Everest mountaineer’s letters digitised for the first time

George Mallory's letters now available to a global audience

Sunset over Everest
George Mallory

“The candle is burning out and I must stop. Darling I wish you the best I can - that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this - with the best news. Which will also be the quickest. It is 50 to 1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet & do ourselves proud. Great love to you. Ever your loving, George.”

So wrote the mountaineer George Mallory to his wife Ruth, the last letter he would write to her before his fatal attempt on Everest in 1924. His body would only be found 75 years later, in 1999.

Now, in the centenary year of his death, his letters are being made available to the public for the first time by his alma mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The bulk of the collection is made up of letters written between Mallory and his wife Ruth from the time of their engagement in 1914 to his death. Ruth's last surviving letter to George is equally poignant...

“I am keeping quite cheerful and happy but I do miss you a lot. I think I want your companionship even more than I used to. I know I have rather often been cross and not nice and I am very sorry but the bottom reason has nearly always been because I was unhappy at getting so little of you. I know it is pretty stupid to spoil the times I do have you for those when I don’t.”

The letters, which are free to view on the Magdalene College website, cover some fascinating topics including:

• His first reconnaissance mission to Everest in 1921. There were no existing records or maps, it was uncharted and this was the mission to see if it was even possible to get to the base of Everest.
• His second mission to scope out Everest. This mission ended in disaster when eight Sherpas were swept off the mountain and killed in an avalanche. Mallory blamed himself for this tragic accident in his letters.
• His service in the First World War including his eyewitness accounts of being in the Artillery during the Battle of the Somme.
• His 1923 visit to the USA in the middle of prohibition, visiting speakeasies, asking for milk and being served whiskey through a secret hatch.

College Archivist Katy Green said: “It has been a real pleasure to work with these letters.

"Whether it’s George’s wife Ruth writing about how she was posting him plum cakes and a grapefruit to the trenches (he said the grapefruit wasn’t ripe enough), or whether it’s his poignant last letter where he says the chances of scaling Everest are “50 to1 against us”, they offer a fascinating insight into the life of this famous Magdalene alumnus”.

Pepys Librarian, Dr Jane Hughes added:
“I am delighted that the College is able to make the letters available through the digitisation project.

"It launches a new chapter in our archival provision, aiming over future years to assist readers around the world to have access to materials not only through travel to our award-winning archive centre, but also through exploring from afar the digitised images and detailed catalogue.

"And our inspirational alumnus, Mallory, could not provide a better topic for our first digital archive project: a student, a soldier, a husband and a mountaineer, his short life represented his generation of young men a hundred years ago in a remarkable and moving way.”

Published 22 April 2024

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Everest image: Getty - Didier Marti

Letters reproduced with permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge