Some people have dreams that are so magnificent that if they were to achieve them, their place in history would be guaranteed. People like Christopher Columbus, Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Nancy Astor, Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Edmund Hilary and Neil Armstrong—their unparalleled success has made their stories into legend. But what if one man had such a dream, and once he’d achieved it, there was no proof that he had fulfilled his ambition?
Jeffrey Archer’s new novel, Paths of Glory, is the story of such a man—George Mallory. Born in 1886, he was a brilliant student who became part of the Bloomsbury Group at Cambridge in the early twentieth century and served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during World War I. After the war, he married, had three children, and would have spent the rest of his life as a schoolteacher, but for his love of mountain climbing.
“It’s one of the ironies of mountaineering,’ said Young, ‘that grown men are happy to spend months preparing for a climb, weeks rehearsing and honing their skills, and at least a day attempting to reach the summit. And then, having achieved their goal, they spend just a few moments enjoying the experience, along with one or two equally certifiable companions who have little in common other than wanting to do it all again, but a little higher.”
Mallory once told a reporter that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, “because it is there.” On his third try in 1924, at age thirty-seven, he was last seen four hundred feet from the top. His body was found in 1999, and it remains a mystery whether he and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, ever reached the summit.
In fact, not until you’ve turned the last page of Archer’s extraordinary novel will you be able to decide if George Mallory should be added to that list of legends, while another name would have to be removed. Paths of Glory is truly a triumph.
Good bits: If you like climbing mountains, this book is going to start a fire burning in you urging you to climb higher. You’ll soon start planning your next Ben Nevis holiday or even better – Mont Blanc.
“When you’re climbing up a rock face, your hands are not more than a few inches from your eyes, but when you’re coming down, your feet are never less than five feet below you, which means that when you look down you’ve far more chance of losing your balance. Got the idea?’ George laughed. ‘Ignore my friend,’ he said. ‘And not just because he’s a hide-bound Tory, but he’s also a lackey of the capitalist system.’ ‘True enough,’ said Guy without shame. ‘So what clubs have you signed up for?’ asked Brooke, turning his attention to Guy. ‘Apart from cricket, the Union, the Disraeli Society and the Officers’ Training Corps,’ replied Guy. ‘Good heavens,’ said Brooke. ‘Is there no hope for the man?’ ‘None whatsoever,’ admitted Guy. Turning to George, he added, ‘But at least I’ve found what you’ve been looking for, so the time has come for you to follow me.’ George raised his mortar board to Brooke, who returned the compliment. Guy led the way to the next row of stalls, where he pointed triumphantly at a white awning that read CUMC, founded 1904. George slapped his friend on the back. He began to study a display of photographs showing past and present undergraduates standing on the Great St Bernard Pass, and on the summits of Mont Vélan and Monte Rosa. Another board on the far side of the table displayed a large photograph of Mont Blanc, on which was written the words Join us in Italy next year if you want”
The moment when they capture the summit and his exclamation that it’s “not bigger than a dining room table” brought tears to my eyes. They took to long to climb it and while they saw there was a storm on the mountain, at the summit they were well above it. The danger came from the fact that they used up all their energy conquering the top and didn’t leave enough for the return.
“the descent was going to be more difficult than the ascent.”
Bad bits: The book only spends about 20% on Mt. Everest and the rest is the climber’s life up to that point. It tackles going to school, getting married, getting a job, going to war, coming back from war, the scouting expeditions and the long interviews of who’s fit and who’s not and I do agree with one comment he made at one point saying that half the people on their expedition were not fit enough or young enough for such a strain.
All in all, a good book. History books record Sir Edmund Hillary as the first to make it to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. But, was that the truth?