Talk to people about the legion of climbers racing up the world’s 8000 meter peaks and you’ll likely get a comment that it’s easier now because of modern clothing and equipment. In fact most climbers these days think it’s safer to climb on Everest now than it was in the age of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who reached its summit in 1953, or even George Mallory, who died on the mountain in 1924.
The thing is – it’s not true.
New research has shown that Mallory was equipped with lighter, freer moving clothing and footwear than current day climbers.
The Universities of Lancaster, Southampton, Leeds and Derby in Britain have made replica’s of Mallory’s clothing and found it was 20% lighter than that worn by Al Hinkes, the first British climber to reach the top of the world’s 14 highest mountains.
Mallory’s clothing tipped the scales at 4.16kg when he attempted Everest, compared with the 4.825 kg weight of Hinkes’ layers.
Hinkes wears a Gore-Tex XCR jacket that he designed and is made specially by Berghaus.
According to the University of Derby:
- Contrary to popular belief, Mallory and Irvine were well equipped for their ascent of Everest.
- Mallory’s clothes were windproof, waterproof and warm
- layering of clothes was very effective for warmth. Silk and wool mixes, replicated by John Angus at the University of Derby, were intelligently knitted and effective
- this was the lightest kit ever used on Everest: 20 per cent lighter than equivalent high-altitude mountaineering clothes today
- Mallory’s boots were 50 per cent lighter than modern equivalents, made using wool felt and leather, with nails for gripping
- Vanessa Anderson, the Performance Sportswear Masters student from Derby who replicated his woven outerwear, discovered that the way the jacket was tailored made it more manoeuvrable than today’s equivalent.
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.
Even so, he found that the clothing would have been adequate to protect him down to temperatures of about -30C.