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on 6 December 2000
The unearthing of new information about Mallory & Irvine seems never to end. Eight years after their death, expedition members of 1933 retracing their route discovered Irvine's ice ax marking the point of a fall. In 1980, the Japanese Alpine Club announce the discovery five years earlier of "an English dead" at 8200m on Everest's North Face. In 1979 Irvine's diary-"discovered" first in 1962--was published privately in a spare book of the same name edited by Herbert Carr. In 1984, Audrey Salkeld discovered a large, hidden cache of Mallory's letters for our book, "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine." Recently, Peter and Leni Gillman dug even deeper and were finally able in their book "The Wildest Dream" to pierce the veil of Mallory's jumbled private life that we could only hint at. Then, incredibly, Mallory's body was discovered below the site of the ice ax. Other than the climbers' fabled camera, only Andrew Irvine remained essentially unknown, his diary offering only a self-effacing (and edited) glimpse of the man through his own eyes.
Julie Summer knew there had to be more. She searched for and finally discovered a trove of hitherto unknown information about Mallory's 22-year-old climbing partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine-"Sandy" to his friends-complimenting perfectly the detailed picture of Mallory painted by the Gillmanns. It is always unbelievable when the heroes of our Pantheon are described as having inhumanly spotless lives. Thank goodness the Gillmans, and now Julie Summers, are able to show the human side of their subject. Sandy, it is revealed, had a torrid affair with Marjory Summers, the 25-year old step-mother of his best friend. A strong clue to their intensely passionate involvement can be seen clearly in the full page photograph of the couple. (Any hint of this affair had been expurgated in Herbert Carr's book.) At last we have in this fine work the unearthing of this and much other new and refreshing information about someone who--although sharing equal billing--had essentially remained a footnote in the great Mallory & Irvine saga.
Irvine's contribute on the mountain was the guarantee of providing working oxygen systems to fuel their fatal climb--something which no one else on the expedition was capable of. In fact, given the anti-science mind-set of the gentlemen of the Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club, Irvine and George Finch were the only ones so capable. George Finch, who made a terrific oxygen-assisted attempt on Everest in 1922, was black-balled in part for his first-rate engineering talent, the results of which showed up (by climbing higher and faster) the oxygenless "first team" of Mallory & Norton. This hands-on know-how was too much for a gentleman...
Summer points out that Irvine had a form of dyslexia that resulted in his writing with what can only be called telegraphic punctuation. Some of this must have passed down the Irvine line (Julie Summers' grandmother was Irvine's sister), for the book is annoyingly replete with many small numerical errors: C-4 is given as 23,500-ft when it is elsewhere shown correctly as 23,000; The Rongbuk Monastery is three, not eleven miles from ABC; and Base Camp is a 16,500-ft, not 17,800-ft (which is C-1). In an otherwise detailed genealogy of Irvine's family which includes herself, she leaves out her mother! These are nits, to be sure, in an otherwise wonderful depiction of young Irvine's rather racy life.
The new information she gathers leads up to the expedition of 1924, and offers some interesting new insights into Sandy's role in it, but for the most part, this latter part of the book comprises well-known information. A breath-holding test at Base Camp revealed that Sandy, able to hold his breath for two minutes at sea level, was able only to do so for half a minute at Base Camp-a good sign of the reduced capacity of the blood to store oxygen at altitude. Mallory's "astonishing" ability to perform math exercises while the others were woefully slow is also an interesting new tidbit, but this should not lead anyone to think that full mental functioning is possible, even at "only" 17,000-ft. Mallory's (and everyone's) handwriting became more angular and cramped as he ascended, and dyslexic mistakes became ever more common (e.g., Mallory's "8 p.m." instead of 8 a.m.). Summers begins to suggest that the "8 p.m." notation meant Mallory might have conducted an afternoon recon of his route at C-6 prior to their next day's assault, but then fails to complete the thought. More likely is that the two men moved C-6 from its exposed position to a more sheltered spot hard on the lip of the North Ridge. This would explain why Odell felt it necessary to clamber some 300 yards up the rout during the snow squall, to aid the descending climbers in finding the tent which was no longer clearly in view from above, as it had been the previously during the Norton Somervell attempt.
This fine book is a necessary and delightful compliment to a full understanding of the dynamics of the endlessly fascinating Mallory & Irvine partnership. It goes far in explaining the universal attraction felt by all on the expedition for their young "experiment," and especially the instant rapport the two men quickly felt for each other. With Sandy's innate exuberance, his astounding mechanical aptitude, his boundless energy, and his unfailing enthusiasm and cheer even under the most daunting hardships, it is now abundantly clear why the equally sociable Mallory could not have chosen a better companion.
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on 7 December 2000
It didn't seem possible that any more information would emerge about the lives - and deaths - of the British 1920s Everest heroes, particularly given the plethora of books about George Mallory, following the discovery of his body high on the North Face last year. But Julie Steele has written a beautiful new book about Sandy Irvine, bringing to life Mallory's partner who died with him in their final, fateful attempt on Everest in June 1924.
