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“I suppose we go to Mount Everest because – in a word – we can’t help it. To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell.” George Mallory
When Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Everest on 29th May 1953, his thoughts turned to a previous failed attempt made 29 years earlier, which remained shrouded in mystery.
Marking the 60th anniversary of Hillary’s successful expedition, which was attempted as Coronation fever took hold in the lead up to the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, a brand new documentary from ITV’s award-winning ‘Words of…’ strand brings to life the two stories, intertwined and retold side-by-side.
After Britain lost the race to both Poles, the word’s highest peak, Mount Everest was seen as the greatest remaining challenge on Earth. In 1924, intrepid British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared after being spotted just 800 yards from the summit. Twenty-nine years later, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay approached the same summit after a long and arduous journey, determined to claim their prize of being the first explorers to conquer the mountain.
The stories of these two expeditions are retold using the climbers’ own diaries and private letters read by actors including John Hannah, Jason Flemyng, Freddie Fox and Stephen Campbell Moore.
Their personal perspectives, delivered straight to camera by the cast, along with original archive film and pictures plus some reconstruction, provide a vivid insight into the motivations of the key figures, the decisions and sacrifices they made and the challenges they faced, as well as the profound emotional peaks and troughs they experienced in making their attempts to conquer Everest.
A brilliant climber, George Mallory (Stephen Campbell Moore: Hunted, Titanic, The History Boys) was made famous by two expeditions to Everest in 1921 and 1922. In 1923 a third trip was planned but Mallory had just moved to a new house in Cambridge with his wife Ruth (Zoe Boyle: Downton Abbey) and their children. Despite being deeply in love, fate would all too frequently pull the couple apart.
In a letter to his father, George wrote: “It is an awful tug to contemplate going away from here instead of settling down to make a new life with Ruth. We have both thought that it would look rather grim to see others, without me, engaged in conquering the summit. And now that the prospect arrives, I want to have a part in the finish.”
Thirteen days later he’d made his mind up: “It’s all settled, and I’m to go again. I only hope it is a right decision. It has been a fearful tug. I’ve had to think precisely what I was wanted for.”
Also part of the team was recent Oxford graduate Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine (Freddie Fox: Parade’s End, The Three Musketeers), the youngest of the party at 22 and with the least mountaineering experience. Colonel Edward Norton (John Hannah: The Mummy, Four Weddings and a Funeral), an expert climber and Everest veteran, was in charge.
For three weeks they sailed through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal to Bombay, crossed the plains of India and the high Himalayan passes into Tibet. After four weeks trekking across the freezing Tibetan desert they finally reached the north slopes of Everest and climbed to the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier.
Norton said: “We have reached the Base Camp exactly to plan, with not one sick man, English or Himalayan. The camp is humming as I write.”
In a letter to his beloved Ruth, Mallory wrote: “The telegram announcing our success, if we succeed, will precede this letter, I suppose. But it will mention no names. How you will hope that I was one of the conquerors! And I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”
Several attempts to move on from base camp were scotched by terrible weather and the team endured weeks of heavy snow, which forced its way into their tents. Eventually Norton, Mallory, Irvine and fellow team member Somervell, established camp on the 22,000 foot high North Col, from where they could attempt the summit. Norton led the first attempt but was forced to turn back with less than 1000 feet to go, after they suffered snow blindness and Somervell’s health failed.
Mallory decided that the final attempt would be made by himself and Irvine. Using oxygen sets Irvine had been working on, the two men set off on 6th June.
Mallory wrote to his parents: “It will be a great adventure, if we get started before the monsoon hits us, with just a bare outside chance of success and a good many chances of a very bad time indeed. I shall take every care I can, you may be sure.”
They climbed for two days and on the third day headed for the summit. One thousand feet below them, expedition geologist Noel Odell climbed in support.
He reported: “My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock step and shortly emerged at the top. The second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.”
After Odell’s fleeting glance, Mallory and Irvine were never seen again. A few days later, with a monsoon closing in, Norton had no choice but to order the expedition home. Whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before succumbing to their deaths has remained a mystery ever since.
On learning of Mallory’s death, Ruth said: “I know so absolutely that he could not have failed in courage or self-sacrifice. Whether he got to the top of the mountain or did not, whether he lived or died, makes no difference to my admiration for him.”
In early 1953 another expedition left London to try and reach the top of Mount Everest. James Morris, a young correspondent at The Times, was offered the chance to join expedition leader John Hunt and his team. This could be a scoop of a lifetime. The team drew on expert climbers from across the Commonwealth including 33 year old New Zealander, Edmund Hillary (Jason Flemyng; Lock Stock, Snatch, Great Expectations) who was inspired by the previous generation of explorers like Captain Scott and George Mallory.
Hillary says: “When I was twenty years old I had my first long trip… right in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. I decided then and there to take up mountaineering.”
Also part of the expedition was Tenzing Norgay (Benedict Wong; Law & Order: UK), born into a remote Sherpa community close to Everest. Having worked as a porter on previous expeditions and climbed the mountain six times, he was an obvious recruit for the team.
He said: “The lamas told many stories of the terror of the snows of gods and demons and creatures far worse than yetis who guarded the heights and bring doom to any man who ventured there. What I wanted was to see for myself. This was the dream I have had as long as I can remember.”
On 10th April, the expedition established its base camp on the mountain’s southern side. Compared to the climbers in 1924, they had a shorter route to the summit but faced the dangerous Khumbu icefall.
James Morris reported: “A mass of broken, tumbled, tilting, shifting, tottering blocks of ice, intersected by innumerable crevasses, swept by avalanches from the rock walls on either side of it. It looked like a huge, indigestible, squashed, meringue.”
Somehow the team found a way to the top of the icefall. They then planned to scale the sheer ice-wall known as the Lohtse Face, and establish a camp on a 23,000-foot high shoulder of the mountain, called the South Col. From there they could launch summit attempts. Only when the South Col was fully supplied with food, fuel, and vital oxygen cylinders, did they prepare for their summit assault.
The conditions remained bad and Tenzing Norgay recalled: “It was the plan that we start off early the next morning, but in the darkness the wind grew even stronger than usual, and when light came it was roaring like a thousand tigers. It was hopeless even to think of going up.”
Finally, the weather broke. Hillary recalled: “I woke with the feeling that something was wrong. I realized the wind had dropped completely. And then I heard it approaching again like an express train emerging from a tunnel. But the fact the wind had stopped, even for a moment, was the first hopeful sign we’d had since I’d reached the South Col.”
Days of climbing followed, with breaking crusts of ice, frozen nights and unstable surfaces. Eventually, the moment the world was waiting for arrived.
Hillary said: “I waved Tenzing up to me. A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit of Everest.”
Tenzing described their joy: “I waved my arms in the air, and then threw them around Hillary, and we thumped each other on the back until, even with the oxygen, we were almost breathless. Then we looked around. It was eleven-thirty in the morning, the sun was shining, and the sky was the deepest blue I have ever seen.”
Hillary reflected on the men who had inspired him to climb in the first place: “Inevitably my thoughts turned to Mallory and Irvine, who had lost their lives on the mountain thirty years before. With little hope I looked around for some sign that they had actually made it to the summit, but could see nothing.”
Words Of Everest is new and exclusive to ITV, made by ITV Studios. The programme is from the award winning ‘Words of…’ strand, an innovative and evocative way of bringing iconic events of the past to life, which has previously won the RTS Factual Education – Arts award.