Celebrating the centenary of the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition

Members of the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition at Base Camp.  Back row, L to R:  Henry Morshead, Geoffrey Bruce, John Noel, Arthur Wakefield, Howard Somervell, John Morris, Edward Norton.  Front row:  George Mallory, George Ingle Finch, Tom Longstaff, Charles Granville Bruce (leader), Edward Strutt, Colin Crawford

“We were not playing with this mountain,’ wrote George Mallory.  “It might be playing with us.”

At 11.30 pm on the night of 21st May 1922, four of Britain’s most experienced climbers stumbled into their tents on Everest’s North Col.  They were utterly exhausted.  Henry Morshead was suffering from severe frostbite and was close to collapse;  Edward Norton’s feet and ears were frostbitten, and George Mallory was in acute pain from his hands.  Only Howard Somervell, a surgeon, was still reasonably fit and well.

They had had one of the most challenging days of their lives.  After a cold and sleepless night at 25,000 feet, they had emerged from their tents and set off on what they hoped would be their climb to the summit.  But Morshead quickly realised that he was in no fit state to continue, and dropped back to the camp to await the others’ return.  Mallory, Norton and Somervell pressed on up the steep slope towards the North Ridge;  it was tough work and they were hampered by overnight snowfall which made it hard to see where to place their feet. 

Everest’s North Face


Shortly after 2 pm they paused for food and assessed their situation.  They were at an altitude of just under 27,000 feet;  they still had over 2,000 feet to climb, and their best rate of progress was 400 feet per hour.*  Assuming they could keep this up, and without allowing for further stops, they still wouldn’t reach the summit until after nightfall.  They had no option but to turn back. 

It was a bitter disappointment.  As he munched on chocolate, mint-cake and raisins, Mallory gazed across to the neighbouring peaks of Gyachung Kang and Cho Uyo, which he correctly reckoned to be slightly below his own elevation.  He and his companions had just set a new altitude record, but their mood was anything but celebratory.   “If we were not to reach the summit,” he reflected later, “what remained for us to do?  None of us, I believe, cared much about any lower objective.” 

Mallory was aware that his brain was struggling to function normally.   Within a limited scope he was able to reason, but this reasoning was focused only on one idea, which was the expedition’s goal.  The spectacular views did not inspire him with any sense of wonder.  It is likely that the others were suffering in the same way:  in any case, a collective decision was reached almost without discussion.   “Our minds,” wrote Mallory, “were not behaving as we would wish them to behave.”  As they descended he had a sensation of moving fast, but their slow progress forced him to conclude that this was illusory, and that they were in fact “living both physically and mentally at half, or less than half, the normal rate.”

Morshead was found to be ready and waiting at Camp V, and was roped up to join them as they began a further descent of 2,000 feet to Camp IV.  Every footstep brought them closer to safety, but exhaustion blurred their focus.  On an unfamiliar snow slope, one man lost his footing and in an instant two, then three of them were falling towards the East Rongbuk Glacier some 3,500 feet below.  Mallory, still in position, struck his axe into the snow, hitched the rope around it, and leaned on it for all he was worth.  The rope tightened but the axe held.  Miraculously, they were able to crawl back up, unharmed. 

As darkness fell, one of them found a lantern and lit a candle to guide the way;  close to midnight, the sight of the tents could not have been more welcome.  They were nearly crazy with thirst, so they were horrified to find that the pans in which they melted snow for water had been mistakenly removed and taken down to the camp below.  Norton improvised by making ‘ice cream’ out of condensed milk, strawberry jam and snow;  it was disgusting, but they swallowed it out of desperation.  Only next morning, when they rejoined the other team members at Camp III, could they finally quench their thirst, Somervell downing 17 mugs of tea. 


First climbing party of Morshead, Mallory, Somervell and Norton, from leaflet on Mallory’s November 1922 lecture (RSGS collections)

Mallory and his companions had pushed themselves to the absolute limits and beyond, and could hardly be blamed for overlooking what science itself had yet to understand - that the body quickly becomes dehydrated at high altitudes.  While they recovered, their fellow climbers George Ingle Finch, Geoffrey Bruce and Tejbir Bura, a Nepalese Gurkha officer, prepared to embark on a second summit attempt, this time with bottled oxygen and breathing apparatus. 

In the 1920s, the use of bottled oxygen at high altitudes was a contentious issue.  Some climbers saw it as an unfair advantage, distinctly unsportsmanlike, and declared that they would reach a summit unaided or not at all.  Others were dubious about its usefulness, not least because the backpack of gas cylinders weighed 32 lb.  Mallory, for whom freedom of movement was everything, viewed it as an abomination.  “When I think of mountaineering with four cylinders of oxygen on one’s back and a mask over one’s face,” he declared, “well, it loses its charm.”