Until now Irvine has been seen as Mallory's sidekick, a historical cypher faithfully following in Mallory's footsteps. But, with great skill and enthusiasm, Julie Summers - Irvine's great-niece - has brought him to life and given him a character and an existence of his own.
Irvine, an Oxford undergraduate, just 22 when he died, is revealed as a richly complex character, unable to express himself too well in words, but a dedicated sportsman who rowed for Oxford, a better climber than previously given credit for, and a gifted and visionary engineer and photographer who relished the great adventure of tackling Everest.
He was a resolute strategist too, playing a long game, singling out Mallory as the man who was most likely to get him to the top. Julie Summers tells her story with vivacity and pace, piling on fresh detail after detail to give her narrative momentum and authenticity. Like all good researchers, she suspected when she embarked on her project that there was more to find - and lo and behold, was rewarded for her tenacity when, in an attic in a family home in North Wales, she came across a crate of letters and other documents that are as compelling as they are revelatory.
They included Irvine's letters to his mother from the 1924 expedition, never before published, and his designs for modifying the oxygen equipment that had previously been so unreliable. All through the long trek across Tibet in the spring of 1924 he was tinkering, modifying, redesigning, until the oxygen sets were far lighter and more dependable - a key factor in commending him to Mallory.
Julie Summers has also unearthed the almost obligatory scandal, an affair with his best friend's stepmother that Irvine conducted with precious few inhibitions. There are stunning new photographs in the book too, some reflecting Irvine's love life, others showing the full gamut of his enteprises in the pre-Everest years.
As the author's first biography, Fearless on Everest is a truly impressive achievement, and one that must be a contender for next year's Boardman Tasker prize - the coveted annual award for mountain literature.
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Having read extensively of the Everest expeditions of the 1920s, I was looking for something more from this book and it did not disappoint. The book is not just a sketch of the 22 year old who accompanied Mallory on the final attempt for the summit in 1924. It paints a vivid picture of the man to such an extent that I feel that I now know him. The determination of the Oxford 'blue' rower was seen in his willingness to give his all on Everest. A talented 'handy man' he rebuilt the oxygen equipment en route during the attempt. He repaired about everything that came his way in those difficult conditions, including stoves, camp beds and even a camera. His physical strength and courage as a team member made him a popular figure. Although lacking the climbing experience of some of the other team members, he had learnt much of the craft shortly before the expedition started and had shown natural talent. As I state in my title to this review, this is not simply a good book - it's a great one. Thanks must go to Julie Summers for writing this biographical account of her great uncle.
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on 11 December 2000
An excellent, factual book written clearly and concisely covering the short but fantastic life of Sandy Irvine. A true pioneering individual who embodied the spirit of the early twentieth century. Why aren't the papers raving about this book? Hollywood would die for this story.
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on 20 July 2015
Not only did this book highlight the extreme courage of the climbers but it also gave a fascinating glimpse of life and the class system in the early 20th century and how the conquest of the globe was achieved. One of the best books I've read and now I'm hooked and want to know more, my heart wants them to have sumited and I hope evidence appears someday to show that they did. Sandy Irvine was an incredibly inspiring young man.
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on 17 September 2015
Excellent read well done Julie Summers ...love this book especially as he went to Shrewsbury School in my home town which has garnered an infinity to his story! Mystery still remains but nice to hear a bit about Sandy Irvine who seems to have been lost for too long in the shadow of Mallory when 1924 is discussed!
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on 7 February 2012
The story of George Mallory is well-known but how interesting to have this perspective on Sandy Irvine. A very interesting and well sourced
piece of both mountaineering history and family history. Recommended!
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on 27 January 2014
A wonderful book, which provides the reader with a revealing insight into the character of Sandy Irvine and his eventual involvement in the tragic 1924 expedition to Everest.
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on 2 March 2013
Excellent book. I couldn't put it down and was enthralled from start to finish. I would thoroughly recommend it whether you like mountains or not!
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on 18 April 2006
Fearless on Everest is a long overdue account of the life of Andrew Irvine, the man who perished alongside Mallory during the fateful 1924 British Everest expidition. Irvine's life was not without incident, but the truth of the matter is that he always has and always will be the junior partner in the Mallory and Irvine mystery. Irvine was only 22 years of age when he died. He had limited climbing experience and even though he had the potential to become one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, his early and untimely death alongside one of the greatest mountaineers in history sealed his place in history. Julie Summers endeavours to make his story as interesting as she can, and her hard work does breathe life into a man who has always been passed over by most people in order to concentrate on the legend of Mallory. Irvine was more than just a cardboard cutout, he was a real person, a former Boat Race winner, a mechanical genius and a much loved son, friend and brother, but in all honesty he did not live long enough in order to make a genuinely compelling biographical subject. He owes his place in the annals of moutaineering folklore to his part in one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Given Mallory's already legendary reputation as a climber and also due to the fame he enjoyed, it was only natural that Irvine's story would be passed over in favour of the more famous and romantic Mallory. Whether or not he and Mallory did reach the summit of Everest before they died will probably never be known, what is known however, is that Irvine, despite all of the potential he showed, will always be mentioned after the name of George Mallory.
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