first during World War I, then to Everest—letters in the biographies show that intermittently he thought he would die on Everest on the third trip—dangerous belief because hopelessness can induce carelessness, and especially because it can interact with another dangerous symptom if the second is present. 10
A second and dangerously related PTSD symptom is self-destructiveness, manifest either with homicidal or suicidal ideas and/or behavior; Mallory seems to have had the latter, returning to Everest even though he believed he would die in the third trip. If he believed he would die there, why would he go? Why would he be careless about safety once there? Why would he make a final assault with the inexperienced Irvine, when for a week Odell had finally acclimatized?11 After their disappearance Odell spent two days alone at high altitude looking for Mallory and Irvine. Why, on the last effort would Mallory leave his flashlight, safety flares, and compass in their tent-- this is put down by biographers to “chronic” forgetfulness since childhood—but here is the complex interplay of a third and a fourth trauma symptom: increased forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating. Childhood causes of apparent forgetfulness granted, the near death experiences in war and climbing could only have worsened these and if you forget details of climbing accidents, you can’t learn; if you can’t concentrate, you can leave safety equipment behind on Everest. If you believe in some part of your mind that it can’t matter anyway, you can be doomed.
A fifth probable trauma symptom is withdrawal from other people. I consider Mallory’s choice of mountaineering as partly to disguise his sexual preference to be with men, and partly to achieve narcissistic recognition for his physical talent, but we can’t discount the possibility that mountaineering, isolated from family, from society, and internally one climber from another under Everest conditions—could also be expression of withdrawal from intimacy—perhaps further explaining the puzzle of loving letters to his wife along with frequent distant and dangerous absences. Mallory was as close to —and as far from— either gender as he could be. (And also in mountaineering-- what happens in withdrawal to communication, to climbing as a team? The biographer Davis argues Mallory all along had a secret plan to summit with Irvine (Davis 2012: 530-538).
What is missing in the list are certain other common trauma symptoms not discernable to me in biographies, which if present with commonly hoped-for remedies, would also contribute to danger. Emotional numbing, hoped to be overcome by the stimulus of danger (a deadly problem in war correspondents). Sleep disorders—wakefulness or nightmares, hoped to be overcome by exhaustion. Flashbacks—seeming to relive the trauma, triggered in surprise, fearful and distracting; the hope is to discover and control the trigger, but many are blind to it.
Mallory’s history shows him subject to the dangerous cycle of trauma symptoms that can be misunderstood and uncontrolled so long as the cause is unconscious. Some climbers enter climbing already traumatized--perhaps Messner who as a child was savagely beaten by his father (Messner 2014: 32-34), or David Roberts’ first climbing partner who lost his parents in childhood. (Roberts 2006: 372-373) But even without trauma before climbing, if you climb long enough, sooner or later you will be exposed to the death of others, or injury to them or yourself—sufficiently to get trauma symptoms, including Mallory’s: self-destructive impulse, withdrawal from intimacy, foreshortened future, emotional numbing and so on. These make climbing a perfect arena in which continuously to live out these symptoms—and so be exposed new traumas, which in turn make it hard to quit climbing despite misgivings. I am not clear if Mallory also suffered survivor guilt, either from the war or from deaths of others on Everest, but survivor guilt also can add to compulsion to expose one’s self to continued danger as punishment.
I think we can now deduce what happened. Mallory’s narcissism left him with nothing with which to achieve an adult life: beauty and strength both fade. He might have been able to achieve a professional life, but narcissists often expect rewards unearned, and unfortunately beauty and strength came early and easily. He was used to the company of people who were upper class or were or would be famous: military officers in the Everest trips who had outranked him as a lieutenant; writers and economists in the Bloomsbury group such as Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes and Churchill’s secretary. Even his younger brother Trafford was rising respectably in the ranks of the RAF. All the men returning from the last expedition had professions and would develop further.
Mallory would have known that without the summit he would return to being an “ordinary” schoolteacher, an obscure writer in Alpine journals, increasingly a weaker climber with age, in his mind a less attractive man getting older, an ambivalent husband in an outwardly ordinary family life. He seems to have been fated on the one hand by a self-destructive trauma impulse, and on the other by a contrasting but equal impulse from narcissism leading him to think he could not fail—both would impel him to climb.
Mallory said this would be his last attempt on Everest, and one in which in any case he probably would die--so he would have climbed as long as there was light, up as far as he could see until he ran out all the light, until for darkness there was no way to go on. It would have seemed a gamble for the sake of an adult life, success was life, success became more important than life-- and then they descended into the darkness into which he had committed them.
