(Host) This time of year when it’s just a matter of time before snow
whitens Vermont’s mountain tops, it’s possible to think of other, higher
mountains. Author, historian and commentator Howard Coffin remembers a
childhood hero who almost climbed the highest mountain on earth.
(Coffin) Why climb Mount Everest, George Leigh Mallory was asked?
"Because it’s there," he supposedly replied.
haunting words have been with me since my mother read me an account of
the British Everest expedition of 1924 that nearly succeeded in
climbing, for the first time, the world’s highest mountain. On June 8,
1924, Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine had been spotted less than 1,000
feet from Everest’s 29,000 foot summit. Then clouds rolled in and the
two were never again seen alive. Had they reached the top? Nobody,
apparently, will ever know for certain.
Though Mallory’s body
was located high on the mountain in 1999, the discovery gave no firm
clues as to success or failure. Irvine’s body remains undiscovered. But a
brilliant new book titled "Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory,
and the Conquest of Everest" makes a convincing case that the two failed
In this highly detailed account of the British
attempts on Everest I came upon a one sentence reference to Mallory
having spoken in Hanover, New Hampshire during a fundraising tour for
the 1924 Everest expedition. That meant Dartmouth College, where I
worked for seven years. So I headed for Dartmouth Special Collections in
search of more information.
There I found accounts in the
college newspaper of Mallory’s appearance, before a capacity crowd, in
Webster Hall the night of Feb. 23, 1923. Since Special Collections’
reading room occupies the old Webster concert venue, I was in the very
room where Mallory had spoken. Here, the paper said, he had discussed
the monumental difficulties of climbing the world’s highest mountains,
particularly extreme weather and lack of oxygen, but said the new
expedition might well succeed.
I asked whether the college had
more information. A librarian was unsure, but soon handed me a thick
sheaf of correspondence dealing with VIP appearances at Dartmouth in
that era. I leafed through page after page until – there it was – a
brief note to a Dartmouth administrator written on stationery from a New
York hotel. In Mallory’s hand and bearing his signature, it advised
that his arrival time had been changed and "You will now expect me at
White River Junction tomorrow Saturday at 1:55."
Leigh Mallory had been here in Vermont, 15 miles from my childhood home,
arriving for his visit to nearby Dartmouth at the White River Junction
railway station. It occurred to me that as his train chugged up the
Connecticut Valley, how little our snow-covered hills must have seemed
to this brave soul who had climbed upon Earth’s highest mountains, and
there, almost became the first to stand atop the highest summit of all.