Asking mountaineering’s big question

Like many interested in mountains I am intrigued by one story of mountaineering with its poignancy and the unanswered questions that it has left behind, writes Erica Hume Niven.

The main question is, did Mallory make the summit of Everest or not before he died?

When I interviewed Leni and Peter Gillman, who have written a biography of Mallory, I discovered another touching story of man and wife.

The speakers at this month’s Royal Scottish Geographical Society lecture are a team. They have been married for 50 years. For the last 30 they have worked as freelance journalists.

Leni said: “After my children started school I trained and worked as a teacher in my first career. I was always involved in Peter’s stories, would read his copy and discuss the issues with him. We found we had complementary skills which we used in researching and writing books together, and made us ideally suited to investigative journalism.”

Peter had learned his journalism through experience; although he had exercised his intellect by studying psychology and philosophy at Oxford. During his student years he edited the university magazine, Isis. He said: “I enjoyed writing enormously and then came to love the excitement of pursuing a story – always wanting to uncover the truth and answer the key ‘why’ question. I spent five years on the Insight team, the renowned investigative unit at the Sunday Times under Harry Evans, and learned so much about my craft, as a writer and as a reporter.”

Since Leni joined him in the 1980s the couple have won awards for their collaborative work.

Their articles have covered the dark secrets of dead international businessmen, abuse in the Roman Catholic church and the thoughts and drives of death-row prisoners. They have travelled the world to interview those on the edge of society and those less known associates of well-known figures.

One genre of writing has been with the couple for most of their journalistic career – mountaineering. Their particular interest in Mallory has pervaded their thoughts since the 1970s.

Peter interviewed Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, and John Noel who took many of the photographs on the 1922 and 1924 expeditions. Their publishers suggested that they wrote a book about Mallory in 1999. A few months later, his body was discovered.

Their book benefitted from new information being unearthed on this enigmatic climber and his relationships with family and friends.

Leni said: “He came alive as a truly original renaissance man, throwing off the shackles of his Victorian upbringing and embracing the modern world of culture, politics, exploration and adventure. He was passionate and intellectual as well as a family man. His relationship with Ruth was at the heart of his life, in tragic conflict with his deep yearning to climb Everest. How could we not want to write his story?”

Leni and Peter’s lecture covers the life and climbing career of George Mallory, culminating in the three Everest expeditions of the early 1920s.

Mallory in Scotland is on Tuesday at 7.30pm at the Heriot- Watt Campus, Galashiels. Tickets £8. For further information contact David Langworth, 01896 822102.