An Australian scientist, Finch was one of the climbers who believed in the new technology, and he had been appointed to take charge of it for the 1922 expedition, which was the first expedition to use such equipment on Everest.  Finch had his own challenges, not least of them the many leaks from the tubing which required constant mending.  But he persevered, spending many hours with a hacksaw, pliers and soldering iron, and re-fashioning the face masks which were found to be inadequate. 

The logistics of a summit bid with oxygen equipment required more than the usual planning and effort.  Porters had to make repeated trips up to prepared camps, carrying what they hoped were enough oxygen cylinders for the climbers to fulfil their mission.  On 24th May, Finch, Bruce, Tejbir Bura and the photographer John Noel climbed up to a camp at 23,000 feet, all using oxygen.  Finch reported that their progress was swift and easy, and they even overtook some porters carrying lighter loads on the way up.


Finch with oxygen apparatus (from ‘The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922’)

It all looked so promising… but then Everest’s weather, notoriously unpredictable, intervened.  With their tent flapping wildly in a gale at 25,500 feet, and a blizzard of finely powdered snow chilling them to the bone, the little party hit on the idea of breathing some bottled oxygen to revive themselves.  Finch wrote:  “A few minutes after the first deep breath, I felt the tingling sensation of returning life and warmth to my limbs.” 

After a couple of nights of dire weather, Noel and Tejbir Bura retreated to a lower camp, leaving Finch and Bruce to battle on.  When the wind dropped, they pushed upwards.   With the bottled oxygen they made reasonable speed, but at 27,300 feet, Bruce called out in alarm that he was getting no oxygen.  They were on the North Face, and for a second it looked as if he might tumble backwards into an abyss.  Finch hurried to help, identified the fault and replaced a broken fitting. 

The alarm was over, but angry-looking storm clouds were gathering in the distance.  Finch realised it was time to turn back.  Bruce had courage and determination, but he was a comparatively novice climber and to continue on their current course was risking both their lives.  Having broken the record set by Mallory’s party a few days before, they were within half a mile of the summit and could even distinguish individual stones on a patch of scree just beneath it.  But Finch knew that if they continued, even for another 500 feet, they would not get back alive.  He wrote:  “Never for a moment did I think we would fail;  progress was steady, the summit was there before us;  a little longer and we should be on the top.  And then - suddenly, unexpectedly, the vision was gone.”


Second climbing party of Bruce and Finch, from leaflet on Mallory’s lecture (RSGS collections)

Reunited at Base Camp, the climbers considered their options.  They had been on Everest for a month, and in that time they had only had two clear, calm days.  It looked as if the monsoon was arriving early, which would scupper any remaining plans for that season.  But Finch and Bruce had proved that, with oxygen equipment, they could climb at something approaching 1,000 feet per hour.  Even the sceptical Mallory was convinced that it was worth having a final try.  He wrote:  “To retire now if the smallest chance remained to us would be an unworthy end to the Expedition.”

The only problem was that most of the mountaineers were now ill or exhausted, or both;  only a handful could face another high-altitude climb.  Of these, Mallory, Somervell and a third climber, Colin Crawford, set out with 14 porters on 7th June.  They intended to use oxygen above 25,000 feet, and were aiming to camp at 26,000 feet, striking from there to the summit.  Finch, who knew the most about the breathing equipment, was still recovering and unable to join them.  But before they even began to use it, fate intervened.

Heavy snowfall two days previously had increased the risk of avalanche.  The climbers inspected and tested the most vulnerable areas as they ascended, and believed that they had passed the areas of worst risk.  But at 1.30 pm, about 600 feet below Camp IV on the North Col, Mallory heard a noise like exploding gunpowder.   He’d never heard the start of an avalanche before, but knew instinctively what it was.  The snow beneath his feet gave way.  Suddenly he was moving downhill in a blur of time and space;  then a wave of snow came over his head and he was buried. 

Remembering the advice of other climbers - that the best chance of escape was by trying to ‘swim’ through the snow - Mallory fought with his arms and legs and managed to free himself.  Luckily, he was fairly near the surface.  Standing up, he saw Somervell, Crawford and the nearest porter emerging, apparently unscathed.  But some distance away, a group of porters were staring and pointing down a steep ice-cliff.  Some of their companions had been swept over, and were still buried.  A desperate quest began.  Some men were pulled out alive, but seven had died.  With its surviving members shocked and grief-stricken, the expedition was now at an end. 

