An ice-axe

An ice-axe
maker's stamp 'I HORESCHOWSKI/ WIEN' on the axe head
iron and wood
height 35.1/4in. (89.5cm.)
Believed to have been donated by Ruth Mallory to the Pinnacle Climbing Club.
Nancy Carpenter, by whom given to William Threlkeld.
The Threlkeld family, 1985.
Rheged, National Mountaineering Exhibition (on loan, from 2004).

Lot Essay

The present ice-axe was described as follows in the Rheged exhibition:

'George Mallory’s Ice Axe from Everest 1922

It is believed that this is the ice-axe used by George Mallory on the 1922 Everest Expedition.

This was the first serious attempt to climb the mountain. During the expedition Mallory with Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Edward Norton and Howard Somervell set the first altitude record on Everest, when on the 21 May 1922 they reached a height of 26,800ft (8,170m). On this first attempt no supplementary oxygen was used.

Descending from their high point, Mallory, Norton and Somervell returned to Camp V, where they met up with the badly frostbitten Major Henry Morshead and all four set off to Camp IV at the North Col. During this stage of the descent all four were tied into a single rope. While traversing a steep snow slope at the head of a couloir the badly weakened Morshead, slipped and pulled Norton and Somervell out of their steps.

With three men heading uncontrollably towards the glacier 3000ft below and a seemingly inevitable death, the fate of the whole party now depended on Mallory. He was in the lead and the only one still standing. All depended upon him being able to apply an effective emergency ice-axe belay.

Mallory was able to plunge his ice axe head deep into the snow, quickly wrap the rope around it and then hold the weight of three sliding and rapidly accelerating men. This event speaks volumes for his reflexes, agility and presence of mind. Later in the expedition Mallory would use his ice axe to help dig out two of the Sherpa porters, who were caught in the tragic avalanche below the North Col.

The altitude record set by Mallory, Norton and Somervell would be broke a few days later, on the second assault by George Finch and Captain Geoffrey Bruce. Using supplementary oxygen they reached a height of 27,300ft (8,320m) .

Mallory later wrote about the fall in a magazine article however, he didn’t feel he could name himself as the group’s savior and said: “The third man slipped, carrying with him the second and fourth on the rope. Warned by unusual sounds behind him, the leader struck the pick of his ax into the snow and hitched a rope around it. He was able to press firmly on the shaft with one hand while holding the rope with the other. Nothing more could be done. It was a hundred to one that either the ax-head would be pulled out or the rope broken; the three bodies gathering momentum were in danger of slipping more than 3,000 feet before they could come to rest on a snowy plateau. After a few seconds, by a miracle it seemed, they were strung out down the slope, with a sound rope tightly stretched between them, and then almost at once recovered their footing."

After Mallory’s disappearance on Everest in 1924 it is believed that his wife Ruth donated some of his equipment to the Pinnacle Climbing Club. This was the first women’s climbing club, formed at a time when mountaineering was very much a male preserve; it is well known that the Mallorys were supporters of radical causes such as this club. The axe came into the possession of Nancy Carpenter (nee Ridyard), who was an early member of the club and a pioneering mountaineer, with several new routes in the Alps and the Scottish Highlands to her credit.

In her eighties Nancy moved to Matterdale End in the Lake District, where her neighbours were the Threlkeld family. She actively encouraged their son William’s enthusiasm for the Lakeland fells and mountaineering and when the time came for him to buy an ice axe she suggested that he “save his money” and use this axe. She did however tell him of its history, and that it “was now his and he should never give it away”. Sadly William was killed in a traffic accident in 1985, while still a young man, and his family felt the National Mountaineering Exhibition was the most appropriate place for the axe to now reside.

More from Travel, Science & Natural History

View All
View All