Decades before Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, a British expedition tried to reach the highest point on earth.
England was in a frenzy to prove its might. The Norwegians were already the first to the South Pole; the Americans had claimed the North Pole. George Mallory and his British team desperately wanted to capture the third pole — Everest.
It was just after the First World War, and the entire country followed progress reports of the climb, gripped by Everest fever. But since Hillary is a household name, and Mallory is not, we know how the story ends. But what happened along the way?
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout is the tantalizing story of Mallory’s summit attempt. She combines fact with imaginative fiction to solve the mystery of what went terribly wrong on the expedition. Mallory’s battered body was discovered in 1999, more than 75 years after his climb, but still little is known about his final ascent – or if he possibly reached the peak.
Mallory was dressed in a wool sweater, wool socks and simple leather boots. It’s hard to imagine how he could have endured the extreme cold in little more than tweeds. Other equipment choices were also hard to fathom. In colonial fashion, the group of climbers were accompanied by 100 porters whose cargo included bottles of champagne and a victrola.
Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Everest: “because it’s there.” Many loved ones back home, who had recently lost brothers and sons to the war, didn’t agree that risking death to climb a mountain was a wise choice.
In fact Ruth, Mallory’s wife, begged him not to go. Her story of waiting at home is interspersed with the narrative of the climb. In lesser hands this would be a difficult juxtaposition, but it works. Focusing on life in England keeps the question alive: Was the expedition worth it?
Hints of the future are also woven into Above All Things. At one point Mallory kicks a spent oxygen tank down a slope — the beginning of the troubling piles of garbage littering the mountain today. Porters and climbers alike died on Mallory’s expedition, foreshadowing the hundreds who have lost their lives trying to climb the mountain since then.
For those who love a good adventure story, a romance, and for climbing buffs and Everest enthusiasts alike, this is a perfect summer read. The descriptions of excruciating cold alone are enough reason to pick up Above All Things on a hot summer day.
Heather Allen is a reader and writer from Penticton.