There’s still debate over whether George Mallory and Sandy Irvine made the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924. Many have concluded that the rock climbing moves on the Second Step at 28,248 feet were beyond the capabilities of the two, including Conrad Anker, who free-climbed the Step and also found Mallory’s body more than 1,000 feet below it in 1999. Others are not so sure. Either way, the boots that Mallory wore were the epitome of 1924 technology and the lightest ever to attempt the world’s highest peak, and in honor of those boots and Mallory’s efforts, the Canadian brand Viberg has built a pair, replicating his footwear as close as possible.
“Our version of the Mallory Boot is a naildown boot built on our vintage mountaineering last,” writes Viberg. “We choose brown waxed flesh leather for the handcut upper and matched the stitching of the pattern as closely as possible. We sourced special materials to recreate unique details from the original boot such as the melton wool tongue, felt midsole and heavy-duty hobnails. We even hand stitched leather patches on the vamp where Mallory’s own boots had worn through. The project was a fun and challenging way for us to experiment with our manufacturing and connect with an important piece of history.”
Climbers and Everest fans have long debated whether the clothing Mallory and Irvine wore could have allowed them to survive all the way to the summit. Photos in base camp show them lightly clad, and many assumed that’s what they wore, but this wasn’t the case. The clothes found on Mallory’s body in 1999 were analyzed extensively, and two sets of identical garments were made to the tune of £30,000, one for display and one for alpinist Graham Hoyland to wear-test on Everest. (Hoyland was also on the 1999 expedition that discovered Mallory’s body.)
“First impressions were of beautiful natural materials: silk shirts in wonderful muted colours, hand- knitted socks and cardigans, and a jacket and plus-fours made of gabardine,” wrote Hoyland. “This is a tightly woven cotton fabric, proofed against wind and rain, and in this case a shiny green. There were something like eight layers of material around my waist and yet it all felt warm, light and comfortable.”
Irvine is in back row, left, with Mallory next to him on the right.
He goes on:
The first thing to report is how extraordinarily comfortable they were. Like most mountaineers I am used to synthetic outdoor clothing: polypro- pylene underclothes and outer fleeces which are bought pre-sized off the shelf. As a result they never quite fit properly. They are unforgiving in stretch and begin to smell unpleasant if worn for more than a couple of days on a climb. I also find their ‘next to skin’ feeling is slightly unpleasant: a harsh synthetic sensation.
By contrast the Mallory clothing was made to fit me. This meant that the shirts didn’t ride up, exposing my kidneys when I stretched, and the whole ensemble felt of a piece when walking. But, more significantly, the materials are natural, and this makes a huge difference. The first time I noticed this was when I started using the Shetland wool scarf while travelling through Tibet at the beginning of the expedition. By wrapping it around my face at night I was able to breathe warm moist air instead of the cold dry air of the high plateau. The material remained comfortable on the skin whereas a synthetic scarf would not.
When I first put on the clothes I also found they felt warm instead of the slightly clammy feel of the synthetic alternative. Later, when exposed to a cutting wind blowing off the main Rongbuk glacier, I found the true value of the gabardine outer layers. These resisted the wind and allowed the eight layers beneath to trap warmed air between them and my skin.
The performance of historical expedition clothing continues to fascinate modern adventurers and academics. In 2010, Loughborough University studied and compared the garment kits from Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen’s race to the South Pole and Mallory’s Everest climb. “For the Mallory clothing,” the study decided, “considering the effects of altitude on insulation and on activity levels, the conclusion is that the clothing would have provided sufficient insulation in good weather down to -30º C while active.” Its bane would have been wind, and it’s speculated that a change in the conditions high on Everest in 1924 could have contributed to the climbers’ fate.
Hoyland agrees that the kit could have held up throughout the long day.
“After extensive testing of this sort I was very confident that Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit comfortably wearing this clothing,” he wrote. But if Mallory broke his leg and Irvine stayed with him, was searching for him, or became lost, “I’m sure now that his clothes, although good enough for going to the summit, could never have kept him alive during the night.”