Opinion Piece: Why Mallory's Axe Should Stay in UK

© Alex Roddie

An antique ice axe believed to have belonged to George Mallory sold today at auction. The estimated price was £6000-8000, which would buy you a lot of cutting edge axes, but in the event the axe went for the incredible sum of £132,100. According to auctioneer Christie's it is thought to have been used in anger by Mallory on Everest in 1922, and held a fall as team members descended from their high point, saving several lives. Out of respect for its history there had been calls to keep the venerable 89cm-long wooden shafted axe in the UK. It is unclear where it will now end up. Though it may be too late for the nation to hold onto this piece of our mountaineering heritage, vintage gear afficianado Alex Roddie explains why we should have.

This article has been adapted from a piece that Alex originally wrote on his blog in late March, when it still seemed possible to 'save' the axe.

If you ask the average person to name two mountaineers, he or she will probably pick Edmund Hillary and George Mallory. Both are synonymous with Everest, but for different reasons; while Edmund Hillary was the first to stand on the summit (along with his partner Tenzing Norgay), George Mallory is famous for his determined Everest campaign in the early 1920s. He disappeared during his final attempt on the peak in 1924 and his body was eventually found in 1999 by Conrad Anker.

A vintage axe in use  © Alex Roddie
A vintage axe in use
© Alex Roddie

The final moments of Mallory have puzzled historians ever since. It's one of the great mysteries of the 20th century and an important piece of climbing folklore.

"His axe is typical of the period. The shaft is made of wood, the head forged from a single piece of quality steel"

The tale of Mallory's last climb is a rather romantic one and it continues to fascinate to the present day. It has all the ingredients of a legend: the troubled hero who didn't really want to be on Everest at all, but who felt compelled to return again and again; the noble quest to climb the world's highest peak; the equipment that, to our eyes, seems quaint and woefully primitive; the final doomed grasp for success. Perhaps the real reason Mallory continues to interest us is the seductive question of whether or not he was the first person to stand on the summit back in 1924. No conclusive proof has ever been found and the evidence has been interpreted in many ways.

Ultimately the question hardly matters; he didn't get down alive, and as every climber knows, that is the most important part of any climb. However, to this day Mallory is a household name and books, films and plays continue to be produced, all seeking to cast a little more light on the mystery.

Alex climbing Ben Lui in January 2011  © James Roddie
Alex climbing Ben Lui in January 2011
© James Roddie

Mallory's Ice Axe

The 1922 Everest expedition was special for several reasons. It was the first to use supplementary oxygen, the first to use Sherpas for support, the first to get within 2,500 feet of the summit. On the way down from their high point, Mallory was climbing with three companions and arrested a slip with a combination of his ice axe and rope. Both held fast.

His axe is typical of the period. The shaft is made of wood, the head forged from a single piece of quality steel. Such implements had been used for climbing for seventy years by 1922 and Mallory would have been extremely proficient in its use.

"It took the force of four falling climbers and held fast"

A modern ice axe may be both stronger and lighter, but in the right hands Mallory's axe would have been just as efficient in keeping a mountaineer safe above the snow line. The fact that it took the force of four falling climbers and held fast is testament to that.

The 1922 team won an Olympic Gold Medal for mountaineering, awarded in 1924. A number of other Winter Olympic Medals were awarded to individual expedition members. The gold medal made the news again in 2012 when Kenton Cool fulfilled a pledge made in 1922 to take an Olympic medal to the summit.

The Auction

Mallory's axe was on loan to the National Mountaineering Exhibition at Rheged, but following the closure of the exhibition the axe passed back into private hands. It went up for auction at Christie's today, and fetched a fortune.

The Mountain Heritage Trust had been negotiating to try to keep the axe from being sold, but were unable to prevent the auction from going ahead. It is possible, probable in fact, that the axe will now end up leaving the country. But whatever happens it will almost certainly disappear from public view.

Step cutting with an 80-year-old axe  © Alex Roddie
Step cutting with an 80-year-old axe
© Alex Roddie

Why Mallory's Axe Matters

In my opinion - and also in the opinion of Kenton Cool - it will be a shame if Mallory's axe does leave the UK. An ice axe is a powerful symbol for any mountaineer. They are very personal and become repositories for the memories and experiences we have in the mountains.

I have an old wooden-shafted ice axe that I sometimes use in Scotland. It was originally made by Stubai in the 1930s, passed to the Outward Bound trust, took severe damage to the adze, and after an indeterminate period ended up on eBay in 2007. I obtained the axe, fully restored it (an operation that included fitting a new shaft) and have since used it on many winter climbs in the Highlands.

"It has been kept in the UK since 1922 precisely because it is a tangible link to our mountaineering heritage"

That ice axe is, to me, irreplaceable: it represents eighty years of heritage, plus seven years of my own personal history. Mallory's axe is an even more powerful symbol. It was wielded by a legendary climber on the first serious attempt on the world's highest mountain. It saved lives. It has been kept in the UK since 1922 precisely because it is a tangible link to our mountaineering heritage.

The climbing world has several relics of this kind. There would be an outcry if Edward Whymper's ice axe were to be sold privately (it currently resides in the Zermatt museum, along with the frayed end of the rope that broke in 1865 on the Matterhorn). Such items deserve to be accessible to the public rather than hidden away in a private collection.

Ultimately I didn't have a plan that might have saved Mallory's axe, and neither it seems did anyone else. But if you agree with me then perhaps you should consider supporting the Mountain Heritage Trust, who arguably had the best chance of saving it. It may be too late for this piece of mountaineering history, but they do great work in obtaining and cataloguing many other relics from our climbing past, and I'm sure donations would be very welcome!

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10 Apr, 2014
Is there a slight confusion between staying in the UK and remaining accessible by the public? I agree that it should be visible by the public, possibly in the UK because Mallory is a major mountaineer from a British perspective - and so it would make sense for the MHT to acquire it. But if I had to choose I'd prefer the axe to go in a museum abroad than a private collection in the UK.
10 Apr, 2014
Tend to agree with that in principle. At the moment it's unclear who has actually bought the axe, but there's every chance it will now vanish from public view for an indeterminate amount of time - possibly never to resurface (which does sometimes happen when historical artefacts get acquired by collectors).
10 Apr, 2014
It's a weird one but yeah agree with the sentiment that it's a historical artefact and should probably stay in public hands. I'm not mad about Everest but ignoring that it's huge piece of mountaineering history.
10 Apr, 2014
Alex I would recommend The Parthenon Marbles: a case for reunification. by Christopher Hitchens if you're further interested in this theme. All the best, S
11 Apr, 2014
Why just the UK? GM was English...
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