Mallory’s Everest Clothing 1924

18 July 2013

It’s always good to take a glance at the past just to see how we’re doing now. When you look at those old photos of Mallory and Irvine’s expedition up Everest in 1924, it’s easy to think they just found an old pair of boots in the pantry, threw their dads’ tweed jackets on and set off up the mountain - but if you thought that, you’re about to feel pretty thick.
text1 When Mallory’s body was found in 1999 a team of forensic textile experts from Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton and Derby universities decided to recreate the outfit from samples preserved in the ice. They found that Mallory and Irvine were well ahead of the game.

It turns out their clothing was significantly lighter and less bulky than a lot of technical clothing sold today, up to 50% lighter than equipment taken on subsequent Everest expeditions.
All the materials were natural fibres – gabardine, wool, cotton and silk. The gabardine outer layer was not only durable it was water resistant and breathable, even before the word ‘breathable’ had even been invented.

Mallory’s clothes consisted of eight layers of thin natural fibres. The clothes were very close fitting and all the layers slid easily over each other. Climber Graham Hoyland, who put the gear to the test on Everest at 22,000 feet, said:

"I immediately found the underclothes warm to put on, whereas the modern polypropylene underwear feels cold and clammy. When exposed to a cutting wind blowing off the main Rongbuk glacier, I found the true value of the Gabardine outer layers. These resisted the wind and allowed the eight layers beneath to trap warmed air between them and my skin.’

The footwear was also super light. The boots were made from leather and felt and have been calculated to weigh 0.8kg, compared to Hillary’s in 1953 at 1.2kg and Chris Bonnington’s in 1985 at 1.8kg. There was no need for crampons because they used hob-nails attached through the sole.

Many people believe that Mallory and Irvine didn’t reach the summit because of their clothing, but Hoyland doesn’t believe this. The clothing they used turned out to be as good as or even better than what we use today.

The only drawback that Hoyland could see was the lack of zips and the difficulty of undoing buttons in the cold with gloves on, maybe if you need a wee wee. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t be too happy exposing extremities to the elements at seventy below, especially not that one.

I started this post thinking I would be able to compare the past with the present and see how far we’ve progressed in nearly 90 years, but it turns out I can’t. There are a lot of amazing new fabric combinations on the market now all infused with incredible nanotechnology, but can we be absolutely certain they are any better than wool, silk and leather?

No, is the short but certain answer.

Thanks for reading.

Ian Young

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