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May 5, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Major H P S Ahluwalia

'Hillary is right when he says there has to be proof that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before him'

Former Mount Everest summiteer Major H P S Ahluwalia agrees with Sir Edmund Hillary that unless photographic evidence proves that George Mallory and his colleague Andrew Irvine had been to the summit before they died, it would be unfair to say that the first man to scale Mount Everest was George Mallory.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff On The NeT, Major Ahluwalia rues the rampant commercialism that has denuded the true spirit of mountaineering. Climbing the highest peak in the world these days partakes the ambience of a guided tour, albeit an adventurous one. No longer is required the kind of individual courage and stamina or the complete identification of climber with mountain that used to be the hallmark of mountaineering in his own days.

In an interview with Onkar Singh, Major Ahluwalia -- who was paralysed in the 1965 war after a Pakistan sniper shot him in the back -- discusses the drama surrounding the world's tallest peak.

Seventyfive years after George Mallory led an expedition to Mount Everest in 1924 a search expedition has found his body at the height of 27,000 feet. How authentic is the discovery from your point of view?

Let me make it clear that I can only react to the reports which have appeared in the press. The leader of the search expedition Simpson has gone on record that the body recovered by his team was that of George Mallory. Two young climbers had gone on a Mount Everest expedition in 1924. They were Andrew Irvine and George Mallory.

I have read the records of this particular expedition. It says that while these two climbers were heading towards the summit, another climber Odell (who happened to be a geologist) was watching them through binoculars from the base camp. Odell saw them climbing right towards the last camp. His opinion was that when he saw them last they were barely a few hundred feet from the summit. May be five hundred feet short of the summit. They were going great guns and they were all set to make it but then suddenly a cloud appeared from nowhere and reduced the visibility level to almost zero. When the weather cleared they were nowhere to be seen.

You have been to the summit yourself. What according to you must have transpired in Mallory and Irvine's case?

Either they slipped while climbing the very last stage or they lost their balance while coming down. Coming down is more dangerous then going up. I remember while I was coming down after being on the summit, I was literally looking through my legs to feel the snow below my feet.

Do you think this controversy, whether or not George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made it to the top, will ever be resolved?

Of course, this controversy can be resolved by evidence. The claim that they made it to the top could be substantiated by photographic evidence. According to reports both of them were carrying photographic equipment. If Mallory's body can be found after 75 years, with little luck you may find his camera as well. Then we would know how authentic is the claim. Until that happens it will remain a controversy.

Can a claim be faked?

No. An Everesteer can never fail to identify a picture of Mount Everest. You place a thousand pictures of various summits before me and I would pick up Mount Everest easily. The geographical outlay of Mount Everest is different from any other peak.

Do you think the camera would have survived 75 years of snow?

It is possible we would have to process the pictures through some scientific methods to get proper results from the film rolls which were loaded 75 years ago. Nothing is impossible if we find the camera, which holds the key to the problem.

There have been so many expeditions since 1924 but not one of them found George Mallory's body. Why is that his body has been discovered now?

I will tell you the reason. He fell from a great height. Most probably he rolled down from the top and when that happens the path is different from the natural path a climber takes. The path of the fall is determined by the terrain. That's why the body was found on the northern side. Perhaps that is the reason why Mallory's body could not be recovered earlier.

Does the latest discovery excite you?

Yes, it does. Because it makes you concede that even with outdated equipment and old-fashioned clothes they could make it to the top. He went there because he had the love of the mountain. There was no commercialism. Today things have changed drastically. In our times we had the whole mountain range to ourselves. We could sit anywhere we liked, talk to the mountain and say that I am coming etc. Today everything is commercial. If I have money to throw, I can pick up the right agent, pay him about $ 75,000 and he would put me on the summit. You can take your pictures, come back and make money for yourself.

Are you convinced that Mallory and Irvine made it to the top or do you think Sir Edmund Hillary is right that unless it is proved he would remain the first human being to ever set his foot on the top of Mount Everest?

In mountaineering there is nothing like being convinced or not being convinced. Everything has to be well documented. Sir Edmund is right when he says that there has to be proof that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before him.

If it is proved that Mallory did make it along with his partner, then it would affect Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's claim to be the first humans to conquer Everest. It would be George Mallory and Andrew Irvine instead. Until this is proved, Hillary and Norgay will remain the first humans to make it to the highest peak of the world.

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