1921 Rendezvous: Mallory, Pumori and Everest

Pumori's imposing 7,161m-high pyramid of ice and rock as seen by Mallory in 1921 from the West Rongbuk Glacier as he explored a route to climb Mt Everest.

In July 1921, exploring the northern flanks of Mt Everest, the teacher, essayist and climber George Leigh Mallory came up from Tibet on the West Rongbuk Glacier. He was already dazzled by an array of peaks never before seen by Europeans, but before him at the head of the glacier stood a beautiful pyramidal peak serrated with ice and rock.

Some would say Mallory was being presumptuous, but he decided to name the mountain after his 8-year-old daughter Clare back home in Surrey. It was on 18 July 1921, camped at the upper part of the glacier between the Lingtren and Lingtren Nup peaks, that Mallory penned a letter to his wife Ruth, one of the many which make up a great written archive of his three forays to Everest in 1921, 1922 and 1924.

He wrote: ‘At night, before we turned in, the moonlit scene was half-veiled in cloud; and in the early morning the moon was still up, and the peaks clearer. One mountain in particular, on the far side of the snow-covered glacier, was singularly lovely. I call it for the present, Mount Clare, and I hope the name will stick.’

The name did stick, but it seems to have transmogrified into Pumori. Mallory was up on the glacier with a team of Sherpas besides his climbing companion Guy Bullock. Phumo or Bhumo  means ‘daughter’ in the Himalayan dialects, and ri denotes a peak (བུ་མོརརི་). It is believed that the Sherpas decided to adapt the christening into their own tongue – ‘the daughter peak’.

An alternative possibility is suggested by Pasang Sherpa, researcher and writer of Khumjung/Gokyo, that Mallory may have first heard the name Pumori from his climbing team of Sherpas and adapted it for his Western audience with his daughter’s name.

Mallory was able to look into Nepal, but was prevented by the terrain as well by the reality of the international border from descending into the Khumbu and exploring Everest’s western features. However, his writings, so full of the articulate explorer’s wonder, are the first texts we have on Lhotse, Nuptse, the Western Cwm, as well as the Khumbu Icefall and Glacier.

George Mallory with his wife Ruth.

Here is what Mallory wrote from the high pass looking across and over into Nepal: ‘It was a clear dawn, and the mountains were indescribably wonderful – and the best of it was I now saw into the cwm. It is an amazing cirque. The great rocky peak south of Everest [Lhotse] is joined by a serrated ridge to the broken top of another huge crinkled mountain to the west [Nuptse]. The west-facing slopes of Everest are a series of fierce rock ribs, and all the other sides of the cwm which I saw are fearsomely steep. Everest itself blocked out all the sun, and the cwm remained a cold dark hollow behind the brightly lit snows. Our next plan is to force a way over our col and down into the cwm.

The next day, Mallory arrived at the gap between Lingtren and Pumori. He writes: ‘We reached the col at 5:00 a.m., a fantastically beautiful scene; and we looked across at the Western Cwm at last, terribly cold and forbidding under the shadow of Everest. It was nearly an hour after sunrise that the sun hit the West Peak [Nuptse]. But another disappointment, it is a big drop, around 1500 feet down to the glacier, and a hopeless precipice. However, we have seen this western [Khumbu] glacier and are not sorry that we are not to go up it. It is terribly steep and broken. In any case, work on this side could only be carried out from a base in Nepal, so we are done with the western side. It was not a likely chance that the gap between Everest and the South Peak [South Col] could be reached from the west. From what we have seen now, I do not fancy that it would be possible, even could one get up the glacier.

Nepal was a closed kingdom in the mid-19th century, so British surveyors calculated the height of the world's highest peaks through an elaborate triangulation network in the plains.

After surveying the Himalayan peaks from the Indian plains, British expeditions had to work their way around Nepal to get to Mt Everest from the northern Tibetan side.

The climbing history of Everest swivelled completely after World War II, with Nepal opening its portals to climbers and explorers in 1949, including Maurice Herzog, Eric Shipton and A W Tilman. The main route up Everest till today remains the one to the South Col from the Western Cwm, which Mallory would not have seen from his eyrie, and had thought was impassable.

