In June 1924 one of Britain’s most talented mountaineers, George Leigh Mallory and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine set off to conquer Everest. It would be a journey from which neither would return, but their attempt to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain remains shrouded in mystery to this day.
Did the climbers achieve their goal and perish on their descent or did their clothing and equipment prevent them from ever conquering Everest? Loughborough University’s Professor George Havenith, an expert in human thermoregulation, has been trying to find some answers.
More than 75 years after Mallory’s disappearance an American research team led by Conrad Anker set off on a unique expedition – to find the remains of the legendary mountaineer. The discovery of Mallory’s body, clothing and personal belongings in 1999 reignited the debate surrounding his fateful journey and led to new research into the effectiveness of his Everest apparel.
To try and establish if Mallory’s clothing had been a barrier to his success the Mountain Heritage Trust, in partnership with the Universities of Southampton, Derby, Leeds, and Lancaster, embarked on a major project to create an exact replica of the outfit he wore on his 1924 expedition. After almost three years of intensive scientific analysis of the fragments of clothing taken from his body the team was able to recreate Mallory’s outfit in every detail, from the fabric used to the weave and the stitches.
“I first came across the Mallory Clothing Replica Project when I was attending a UK conference on Innovation in Clothing,” explains Professor Havenith from the University’s Department of Human Sciences. “I had just finished some research on the clothing worn by Scott and Amundsen during their 1911 trek across the Arctic, on behalf of the BBC.”
The 1911 expedition saw Robert Falcon Scott lead a British team on an epic journey to reach the South Pole. They were soon joined by Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team and the race to be first to get to the South Pole began. Scott’s team relied heavily on manpower with large parts of their journey involving sledge hauling, whereas Amundsen’s team used dogs to pull them and their equipment across the ice.
By the spring of 1912, the race was over: Scott and his team were dead – succumbing to injury, frostbite, malnutrition and exhaustion – and Amundsen was the victor.
In 2006 the BBC reconstructed Scott and Amundsen’s journey in ‘Blizzard: Race To The Pole’. For the series two modern day teams of explorers were set the challenge of travelling across a route identical in length to that covered by Scott and Amundsen, using the original resources available to the historic explorers. Professor Havenith, who has conducted extensive research into how the human body copes when faced with inhospitable climates, was asked to compare and test the clothing worn during the 1911 Arctic expedition, as well as examine how both outfits measured up against modern apparel.
After assessing the insulation and wind protection of the clothing, Professor Havenith found that the clothing worn by Scott and his team, which largely consisted of coarse layers of wool, was only marginally less insulating than that worn by Amundsen, whose team wore fur. Compared to modern day arctic clothing however, both outfits provided up to 30 percent less insulation.
“During this project we discovered that overall there was not a big difference between the insulation and wind protection offered by the two outfits,” said Professor Havenith. “However we did discover a difference between the friction levels within the two sets of clothing. Scott’s apparel consisted of layers of coarse fabrics, many of wool, which had higher friction levels than the layers of slippery furs worn by Amundsen. This extra friction, combined with Scott’s way of travelling being far more physically draining, meant that the garments his team wore would have resulted in them expending up to 20 percent more energy than generally assumed – using up precious calories and supplies.
“As energy consumption and lack of food played a key part in Scott’s downfall, his team’s clothing would have only made this problem worse.Wearing lighter garments with fewer or less coarse layers could have helped them to save vital calories, however this alone would not have saved the English explorers.”
Professor Havenith’s assessment of Scott and Amundsen’s clothing had helped answer some key questions about the 1911 expedition, and when he learnt about the Mallory project he knew his expertise in the testing of historical apparel could help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding his intriguing bid to conquer Everest.
“The Mountain Heritage Trust had on display the reconstructed Mallory kit at the conference,” he explains. “I was amazed by the level of detail they had gone into to ensure the clothing was as close a match to that actually worn by Mallory in 1924 as possible. I approached the Trust and offered to assess the insulation and wind protection of Mallory’s clothing, and provide them with further insight into whether what he had worn could have prevented him from reaching the summit of Everest.”
The Trust took Professor Havenith up on his offer and the replica Mallory clothing was sent to the University’s Environmental Ergonomics laboratory for extensive testing.
Mallory’s outfit consisted of several different layers – six layers on the upper body and four on the lower body – mainly made up of silk, cotton and wool. After examining each individual layer and assessing how they were worn together, the clothing was put onto a thermal manikin. The high-tech manikin is able to simulate a set human skin temperature and measure how much heat is lost through clothing at 32 different zones of the body. In this instance the skin temperature of the manikin was set to replicate that of someone climbing at high altitude.
“Through the tests I found that the insulation offered by the many layers Mallory wore was slightly lower than that offered by both Scott and Amundsen’s clothing of 10 years earlier, though the insulative value per unit of weight was about 30 percent better,” explains Professor Havenith. “If the weather conditions and wind speed on Everest had remained stable on the day Mallory set off for the summit, his clothing would have offered him enough protection from the cold – down to temperatures as low as -30°C – to enable him to reach the top.
“However the last person who reported seeing Mallory on the mountain commented that the clouds came in and obscured his view of the mountaineer, which appears to suggest that the weather was changing. If the wind speed had picked up, a common feature of weather on Everest, the insulation of the clothing would only just be sufficient to - 10°C. Mallory would not have survived any deterioration in conditions.
“Sadly there are no records of what the weather actually was like on the day Mallory attempted to conquer Everest – even today there are very few weather measurements taken at the summit. So in assessing his clothing we had to work on what we currently know about oxygen availability, mountain temperatures and wind speeds, but it is common knowledge that the weather can change incredibly quickly at this altitude. Given Everest literally sticks into the jet stream for most of the year, wind speeds can get very high.”
Compared to modern expedition clothing Professor Havenith found that Mallory’s outfit offered dramatically less insulation from the cold – about 40 percent less than the clothing used by climbers today on Everest expeditions. The main additions that enable modern expedition apparel to perform better are altitude boots, and for the clothing the inclusion of zips, which are more wind tight compared to buttons, and the introduction of down and polyester battings. Down and polyester are very light weight but offer a high level of insulation.
But there was one aspect of Mallory’s outfit that impressed Professor Havenith the most – the layering. “I had discovered through the research into Scott and Amundsen’s clothing how important correct layering was for the energy cost,” he said. “With Mallory, each time he wore a coarse layer, for example of wool, he layered it with a slippery fabric, such as silk. When you package these types of fabric together the clothing moves very easily which means the movement of the person wearing the layers is not restricted and energy cost is low. The way Mallory wore his many layers would have made climbing in the overall outfit very easy. If you compare this to Scott’s clothing, his outfit had a lot more friction internally which obviously has an impact on energy consumption and would slow you down. Ergonomically Mallory’s clothing was very well designed.”
But has Professor Havenith’s study of Mallory’s outfit enabled him to answer the question of whether Mallory reached the summit of Everest?
“I think this is still impossible to answer. From the tests I carried out I know that his clothing would have offered him adequate protection as long as the weather remained stable and that Mallory remained active. Any deterioration in the weather conditions or the need to stop and bivouac overnight and I believe he would have perished.
“The main thing I think the Mountain Heritage Trust have succeeded in confirming through this project is that Mallory was certainly no amateur. His clothing was advanced for the time and cleverly constructed. But we will never know if he reached the summit – I guess some things are destined to remain a mystery.”
Professor George Havenith
Maxine Willett The Mountain Heritage Trust
* Photographs courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society
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