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Fearless On Everest

Author Julie Summers
Publisher Phoenix
Reviewed by Ed Douglas
DateMonday, 16 November 2009
Rating 3.5 out of 5

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‘My face is perfect agony,’ Andrew Irvine scribbled in his diary, close to the summit of Everest. ‘Have prepared two oxygen apparatus for our start tomorrow morning.’ They were the last words he would write. On 8 June, 1924, he and his partner George Mallory climbed into the clouds and disappeared forever, creating one of mountaineering’s most fundamental myths. Irvine was 22 years old.

One of the curious things about the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999 was how long it took for the climbers who found him to realise just who it was lying half-buried in front of them. Of course, they had set out that morning looking for Irvine. They believed they had a rough fix on the body discovered by Chinese climber Wang Hong Bao which was thought to be Irvine’s. But even when they found a name tag on one of the pieces of clothing which identified it as belonging to Mallory, the first instinct was to ask why Irvine was wearing something belonging to George. The mistake, I’m sure, was largely due to altitude. So often preconceptions get welded more firmly into place by hypoxia. But I’m sure that part of it is explained by the notion that finding Mallory was too good to be true; a little like going out to look for a treasure map and instead finding the treasure.

Irvine has almost always been described in relation to Mallory, a cipher for analysing Mallory’s motivation, even his sexual orientation. Why should he have chosen to climb with an inexperienced Oxford student, when Noel Odell, fit and well acclimatised, was close at hand? Walt Unsworth, in his widely praised history of Everest says: ‘One is forced to the conclusion that no recognizable logic played a part in Mallory’s decision. Was it after all, as Duncan Grant has suggested, that Mallory chose Irvine partly on asethetic grounds? Was he an ageing Galahad making a last desperate bid to find his Holy Grail and choosing as companion a young man who embodied all he himself had once been?’

Well, no, actually, he wasn’t – and he didn’t. Unsworth’s coded reference to a homosexual impulse in Mallory ‘choosing’ Irvine is simply wrong and if you want to know why, then I suggest you read Peter and Leni Gillman’s biography of Mallory, The Wildest Dream, which won the Boardman-Tasker Award last year. But Unsworth’s remark is also reductionist in its treatment of Irvine, as though he was entirely plastic, to be formed however the rest of the expedition chose. The obsession with Mallory – understandable given the richness of his life – among most climbing historians has only served to perpetuate this view.

Now an excellent new biography of Irvine, Fearless on Everest written by his grand-niece Julie Summers, has revealed that far from being just an impressionable and inexperience boy, there was so much more to Irvine’s life than you might have imagined. While the handsome rowing blue’s life was tragically short it was nevertheless action-packed, and included an illicit affair with his best friend’s step-mother which prompted a divorce which wasn’t settled until after Irvine’s death. Summers has also produced new evidence for why Mallory chose to climb with Irvine which stops the gossipy imaginings of some historians in their tracks. (Just for the record, I couldn’t care less if the entire expedition had been gay; what I object to is the prurient speculation that can’t possibly be supported or denied by the facts.)

While Andrew Irvine was struggling towards the top of Everest, his erstwhile lover, a former chorus girl born Marjory Thomson, was being divorced by her husband, the steel magnate Harry Summers, Julie Summers’ great-grandfather. (When I wrote about Summers’ book for The Observer, the sub-editors managed to suggest in my article that Irvine was on Everest to avoid a scandal. This wasn’t remotely true.) Irvine met Marjory through her stepson Dick, a shy, dark-haired boy whom Irvine had befriend on the fives court at Shrewsbury School during their first week there. Dick Summers had been devastated by the premature death of his natural mother, and thrived on his friendship with Irvine, nicknamed ‘Sandy’ for his shock of blonde hair.

Irvine, who grew up on Birkenhead, spent summers with Dick at Cornist Hall in North Wales, massively extended by Harry Summers who added a swimming pool and kept a Rolls Royce in the garage. Harry’s wealth had also impressed the 19-year-old Marjory Thomson, whose blue eyes and, according to Julie Summers, and ‘charming, sunny personality’ completely bowled over Summers, then 52. They were married in 1917, but Marjory soon started seeking out company more her own age.

Irvine had gone up to Oxford in 1922, shoe-horned into Merton for his prodigious talent as a rower, one of the stars of the 1919 ‘Peace Regatta’ at Henley, the first since the Great War. He won a place in the University Boat as a freshman and was part of the winning VIII in the 1923 Boat Race, which Oxford narrowly won, the only occasion they did so between 1913 and 1937. ‘They were almost like gods,’ one female spectator wrote of the Oxford crew, men who had just missed serving on the Western Front. ‘We just stood and stared in awe and admiration.’