Back in 1921, there was Mallory, unable to descend to the Khumbu Icefall due to the 1,500ft drop and the fact that it was within Nepali territory, looking with wonder at the mass of peaks to the south. He wrote on 19 July: ‘We saw a lovely group of mountains away to the South in Nepal. I wonder what they are and whether anything is known about them.’

Trigonometrical Survey

Mallory and Bullock were part of the 1921 mountaineering exploration of the highest peak on earth, no European having been within 60 miles of the peak before that, and no climber anywhere having been that high earlier – while it is more than imaginable, some locals would have done so over historical time.

The North and South Poles having been achieved in 1909 and 1911, Everest as the ‘third pole’ was the remaining big adventure. The British seem to have set their sights on the conquest of the highest point on Earth as part of recovery of their national spirit after the devastation of World War I.

The geographer and Surveyor General George Everest was nicely retired back in England when Andrew Waugh of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India named the highest peak after him. Without access to Nepal, the Survey team had done their triangulations from the plains of Bihar and decided that the mountain designated ‘Peak XV’ was the tallest of them all.

The protestations by Brian Hodgson, Resident in Kathmandu forcibly retired to Darjeeling, that the traditional name was Deodunga (Devdhunga) was overruled by the overlords of the Alpine Club in London.

Chandra Shamsher was the prime minister of Nepal, and the Rana regime in Kathmandu continued its policy of keeping prowling adventurers and surveyors out. Thus, while Everest’s height was tabulated by theodolite from the plains to the south, the ‘assault’ had to be from the north, starting in Darjeeling by way of Khampa Dzong and westward to Tingri, with permission given by the Dalai Lama.

Three porters from Mallory's expedition on a glacier in Tibet are dwarfed by surrounding peaks, including Makalu in the distance on the Nepal border.

Nepal was kind of terra incognita in the maps we have, the Survey map bounding over the territory to measure the peaks, the mountaineering maps showing only the region beyond the northern frontier.

George Leigh Mallory was chosen as the lead climber for the Everest exploration, not only for the first expedition of 1921, but the following two in 1922 and 1924, the last ending in his demise high on the mountain together with his rope partner Andrew Irvine.

The first explorer

As a 19-year-old neophyte columnist in The Rising Nepal who was interested in trekking and mountaineering, I had a great guide in Elizabeth Hawley, the chronicler of Himalayan expeditions. It was she who put me on the path to research and investigation as a journalist, suggesting visits to the British Library to look up the books on Mallory, which I did, consulting among others George Leigh Mallory: A Memoir, collated by his friend David Pye in 1927.

For my Thursday column on 25 May 1975, I came up with ‘Mallory of Everest’, having been enraptured by his evocative prose which was what made his ultimate death on the mountain much more than the passing of an adventurer. My imagination went into overdrive as I followed the 1921 explorations of the north, east and west sides of Everest, and Mallory’s letters and diary ruminations.

The Royal Geographical Society's map of the Everest region was based on surveys by Mallory's 1921 expedition.

The more modern (and accurate) 3D representation of the Khumbu Himals showing the location of the West Rongbuk Glacier, Pumori and Mt Everest.

It was world mountaineering’s good fortune that a writer of such capabilities and expressiveness happened to be the ‘first-explorer’ of Everest – in the way he described the forays above the Rongbuk and West Rongbuk glaciers, eastward on the Kharta and Kama valleys right up to the base of Makalu, and finally identifying the route via the North Col to the summit of Everest, up from the East Rongbuk finger.

We can only marvel at Mallory’s first-ever description of Everest with its three main arêtes converging towards the top, rather than a broad summit pyramid with mild slopes – regal and with girth that the highest place on the planet should have. Mallory describes the massif as a rocky place with windswept ice, with only the Kangshung (East) Face having broad snow overhangs.

This is Everest as it was first introduced to the world by Mallory: ‘Everest is a rugged giant. It has not the smooth undulations of a snowy mountain with white cap and glaciated flanks. It is rather a rock mass, coated often with a layer of white powder which is blown about its sides… it has no spire.