In writing this piece, I became aware of a sense of the inevitability of it all. The effects of those governments, of those prejudices, of that trauma, of that unconscious. These days, less is inevitable, we sometimes have alternatives if we think: knowledge of the unconscious that drives dangerous behavior, understanding the effects of war and other traumas, the question of national interest in wars, the mechanisms of prejudice. With more inexperienced, untrained people climbing in commercial ventures, with more extreme climbers using less protection, with the background of more and longer wars, if we are not bystanders we may save some lives. On examination we may save our own lives.
Gerald Gray climbed ten years in North America (1952-1962). In that decade three of his friends died climbing. He left climbing for work in the U.S. civil rights movement. After later training as a psychotherapist in the 1970s, his practice included trauma work with Vietnam combat veterans, Catholic nuns and priests, and then for a quarter century with refugee survivors of torture. He founded/directed two California refugee torture treatment centers and now works with Accountability Counsel, which assists communities in Nepal and elsewhere defend their environmental and human rights; with the Center for Justice & Accountability; with the International Institute for Criminal Investigation (The Hague); and with the Stanford Program for Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health.
- Hemmleb, Johnson, and Simonson (1999: Chapter 8) For those interested, Hemmleb et al present a substantial argument and evidence that Mallory and Irvine could have summited—that they had enough time and oxygen, an alternate way up the major cliff (Second Step), that their colleague Odell did have a clear view of them above the cliff.
- Davis (2012: 469, 564-565) See also Hoyland (2013: 76).
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (2013: 669-672; 271-280). Definitions of narcissism and post-traumatic stress symptoms used in this article are those in this source. There are 17 possible PTSD symptoms; one can have several, including dangerous ones, without having the full disorder.
Hoyland (2013: 150-151) See photo section. Both pictures and the self-interested quote appear here.
Davis (2012:175-177). Stone (1993: 89) also alleges an affair with the artist Duncan Grant, who staged the nude photo of Mallory.
Mallory, John. Foreword to Last Climb, by Breashears and Salkeld (1999). For some revealing self-insight into a climber’s unconscious, see Blum (2005: 306-307). Blum and another woman climber felt that part of why they climbed “threatening mountains” is that “…as individuals we weren’t all that important.” For further view of those left behind by climbers’ absences and deaths, see Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, by Maria Coffey and my review of her book on this website.Stone (1993: 88-89). The photo here is the same as on the Gillman book jacket, notorious enough to appear in a number of sources, not all of them mountaineering. A current (2016) internet search shows a number of contemporary gay climbing sources; none seeming to bear on Mallory and how his orientation may have related to his climbing.
Davis (2012: 177) Also on Young, see Hoyland (2013: 32), Gillman (2000: 56-57)
Davis (2012: 279) There is in fact evidence for just this possibility in the remark by the wife of Guy Bullock, one of Mallory’s fellow climbers on Everest. She reported a time Bullock refused to take his rope of porters on a route Mallory proposed because it was too dangerous, in Bullock’s eyes. “Mallory was not pleased. He did not support a critical difference of opinion readily.” Also Hoyland (2013:55)
Davis (2012: 195). In a noteworthy letter to Geoffrey Young from the front, Mallory wrote, “ I don’t intend, for what ever little that might be worth, to be alive at the end” This remark contains both the idea of foreshortened future, and that of intended self-destruction—expression of two PTSD symptoms.
Davis (2012: 530, 538, 551); Unsworth (1989: 110-111; 124). Davis in particular gives much detail of the war suffered in general, and of Everest climbers in particular.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.
Blum, Arlene. Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Breashears, David and Audrey Salkeld. 1999. Last Climb. Washington, DC: National Geographic. Foreword by John Mallory.
Coffey, Maria. Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow. St. Martins Press, 2005.
Davis, Wade. 2012. Into the Silence—the Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. New York: Vintage Books.
Frank, Justin A. 2013. Bush on the Couch. New York: Regan Books.
Gillman, Peter and Leni. 2000. The Wildest Dream, the Biography of George Mallory. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books.
Hemmleb, Jochen, Larry A. Johnson, and Eric R. Simonson. 1999. Ghosts of Everest. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books.
Holzel, Tom, and Audrey Salkeld. 1986. First on Everest. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Hoyland, Graham. 2013. Last Hours on Everest. London: Harper Collins.
Messner, Reinhold. 2014. My Life at the Limit. Seattle: Mountaineers Books.
Roberts, David. 2006. On The Ridge Between Life and Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Stone, Richard. 1993. Bloomsbury Portraits—Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Their Circle. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Summers, Julie. 2000. Fearless on Everest—the Quest for Sandy Irvine. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Unsworth, Walt. 1989. Everest. Seattle: Cloudcap.