In response to those who argue that an ascent of Craig yr Ysfa’s Great Gully, an exploratory trip to Spitzbergen and a winter’s skiing at Mürren are hardly sufficient preparation for an attempt on Everest, Luke Hughes makes the point in the current edition of the Alpine Journal that ‘anyone who has trained for and rowed in a Boat Race twice will have known about pushing the limits and urging his team-mates to do the same. Nor should his inexperience have been such a handicap; amateurs, not fearing to tread behind more seasoned partners, have a tradition for excelling on Everest.’

Although she had first known him as a boy, Sandy’s burgeoning physique, charming manners and new celebrity made an impact on Marjory Summers. She made a determined effort to capture him and began an indiscrete affair, driving Irvine to the theatre in her husband’s Rolls and taking him for intimate picnics in North Wales. When Irvine was invited on the Oxford University expedition to Spitsbergen, where he so impresed Odell. Marjory joined the team for the first leg to Tromsø, Irvine visiting her first-class cabin at night.

Harry Summers finally became aware of his wife’s infidelity when a friend saw Irvine leaving her bedroom in the middle of the night, soon after he returned from Norway. Divorce proceedings were instigated by the millionaire, and a settlement reached in 1925, a year after Irvine’s disappearance. Summers speculates that Irvine loved Marjory but was relieved to be out of the relationship, considering Marjory too poor a catch for marriage. Harry Summers gave her £3,000 a year in the settlement, but after a string of marriages to wealthy husbands, Marjory returned the money to the Summers family in her will.

Dick Summers, after a brief liaison with a Danish heiress, proposed to Irvine’s sister Evelyn, Julie Summers’ grandmother. The proposal devastated Irvine, who despite his own affair with Marjory, felt betrayed and jealous of Dick’s intimacy with his beloved sister. Despite their friendship, Irvine thought Evelyn was wasted on Dick. ‘You’ll have to make a real man of him before I’ll feel really happy about it,’ he told her in a letter. Their friendship remained strained when Irvine left for Everest.

Irvine’s other great relationship, with George Mallory, was perhaps the most unlikely of all. Mallory was 38 and hugely experienced. Irvine had barely climbed at all before leaving for Everest, but after their time together in Norway, Odell championed his inclusion in the Everest party of 1924. Irvine was practical, able to strip and repair machinery; that skill and his legendary strength were, to the Mount Everest Committee, more use on Everest than climbing prowess alone. The team relied on heavy and unpredictable oxygen sets, and Irvine was seen as the man to keep them functioning. Plans for modifications drawn up by Irvine and rediscovered during Julie Summers’ research, show just how skilled Irvine was as an engineer. On the mountain itself, he showed himself full of the practical efficiency and common sense that are most useful on a big, technically straightforward mountain.

The expedition, or at least some of it, left Liverpool Docks at the start of March, 1924. As Irvine waved goodbye from the ship carrying him to India and Tibet, his younger brother Thurston announced to the rest of the family: ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of him’. During the voyage, Mallory found his young partner likeable if dull-witted, telling his wife Ruth that Irvine was ‘one to rely on, for everything except for conversation’. Both were Cheshire men; the local paper ran the headline ‘Mount Everest Expedition – Two Birkenhead Men In The Party’. But if Irvine lacked intellectual depth, he shared Mallory’s obsessive drive and saw the former schoolteacher as a role model.

He was popular with the other climbers, and worked hard on the mundane chores that make life at extreme altitudes so hard. Irvine sometimes comes across as being a bit to eager to please, but given his background, demeanour and age, this is hardly surprising. Where Summers did particularly well was hunting down Irvine’s correspondence from the mountain, a bundle of eleven letters, in May 2000, which shed new light on the climbing decisions taken on the mountain, dispelling much of the speculation and controversy surrounding the last days of the 1924 expedition.

Mallory, who had briefly been James Strachey’s lover, described Irvine as having ‘a magnificent body for the job’, a comment that added fuel to Duncan Grant’s conclusion that Mallory was thinking ‘on aesthetic ground’ when choosing Irvine. But in a way, Mallory was underestimating Irvine. Because he lacked, or had not yet developed, Mallory’s articulate explanation of mountaineering’s appeal, it is tempting to consider him as a just a body, honed by rowing and fearless, but just a body. The appeal of this book is that it fills that vacuum. The most poignant moment in Fearless on Everest is not the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Everest, but the letter Arnold Lunn’s nine-year-old son Peter, who Irvine had befriended at Mürren, writes to Irvine’s mother:

‘At Mürren in the skiing he was always so cheery. He explained to me all about compasses, barometers, oxygen etc. without showing any sign of getting bored of my questions. I especially loved that side of his modesty that enabled him to speak as though I am grown up. I am very sorry for you at having lost your son, for having a mother, I know what it would be like.’

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