Elsewhere: ‘Everest is generally speaking convex, steep in lower parts and slanting back to the summit …  Everest was not one mountain but two’ – the reference being to the ‘south peak’ of Lhotse, ‘the great black mountain’ which from Mallory’s vantage was in close embrace of Everest across the South Col.

Water colour of Mt Everest by Edward Noton from Pang La done in 1921. Lhotse is covered in Everest's plume.

Dying at age 38, Mallory had packed in a lot in his life besides climbing in the British Isles, the Alps and the Mahalangur Himal range with Everest at its centre. He had served 16 months as an artillery officer on the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, which impacted his outlook on life and sparked his plans for public service.

He taught school at Cambridge, lectured, and was of course a prodigious writer of letters that were in essence essays. Mallory was always worried about a good earning to keep his family comfortable, and had hoped to use his Everest fame to advance his public career.

Mallory at Everest Base Camp in 1924.

Catch the summit by surprise

Reinhold Messner, the reigning patriarch of world climbing and author of the book The Second Death of George Mallory (2001) calls Mallory ‘the spiritual father of high-altitude mountaineering’. Messner would have said so because not only was Mallory a fit climber with great endurance and technical skill, there was also a philosophical perspective in his literary epistles. Mallory, thus, at the very outset gave cultural and emotional weightage to high-altitude mountaineering beyond a sport, as a personal quest of the individual climber.

Mallory wrote after a climb in the Alps: ‘Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That world means nothing there... to struggle and to understand – never this last without the other; such is the law.’

Like Messner, at heart Mallory was what would later be called an ‘Alpine style climber’, who sought to climb light and fast towards the summit, without supplemental oxygen. The supply lines of the day required many porters, but Mallory’s way was always to lead rather than come up on belay. He was persuaded during the last 1924 expedition to use the ungainly oxygen canisters, but the rest of Mallory’s explorations up and around Everest were always without supplemental oxygen.

He wrote: ‘It has always been my pet plan to climb the mountain gasless … The gasless party has the better adventure. My intention is to carry as little as possible, move fast and catch the summit by surprise.

View up towards the summit of Mt Everest from the North Col taken by Mallory in 1921 showing the First and Second Steps and Great Couloir. He would perish in the upper part of this slope three years later.

The discovery of Mallory’s body by climber Conrad Anker on 1 May 1999 on Everest’s windswept upper strata was one of the most poignant episodes of mountaineering, ever. Having survived sprawled and face-down for 75 years on the hostile, windswept field of rock and ice on the North Face, his entire frozen upper torso freeze-dried and intact – the tweed and cotton clothing, the personalised tags and handkerchief, goggles, compass, hobnail boots and broken rope – you would think he is ready to get up from the fall and say, “Let’s get on with it.”

There is added poignancy when one considers that, back in 1921, Mallory took a dramatic photograph from the North Col of Everest, looking straight up at the North Face including the long gully of the Great Couloir. In 1924, Mallory perished in the area towards the top of the picture.

Because it is there

Mallory could be brusque and matter-of-fact, as when in 1923 responding to a New York Times reporter about why he sought to climb Everest: “Because it is there.” But the rest of his answer to the reporter, rarely highlighted, shows that to be more than a throwaway line: “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

Roped up Sherpa porters descending to camp on the North Ridge in 1924. Mark the doko being used by the first one to carry his load. Picture by Mallory.

Mallory had other ambitions beyond mountaineering. He hoped to parlay his climbing fame not only for income for a comfortable life for his family through books and lectures, but also for a life in public affairs. There was already his searing experience of war in the trenches, the horror of the bombs and poison gas, and after joining the faculty at Cambridge he had become interested in what he called ‘international politics’. Before the 1924 expedition, Mallory had applied for a job in the League of Nations, the predecessor organisation to the United Nations.

Wrote an admirer soon after his death: ‘He worked out an original scheme for promoting international understanding by a development of geography teaching, in connection with the work of the League of Nations. The adventure of Mount Everest intervened; and he was not a little influenced in his decision to undertake it – a decision involving the sacrifice of his peculiarly happy home life – by the support which success in this grim field might lead to his crusade.

