Exclusive Interview with author Graham Hoyland:
You say in your introduction that the pile of Everest books must now be higher than the mountain itself. Why did you write yours?
I wrote Last Hours on Everest because I finally figured out what happened to Mallory and Irvine when they disappeared during the 1924 Everest expedition. I climbed the mountain in 1993 (becoming the 15th Briton to climb Everest). There are lots of good books out there, such as the Wade Davis and the Gillmans, but very few by Everest summiteers who can draw on personal experience of the mountain. I’ve returned there nine times trying to discover exactly what happened up there. On the way, my expedition in 1999 found George Mallory’s body.
A lot of people take credit for finding the body – do you set the record straight about what happened?
I certainly do! In 1970 I met my relative Howard Somervell who was on the first ever Everest attempt with his friend George Mallory in 1922. Old Somervell told me to go and hunt for the camera he had lent George Mallory on his last climb of 1924. He said “it could prove that Mallory had climbed the mountain”. It was my work over the years that led to the Mallory Research Expedition that found the body. As you’ll discover in the book, I knew where the body was all along from another previously unreported sighting in 1933…
Last Hours on Everest is a personal story, a detective thriller, a biography and a history book."
Which hasn’t been published before?
No, this was a family story which I eventually corroborated by finding a written account of the sighting of George Mallory’s body.
Some people have very little knowledge of Mallory – they only know about the first confirmed summit of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. Could you summarise what someone new to the subject would get out of your book?
My book is a one stop shop – it explains how Everest was discovered, measured, mapped and named. It explains the history of mountaineering, how I believe it’s become a kind of religion and why people climb to begin with. It introduces the cast of characters who pioneered the first climbs in Tibet. But it also explains why Mallory became obsessed with the mountain that killed him, and what happened to him and Sandy Irvine on that final fatal day.
Do you address the modern scene on Everest?
Absolutely, because I’ve been part of it. Because I’ve been making BBC films up there for 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I was filming at Advanced Base Camp when David Sharp was lying dying near the summit as dozens of climbers walked past him. I recorded the whole radio exchange. It was absolutely harrowing. Although my book is about the history, it also talks about events like that, how Everest became so easy to climb and how money has corrupted the whole enterprise.
Now the obvious question – did Mallory and Irvine climb Everest?
Now that’s what you call a spoiler isn’t it? In the book I sift through the evidence – some of it new – with my experience as a climber, not a theorist.
For example, in 2006 I tested replicas of Mallory’s clothing on the mountain to see if they were good enough to go to the summit. Although that was well documented, there was something we all missed about his boots which could provide a vital clue… of course, it’s in the book.
Finally, how did you weigh up all the evidence?
I set out the evidence just as you would in a law court and then I reconstruct the last hours on Everest, essentially discovering what almost certainly happened to them on that day. My publisher asked for “the definitive book on Mallory and Everest” and that’s what I delivered. Last Hours on Everest is a personal story, a detective thriller, a biography and a history book.