Becoming Mallory

What did John Burns find out about George Mallory in his one man play, Beyond Everest.

In 2014 John D Burns wrote and performed a play in the Edinburgh fringe about George Mallory. In becoming Mallory he gained some unique insights into the character of this most enigmatic of men.

“When I began researching the play I knew very little about the story of Mallory and Irvine, other than that they disappeared on an early attempt to climb the mountain. When I began reading about them I became fascinated by the pair who were the most English of men.”

John Burns

Photo David Lintern

Since performing the play at the Fringe, John has played Mallory at mountain festivals and theatres throughout the UK. The play is now available as an audio production you can download.

“We’ll never know what happened that day in 1924 when the pair vanished in to the mist high on Everest and I think it’s fitting that the memory of what happened died with them. What stood out for me as an actor portraying Mallory was how torn he must have been between his love for his wife and his obsession with climbing Everest.”

In the play, Mallory has survived his attempt at the mountain and, as an old man, looks back at his life and his climb with Sandy Irvine. Apart from this one departure from the truth, the play is based on factual accounts of Mallory’s life and his climbing career.

“In the end I think at this is a story about sacrifice. Mallory felt it was his duty to climb the mountain and to give a nation, devastated by the losses of the First World War, back its pride. Mountaineering is a forgotten sport these days, followed only by a few devotees. How many people can name the foremost climbers of our generation? In the 1920s the climb was a national obsession. Newspapers followed the climber’s every move, so much so that news of the expedition had to be telegraphed back to the UK in encoded messages. Mallory himself had toured the USA in an effort to raise funds for the expedition.”

Burns thinks that the conquest of Everest was one of the greatest challenges in world exploration. After the conquest of the North and South poles, Everest remained the last great achievement in world conquest.

“The public interest around the Everest attempt in the UK was similar to that surrounding the moon landing in the 1960s in many ways it was a very similar event.”

In the play George sums up what he felt. “The eyes of the world were on us. Yet, high on that ridge it was just the two of us. Up there in the cold and the silence, far above the earth.”

Beyond Everest

Mallory had survived the First World War. He had broken an ankle in a motorcycle accident and the injury, which didn’t heal well, effectively kept him out of the war for two years and, almost certainly saved his life.

“To lay down one’s life for your country became and everyday thing for the men who served in WWI. In talking of death they spoke of stepping casually through the door between life and death. I am convinced that George would not have hesitated to sacrifice his life if it meant he could climb the mountain.”

“Mallory’s story is, essentially a human story. He was an ordinary man, a school teacher, a father, placed in exceptional circumstances. I doubt if he would have seen himself as a hero, simply as man doing what he must for his country.”

“I am a mountaineer myself although I have never done anything remotely close to facing the challenges Mallory faced. But I can understand something of what it must have felt like to be high on Everest in a place where no human being had ever trod. That Mallory and his companion were there in only the most basic equipment makes their efforts even more remarkable. At the time, very little was known about climbing at high altitude, they were at the edge of the known universe.”

“Mallory and his partner faced unbelievable hardships and yet carried on when the odds were staked against their very survival. The mountaineers who followed them built on the knowledge gained by earlier expeditions and so owe a great deal to those who went before. Today if you are reasonably fit and have enough money, you can pay someone to take you to the top of the mountain but the Everest that Mallory and Irvine faced was very different from the Everest climbed by today’s high-altitude tourists. Mallory stood at the foot of a towering monster who had destroyed everyone who had dared to face it.”

Never again will anyone face a challenge similar to that faced by the climbers in 1924. Equipment is much better, our knowledge of the route to the top is detailed, techniques have vastly improved, so the Everest of Malory’s days has gone for ever.

“I’ve been very impressed by the response of audiences to my play. People see Mallory with all his failings as man who, despite the risk, despite the hardship, overcame his fears and took on the greatest contest on earth. I hope we never know if he and sandy made it, I think that secret should die with them.”

Burns’ play looks at Mallory the man, explores his early life as a vicar’s so in the Cheshire village of Mobberley and charts his rise to become one of the greatest and most enigmatic heroes of mountaineering.

To listen to Mallory: Beyond Everest click here