Prodigious fang, desperate adventure

The route to the Everest region took Mallory and his team up from Darjeeling through Sikkim and over Jelep La. Being mid-monsoon, they saw none of the great peaks all the way into Tibet. It was only on the move westward across the high plateau from Khampa Dzong that, from a hilltop on the headwaters of the Arun River (Phung Chu), he saw the mountain slowly reveal itself – first a glint of reflected ice, then part by part, through the clouds.

A fascinated Mallory wrote, as only he could, of his first impressions of the great mountain: ‘[Everest] was a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world… We were satisfied that the highest of mountains would not disappoint us.’ Throughout his closer acquaintance with the mountain, the awe for Everest never left Mallory.

Earlier, on Mont Blanc in 1919, Mallory had written: ‘A great mountain is always greater than we know: it has mysteries, surprises, hidden purposes; it holds always something in store for us.’ This would apply several-fold on Everest.

As Everest became an obsession, the ways of men and mountain did sometimes impact on Mallory’s spirit, but even in despondency he did not abandon lucidity. In one letter of 1921, his frustrations come out as he ridicules Francis Younghusband, the retired colonial grandee who led the 1903 invasion of Tibet for the British Raj (assisted controversially by the Kathmandu regime) and chaired the Mount Everest Committee which sponsored the expedition.

Wrote Mallory: ‘I sometimes think of this expedition as a fraud from beginning to end invented by the wild enthusiasm of one man – Younghusband, puffed up by the would-be wisdom of certain pundits in the Alpine Club, and imposed upon the youthful ardour of your humble servant. Certainly the reality must be strangely different from their dream. The long imagined snow slopes of this Northern face of Everest with their gentle and inviting angle turn out to be the most appalling precipice, nearly 10,000 feet high... The prospect of ascent in any direction is about nil and our present job is to run our noses against the impossible in such a way as to persuade mankind that some noble heroism has failed once again.

Mallory breaking a path at the top, climbing an ice pillar on the West Rongbuk during the 1921 expedition.

During the second expedition the following year, Mallory survived an avalanche below the North Col, which took the lives of seven porters. Before the accident, he had written: ‘Frankly the game is not good enough. The risks of getting caught are too great; the margin of strength when men are at great heights is too small. Perhaps it's mere folly to go up again. But how can I be out of the hunt?

One also finds humour in Mallory’s prose. He had taken up intense correspondence with a lady admirer whom he had never met. In 1923, preparing for what was to be his last foray, Mallory wrote: ‘My chief feeling is: we’ve got to get to the top next time or never. We must get there we shall. Here a pause while I imagine myself getting to the top.’

But there was ambivalence aplenty in Mallory’s writings, and he wrote elsewhere: ‘It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shan’t get to the top. I can’t see myself coming down defeated.’

The death of the seven Sherpas must have also been part of what impelled Mallory towards the top in 1924, as a kind of redemption for the lives lost. His last posted letter before disappearing into the clouds on the North Face for the last time was: ‘I can write but one line. We are on the point of moving up again and the adventure appears more desperate than ever.

In his final note to fellow-climber Noel Odell down in the next camp, Mallory wrote: ‘Dear Odell, We’re awfully sorry to have left things in such a mess – our cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment… In the tent I must have left a compass, for the Lord’s sake rescue it – we are without… Perfect weather for the job.’

A porter from Mallory's 1921 exploration team rests on a rock below the imposing north face of Mt Cho Oyu (8,188m) on the Nepal border.

Sherpas on Chomolongma

While the story of Everest exploration from the North is replete with reference to the ‘Sahibs’, it was, after all, the Sherpas who made all three expeditions possible, while referred to mostly as nameless ‘coolies’. It needs remembering, however, that the evolution of the labourers in the colonial summer retreat of Darjeeling into the mainstay of Himalayan mountaineering started with the Everest expeditions.

One must also keep in mind that, as they made the arduous trek up through Sikkim, westward across the high plateau, and up from Tibet to observe the Khumbu landscape together with Mallory and Bullock from the flanks of Everest – the Sherpas of the team were looking down at their own homes and valleys.

