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Coffin: Mallory at Dartmouth

  Why climb Mount Everest, George Leigh Mallory was asked? Because it's there, he supposedly replied.

Those 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 to summit.

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.

So, George 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.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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