Mallory was haunted by remorse.  He blamed himself for the decision to climb in unsafe conditions.  To his wife, Ruth, he wrote:  “The consequences of my mistake are so terrible.  It seems almost impossible to believe that it has happened for ever and that I can do nothing to make good.”  But, as Mallory’s biographers Peter and Leni Gillman remind us, “decisions… appear good or bad only in retrospect;  at the time what matters is how you evaluate the factors at your disposal.”  None of the climbers would knowingly have risked another’s life;  all of them were highly experienced;  and all were under considerable pressure to achieve success.

Within a couple of months the British climbers had returned home, Mallory to a joyful welcome from Ruth and his three young children.  Then, honouring his agreement with the Mount Everest Committee who had organised the expedition, he embarked on an ambitious lecture tour around Britain and North America.  In November 1922, Mallory’s audiences included RSGS gatherings in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.  Would there be another Everest expedition?  And would Mallory join it?  This question was in everyone’s mind.  To his audience in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Mallory revealed that “when another expedition went out, he would like, if possible, to try to reach the top of Mount Everest without oxygen.”  He added, with what now sounds like uncanny foresight, that “it might require more than one expedition yet, but he felt confident there would be found British mountaineers prepared to carry on the adventure, and that at last they would succeed.”


Poster advertising Mallory’s lecture in Edinburgh (RSGS Collections)


Alexander Kellas once described mountaineering as “the most philosophical sport in the world.”  If he was right, then George Mallory was one of its greatest philosophers.  In his contribution to the official account of the 1922 Everest expedition, published in 1923, he explains that the mountaineer who is drawn by the appeal of still-unclimbed peaks finds it difficult to hear about new ascents with undiluted pleasure.  Mountains, he says, must not appear to be too accessible, because we risk considering them with no more reverence than a golfer approaching an artificial bunker. 

So why, Mallory asks himself, did he accept the challenge of Everest, knowing that success would shatter this precious vision?  The answer, he admits, is because he was human, and he responded to it instinctively.  The climber in him wanted to solve the problems, to overcome the struggle, to stand on the summit and feel the exhilaration;  but that same climber also wanted to preserve the glamour of unknown and untrodden places, to leave something yet undone that his soul could aspire to. 

In trying to reconcile these conflicting demands, Mallory celebrates both the gargantuan effort of the 1922 Everest Expedition and its eventual outcome;  in one way, perhaps the most important way, it was not a failure at all.  He wrote:  “It is true that I did what I could to reach the summit, but now as I look back and see all those wonderful preparations… when I call to mind the whole begoggled crowd moving with slow determination over the snow and up the mountain slopes and with such remarkable persistence bearing up the formidable loads, when after the lapse of months I envisage the whole prodigious evidences of this vast intention, how can I help rejoicing in the yet undimmed splendour, the undiminished glory, the unconquered supremacy of Mount Everest?”


George Mallory, from RSGS lecture leaflet, 1922



*It was the Scottish climber and scientist Alexander Kellas who worked out that, based on assumed arterial oxygen saturation, the maximum climbing rate near the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen would be between 300 and 350 feet per hour.  His theory, published in 1920, was developed from experiments conducted in a hypobaric chamber at the Lister Institute in London.   The figure was greeted with surprise because some people thought it was too low, but just a year after Kellas’s death the 1922 British Everest Expedition showed that his prediction was highly realistic.

George Mallory was the only climber present on all three of Britain’s Everest expeditions in the 1920s - the Reconnaissance in 1921, and the 1922 and 1924 expeditions.  It was in the 1924 expedition that he lost his life, along with climbing partner Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, leaving behind an enduring mystery about whether or not they had reached the summit.

Quotes and reference:

Charles Granville Bruce, ’The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922’ (1923) with contributions by George Mallory, George Ingle Finch, Howard Somervell and Dr T G Longstaff

Peter and Leni Gillman, ’The Wildest Dream’ (2000)

Mick Conefrey, ‘Everest 1922’ (2022)

George Ingle Finch, ‘The Making of a Mountaineer’ (1924)

Ian R Mitchell and George W Rodway, ’Prelude to Everest’ (2011)

The Scotsman, 10th November 1922

Title quote, “There’s no dream that mustn’t be dared”:  George Mallory, ‘Mont Blanc from the Col du Géant by the Eastern Buttress of Mont Maudit’, Alpine Journal, 1918


Map of 1922 British Everest Expedition route, from ’The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922’