In the text, Mallory mostly refers to the Sherpas as coolies (in lower case), as opposed to the Sahibs (in upper case), and only in some places as porters. He was accused of poor judgement and negligence in the death of the seven Sherpas in 1922 – particularly by Tom Longstaff who was a member of the expedition.

Mallory was quite concerned about the safety and security of the supporting climbers, however, and believed that the summit must be abandoned if it is a choice between that and saving the life of a porter who needs escorting down the mountain: ‘The obligation is the same whether he be Sahib or coolie. If we ask a man to carry our load up to the mountain we must care for his welfare and need.

Mallory called his high altitude porters "coolies" and himself a "Sahib", but he treated the porters well, even though they seem lightly dressed in daura-surwal on this rocky ridge.

The Sherpas not being trained in mountaineering technique, Mallory literally taught them the ropes. He writes of their enthusiasm, motivation, fatigue and altitude sickness. However, ‘our great ally, the Sherpa porter, is not a practiced mountaineer’. He felt deeply his inability to communicate with the porters, having tried to learn Tibetan in Darjeeling and given up after memorising a few score terms. Mallory wrote later of the 1921 exploration: ‘Our expedition was deficient in one respect – we were short of words.’

But they were also deficient in supply of mountain gear and clothing for the Sherpas. In one of Mallory’s photographs we can see porters tying ropes around the midriff, and one is seen wearing the regular daura-surwal while rock-climbing at high-altitude. A photograph of Cho Oyu shows a Sherpa in the foreground, taking a rest with his head wrapped in a muffler and wearing what looks like a military-issue overcoat.

There will be records, published or not, of the names of the porters of the three Everest expeditions of Mallory, including the seven who died in 1922. Similarly, we need to know who the Sherpas who christened the mountain Pumori after ‘Clare Peak’ were, if that is what they did. Mallory refers to Sanglu the ‘acting sirdar’, Chitagn the ‘sirdar’, Dorji Gompa, and to Dukpa, who seems to have manned the expedition kitchen. More than once, there is reference to Gyalgen.

Did the Sherpas of Khumbu and Tibetans from adjacent northern valleys have their own name for Pumori? It is unlikely that such an important peak at the head of the Khumbu valley, and much more prominent than Everest itself (blocked by the Lhotse-Nuptse wall) would not have had a name. How could it be that the circle of prominent Mahalangur Himal peaks from Kangtega to Thamserku, Makalu, Chomolongma, Chomolonzo, Chamlang, Ghyachungkang and Cho Oyu all have traditional, indigenous names – and Pumori was missed? How is it that the names of the other peaks mostly represent deities of the Tibetans and Sherpas, or features of the mountains, but not Pumori.

Mallory explored the Kangshung Glacier, and this view shows the east face of Everest and Lhotse.

Take the case of Chomolongma itself, overtaken as it has been by Everest and Sagarmatha. During their explorations of the eastern approach to the North Col from Kharta valley, Mallory and his team were led southward towards Makalu. Trying to understand why they were led astray, Mallory writes that the guides seemed to know ‘two Chomolongmas’. Clearly, there were indigenous names for the individual mountains, so why the need for ‘Clare Peak’?

Two possibilities arise: One, that there was no traditional name for the beautiful pyramid astride the Khumbu Icefall, hence Mallory’s Clare Peak, which was relinquished to ‘Pumori’. Two, that there was a traditional name for the mountain, but the Sherpas of the 1921 team did not know it, hence they took to Clare Peak with enthusiasm and converted it into their tongue.

Remembering Mallory and his team a century after the Everest expedition of 1921, it will be important for those near and far to delve into the etymology of Pumori. We may just find another traditional and authentic name for Pumori, if it is not Pumori.

Read also:

On-screen mountains, Sahina Shrestha

Was Tenzing a Tibetan, Nepali, or Indian? It does not matter., Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa 

Highs and lows of Sir Ed, Kunda Dixit

Alpine style in the Himalaya, Kunda Dixit

  • Most read