The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory. Peter and Leni Gillman. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2000. 329 pages. $27.95.
Since the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999 high on the flanks of Mt. Everest, a firestorm of media has refueled the mystery and debate over whether he and Sandy Irvine achieved the summit before perishing. Compared to other recently published books about Mallory, The Wildest Dream conjectures less directly about whether Mallory and Irvine did or did not summit the mountain. Instead of dissecting every possible detail of the evidence found to date, this book gives the reader a much broader perspective and context, providing rare insight into Mallory’s abilities, drive, determination, accomplishments, and psychology. The Gillmans thereby shed as much light on how high Mallory and Irvine may have climbed as any detailed, hypothetical thesis has. These intangible aspects of Mallory’s personality— illuminated so expertly in these pages—are what make a great climber out of an ordinary athlete, what squeezes triumph from disappointment, and what makes Mallory, the man, as compelling as speculation about his success on Everest.
The Wildest Dream is a wonderfully done biography, and just might be the final word on Mallory. In exhaustive and sometimes painstaking detail, it chronicles Mallory’s ancestors, early childhood as a pastor’s son, life through adolescence, and finally coming of age at Cambridge University. We come to know George Mallory not as the impersonal “Mallory” but simply as “George,” and his wife as “Ruth” (as they are referred to throughout).
Great attention is paid to Mallory’s friends, mentors, and teachers, and how they influenced his life. Mallory’s youthful homoerotic experimentation is carefully inspected, for Mallory’s sexuality has been of interest and discussion from early on. Certainly for his time, he presents a vexing dichotomy between an image of stoic, turn-of-the-century masculinity and a man of softer, delicate features exploring his sexuality first with other men. At times, I found myself asking why I should even care about such details, but as the biography followed Mallory’s character development through his life, this information filled the seams of the aggregate picture of him.
Where many other books on explorers and adventurers minimize, or even ignore, all that is left behind during an expedition—loved ones, careers, responsibilities—this book takes time to explore the impact of Mallory’s many extended absences. He left behind his wife, Ruth, and their children for numerous climbing excursions, for World War I, for work, and for his three lengthy attempts on Everest. Through letters, poems, and anecdotes, we are kept in touch with the brave Ruth, who keeps a sturdy upper lip each time Mallory leaves. Left home to raise their children alone, she wishes only for George what will make him happy.
Captivatingly, The Wildest Dream details the vortex of spiraling obsession that so often consumes climbers (and others) as they pursue their cherished goals. This, even in the face of minimal chance of success or grave danger, is as true today as it was then. Like an addict pursuing a fix, Mallory goes back to Everest yet a third time, in 1924, spurred by his and his family’s rationalizations that it is his duty to finish the business that was started. However, the Gillmans—experienced climbers themselves—shine light into motives less frequently discussed: competitiveness, pride, ego, financial reward, class status, and recognition, motives that are commonly acknowledged in today’s world, but were not always ascribed to adventurers of the early 1900s.
Mallory famously told a reporter on an American lecture tour in 1923 that he wanted to climb Everest “because it is there.” But his rationale was surely more complicated and interesting than that. The Wildest Dream shows us that Mallory was keenly aware of a grand opportunity: he knew that success would bestow all manner of rewards. However, throughout, Mallory’s ever-shining spirit and unwavering love for the grand adventures of the day is revealed.
The Wildest Dream, meticulously written, adds considerably to what we know about a complex, remarkable man whose body—remarkably well preserved—was found 75 years after his death, 26,760 feet above sea level. This book gives us a much greater appreciation of the detailed expedition record of 1924. It is not the definitive 1924 expedition narrative, but with this book, Peter and Leni Gillman have given us much more than another opinion about “did they or didn't they.”