You can't go alone. We go together or not at all,' I tell him.
'No,' George shakes his head.
And that's it. He's gone. He brooks no argument. Here, on the mountain, he is a completely different person. He is in his element, he is something else. The Galahad of Everest.
He's right, the oxygen isn't enough for the two of us. We can't both go. He's too kind to say it, but what can I offer? What can I do? I can climb, I can repair an oxygen tank, but I'm not like him. I don't have the ability to take the great cragged rock-step that bars our way to the summit pyramid. I can't make the mountain bend to my will like him. I'm only slowing him down, I have been this whole time. I've wasted precious oxygen. He's not being blunt, he's not being rude, he's just telling me truths. He won't risk my life.
George Herbert Leigh Mallory. I don't know what I can say, I don't know what words can describe him. I can only tell you about the way he climbs.
I stand and watch for a while as he attacks the step. How he does what he does I can not comprehend. He bends his limbs, arches his shoulder and with a thrust moves upwards against the seemingly impossible incline. It gives way to him. It must, there can be no alternative. This is destiny. The mountain must succumb and George will stand on the roof of the world, alone.
Less than seven hundred feet now. Blinding white over grey and black, under clear blue blue blue. He should make it just before dusk. Cloud cover blows past in a snaking instant and a flurry of snow whips up. White on grey on white on grey. George is lost from view.
This inaction, this sitting here watching. I can't bear it, but I can't move either. It is dangerous in its own way, staying put in this cold, not burning energy. I feel the chill creeping in and the tingling numbness of frostbite attack my fingers. I hunker down in the lee of the step and wait. Huddle in to my own little centre of warmth, embrace the heat at my core. He could be hours. I turn the outlet down to save on the oxygen, I only have the one cylinder. Wait, that's all I can do.
'Lord, is that blasted quote going to follow me around forever?'
The voice jolts me awake. His voice. George's beautiful beautiful voice. Clipped and precise, rich and amiable. A contrast to the sinewy, earthy, hell-for-leather way he climbs. But the voice is just a memory. The first time I met him, that glorious face and the easy unconscious charm. He didn't even realise, you could tell. He didn't even realise the way people were drawn to him, the way they listened intently to everything he said. I love him for that.
He never thought of himself as anything other than just another member of the team. Just another man down in the trenches with the rest of us.
Trenches. He talked about them. Once. Briefly. I've always felt in a way he will forever be trying to climb out of all that mud and dirt, up into more rarefied air, up into rock and clean, virgin snow. Mallory versus nature. Not Mallory and a 16-pound artillery shell against the mud and blood of the Somme.
And yet when it came to it, when the opportunity presented itself for the attempt, he pushed himself forward assertively. Not out of arrogance, but because he knew. He knew he was the only one who could give it a shot.
'One throwaway line, one response to a simple question. Too neat, too pat, too flippant,' he said in that refined tone of his.
It's true, though. And I think he knew how true it was. Beneath its simplicity and its glibness. Why climb it? Because it's there. He's a climber, that's what he does, that's who he is. Ergo. You can't stop a bird from flying. If he summits today, he has done it because he must. He must climb. He does not do it for the acclaim. He does not do it to be 'the first'. He does it because it is what he does, who he is. He has the one thing the rest of us can only dream of: a purpose.