Jeffrey Archer's insult to Sir Ed

Last updated 05:00 15/03/2009
Sir Edmund Hillary: not the first?

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Best-selling author and former UK politician Jeffrey Archer has taken a swipe at Sir Edmund Hillary's legacy with a novel based on the premise a British mountaineer was the first to conquer Everest.

Paths of Glory is a fictionalised account of the life of George Mallory, whose ill-fated attempt to scale the world's highest mountain in 1924 has long been shrouded in mystery.

Mallory was last seen a few hundred metres below the summit and died shortly afterwards after falling from a ridge. Many of his admirers believe he made it to the top and deserves Hillary's place in history as Everest's conqueror.

Archer's political career ended in disgrace in Britain in 2001 when he was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to four years in jail. His writing career has suffered little damage however his three volumes of prison diaries were bestsellers, as was his 2007 novel based on the life of Jesus.

His new book, which ends with Mallory becoming the "first man to stand on top of the earth", has rekindled speculation about whether the dashing adventurer might have beaten Sir Ed to the summit by 29 years. Archer makes a central plot device of Mallory's promise he would leave a photograph of his wife at the summit; when Mallory's body was found on the mountain in 1999, no photograph was found in his belongings.

But fellow mountaineer and friend of Sir Ed, Graeme Dingle, said of Archer's premise: "He's dreaming. There's essentially no chance Mallory got to the top. All the evidence points to them not making it."

He said Archer's interest in portraying Mallory as the first to summit the mountain was motivated by wounded English pride at having been beaten by a colonial.

"The English were desperate to get to the top and they didn't get there, even in 1953. I think the English are pretty sensitive about it. They've got nothing to be ashamed about, they had a lot of glorious failures."

He said one aspect of the speculation surrounding the doomed climber which was omitted from Archer's book was that Mallory chose climbing partner Andrew Irvine because of a homosexual attraction between the pair. Irvine, too, died during the 1924 attempt, although his body has not been found.

"Some have said the flaw of Mallory's character was he chose Irvine because of a possible gay relationship, and not based on good, sound mountaineering judgement," said Dingle.

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But not everyone felt Archer's fictional contention was off the mark. Auckland journalist Pat Booth, author of an unauthorised 1993 Hillary biography, said he had been intrigued by Mallory's story since his body was discovered, offering clues that suggested he may have reached the summit and was making his descent when he died.

"I can understand Archer's curiosity with the whole theory. It's a gripping and challenging proposition," he said, adding that admitting as much was contentious "here in Hillary country".

Whether Mallory reached the summit is a mystery that is unlikely to be resolved. But Hillary's place in history is safe, given the widely held view expressed by Sir Ed and Mallory's son John that a successful ascent involves getting to the bottom again safely.

Said John Mallory: "To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don't get down again."

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