Saturday, 22 March 2014

Should George Mallory's ice axe remain in the UK?


If you ask the average person to name two mountaineers, he or she will probably pick Edmund Hillary and George Mallory. Both are synonymous with Everest, but for different reasons; while Edmund Hillary was the first to stand on the summit (along with his partner Tenzing Norgay), George Mallory is famous for his determined Everest campaign in the early 1920s. He disappeared during his final attempt on the peak in 1924 and his body was eventually found in 1999 by Conrad Anker.

The final moments of Mallory have puzzled historians ever since. It's one of the great mysteries of the 20th century and an important piece of climbing folklore.

The tale of Mallory's last climb is a rather romantic one and it continues to fascinate to the present day. It has all the ingredients of a legend: the troubled hero who didn't really want to be on Everest at all, but who felt compelled to return again and again; the noble quest to climb the world's highest peak; the equipment that, to our eyes, seems quaint and woefully primitive; the final doomed grasp for success. Perhaps the real reason Mallory continues to interest us is the seductive question of whether or not he was the first person to stand on the summit back in 1924. No conclusive proof has ever been found and the evidence has been interpreted in many ways.

Ultimately the question hardly matters; he didn't get down alive, and as every climber knows, that is the most important part of any climb. However, to this day Mallory is a household name and books, films and plays continue to be produced, all seeking to cast a little more light on the mystery.

Mallory's Ice Axe

The 1922 Everest expedition was special for several reasons. It was the first to use supplementary oxygen, the first to use Sherpas for support, the first to get within 2,500 feet of the summit. On the way down from their high point, Mallory was climbing with three companions and arrested a slip with a combination of his ice axe and rope. Both held fast.

His axe is typical of the period. The shaft is made of wood, the head forged from a single piece of quality steel. Such implements had been used for climbing for seventy years by 1922 and Mallory would have been extremely proficient in its use.

A modern ice axe may be both stronger and lighter, but in the right hands Mallory's axe would have been just as efficient in keeping a mountaineer safe above the snow line. The fact that it took the force of four falling climbers and held fast is testament to that.

The 1922 team won an Olympic Gold Medal for mountaineering, awarded in 1924. A number of other Winter Olympic Medals were awarded to individual expedition members. The gold medal made history again in 2012 when Kenton Cool fulfilled a pledge made in 1922 to take an Olympic medal to the summit.

The Auction

Mallory's axe was on loan to the National Mountaineering Exhibition at Rheged, but following the closure of the exhibition the axe passed back into private hands. It is up for auction at Christies next month and is expected to sell for £6,000 - £8,000.

The Mountain Heritage Trust has been negotiating to try to keep the axe from being sold, but have so far been unable to prevent the auction from going ahead. It is possible that, if the axe sells, it will end up leaving the country; but whatever happens it will almost certainly disappear from public view.

Why Mallory's Axe Matters

In my opinion - and also in the opinion of Everest climber Kenton Cool - it would be a shame if Mallory's axe leaves the UK. An ice axe is a powerful symbol for any mountaineer. They are very personal and become repositories for the memories and experiences we have in the mountains.

I have an old wooden-shafted ice axe that I sometimes use in Scotland. It was originally made by Stubai in the 1930s, passed to the Outward Bound trust, took severe damage to the adze, and after an indeterminate period ended up on eBay in 2007. I obtained the axe, fully restored it (an operation that included fitting a new shaft) and have since used it on many winter climbs in the Highlands.

Restoring the original Aschenbrenner in 2010
That ice axe is, to me, irreplaceable: it represents eighty years of heritage, plus seven years of my own personal history. Mallory's axe is an even more powerful symbol. It was wielded by a legendary climber on the first serious attempt on the world's highest mountain. It saved lives. It has been kept in the UK since 1922 precisely because it is a tangible link to our mountaineering heritage.

The climbing world has several relics of this kind. There would be an outcry if Edward Whymper's ice axe was to be sold privately (it currently resides in the Zermatt museum, along with the frayed end of the rope that broke in 1865 on the Matterhorn). Such items deserve to be accessible to the public rather than hidden away in a private collection.

Ultimately I don't have a plan that might save Mallory's axe, but if you agree with me you should consider supporting the Mountain Heritage Trust, who have perhaps the best chance of saving it. They do great work in obtaining and cataloguing relics from our mountaineering past, and I'm sure donations would be very welcome!

What do you think? Should Mallory's axe be rescued from private ownership?
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