Saturday, April 30, 2011

 

Past the Bounds of Time POST 1

Past the Bounds of Time: A Biography of Andrew Irvine
Copyright 1998-2011 by Salena Kay Odom Moffat

Brave heart at peace--youth’s splendour scarce begun
Far above earth encompassed by the sky
Thy joy to mount, the goal was all but won
God and the stars alone could see thee die.

Thou and thy comrade scaled the untrodden steep
Where none had ever ventured yet to climb
Wrapt in heroic dreams lie both asleep
Their souls still struggling upward past the bounds of time.

Till God’s clear clarion rends the last morn
Sleep on! We mourn not for ’tis God knows best
Then rise to greet the glad eternal dawn
Flooding with flame the peaks of Everest.
Freddie Prior, former master of Shrewsbury
Written in honor of Sandy Irvine, 1924

On May 16th, 1998, I fell hopelessly in love with a dead man.

All right, nothing that dramatic or gothic actually happened. But the fact remains that on that day I looked into a pair of eyes that had been dead for seventy-four years. And once I looked, I was hooked.

Earlier that day my husband and I had gone to see the now-famous IMAX film of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, showing at the Museum of Natural History in Denver. In the museum’s gift shop, I bought a paperback copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and I devoured half the book that day. Everest had claimed me, an ordinary wife and mom, and its hold was powerful.

I was blissfully unaware just how powerful that hold would prove to be.
I went to my local library the same day in search of more. I’d been particularly intrigued by Krakauer’s account of the 1924 Everest expedition on which Andrew “Sandy” Irvine and George Leigh Mallory had vanished. I’m a huge fan of the mysterious, and I was determined to read everything I could find about that ages-past disappearance.

“All I could find” turned out to be, to my immense surprise, precisely one book. And although that book, The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, was wonderful, it was ultimately unsatisfying. It dealt mainly with the life of George Mallory, a colorful member of the Bloomsbury crowd that had put London on its ear in the 1920s.

Mallory was well known in the various sets in which he traveled. He was, by all accounts, a sensitive, poetic, talented man, friend, husband, and father. His reputation as a mountaineer and climber was generally a good one, though opinions on that score tended to vary widely among his contemporary peers. As with many historical personages, Mallory’s memory has today received a high gloss of varnish that would astonish even him.

Now, for those eyes I mentioned. Within the pages of the Holzel/Salkeld book was a black and white photograph of a dashing blond man with haunting eyes that grabbed me and haven’t let me go. They belonged to Sandy Irvine, the man with whom George Mallory died.

And Everest’s hold tightened.

I burrowed further into various library catalogues and databases, eagerly searching for more about the doomed 1924 expedition. And I found…
…precisely one other book, The Irvine Diaries by Herbert Carr. It wasn’t a biography, but rather consisted in the main of transcriptions of Sandy’s Everest diary. A brief account of his life by his much-younger brother Alec was included. Rather than satisfying me, this slim 1970s-era book just left me wanting more.
I found myself only further intrigued, my usual response to being thwarted. Sandy Irvine’s story was clouded, hidden, and therefore, to me, a challenge. I wondered why, where George Mallory had several published biographies of his life, Sandy had, at the time, nothing. The Everest literature generally included his name, naturally, but not much else.

I quickly realized that the only way I’d ever know more about Sandy’s life was if I dug in and researched him myself. Sometime in the first two weeks of June 1998, I decided to write what would be the first in-depth biography of him. After all, I reasoned, no one had cared enough about Sandy’s life in the seventy-four years since his death to write a full-length biography. Why not me?

Everest’s hold was now permanent.

I wrote dozens of letters around the world and received gratifying responses. I was put in touch with Audrey Salkeld, who was encouragement personified. Her e-mails were full of information and support.

Audrey advised me to write to a woman called Julie Steele (she uses “Julie Summers” as her professional name when writing, and in the pages that follow I will use “Summers” when referencing her printed work, and “Steele” when referring to her personally). Julie, it transpired, was Sandy Irvine’s great-niece, the granddaughter of his sister Evelyn. I liked her immediately from her friendly e-mails, and she seemed eager to help me with my book.

By this time, 1998 was drawing to a close. My research went on apace, and I was deeply steeped in Everestiana. However, I would still need the family’s help for information regarding Sandy’s short life. Since his death in 1924 at the age of twenty-two, his family had closed ranks around their famous relation, and very little substantial information was allowed out. This only served to deepen the mysteriousness of it all, making Sandy a reclusively romantic figure, and making any would-be biographer’s job a maddeningly tough one.

It should have served not as a warning bell but as a warning claxon.

Julie promised all the help she could, and graciously asked family members to speak with me.

And then, in February 1999, Julie phoned me and told me I absolutely had to get to England in March. Much was happening. An expedition specifically to find the bodies of Sandy Irvine and George Mallory was to be attempted that spring. It would mark the 75th anniversary of the 1924 tragedy. A conference was to be held at Shrewsbury School on March 12th, a school Sandy had attended as a teenager, to which several important people were invited. The list of invitees included, much to my gratification, my own name.

I was genuinely glad to be invited to this conference. It gave me a thrill to read, in a warm e-mail from Stephen Holroyd, one of Shrewsbury’s housemasters, my name on the itinerary as “Biographer of Sandy Irvine.” As Audrey said in her e-mail urging me to find a way to get to England, “Exciting times, eh?” For an ordinary wife and mom, and an American at that, who’d set her sights on rather extraordinary things, they were “exciting times” indeed!

I managed to arrange the trip, and landed at Gatwick airport on March 10th full of excitement. Julie picked me up at the train station near her home and installed me in her warm, comfortable house for the next six days. I was in England, the first time I’d ever set foot in a foreign country other than Canada.
The days flew by. Julie was a generous, gracious hostess, and I felt very much a part of the family. I even bonded with her three delightful young sons, and learned more about Nintendo than I’d thought possible.

The conference at Shrewsbury was nothing less than magical. The school, with its mellow red brick buildings, is set among rolling hills on the Severn River. You can see into Wales from Shrewsbury’s riverbanks.

At the conference, I finally met Audrey face to face and was quite enchanted by her. She had a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, albeit masked beneath a quiet and unassuming demeanor. I also met Peter Firstbrook of the BBC, and Graham Hoyland, who were to be part of the planned spring expedition. Sandy’s life was discussed in detail, and Stephen Holroyd proudly displayed the school’s collection of photographs of Sandy.

Audrey gave me photocopies of most of the material she possessed regarding Sandy, and to this collection would be added photocopies from a visit to the Alpine Club library and the Royal Geographical Society. I accumulated reams of documents, and Julie herself added to the mounting pile with photos of Sandy and copies of a great many of his letters. She even made me some business cards, something I had never even thought of doing.

A highlight of my trip was the visit to Merton College, Oxford, the college Sandy had been attending before his death. Julie and I visited the library there, and Sandy’s journals and diaries were laid before me at a timeworn table. With the mandatory white gloves on my hands, I flipped through the penciled pages, and for hours was lost in his account of his Everest experience.

At Merton College, in an intensely quiet, secluded little courtyard, stands a stone monument to Sandy’s memory. It was twilight when we sought out this memorial, and the air was clear, crisp and cool.

The monument is inaccessible without walking across the grass, and the grass itself is lush, soft, and springs beneath your feet as you approach the marker. It’s tall, this marker, and crowned with a carved stone flame. Ancient windows frame the courtyard, and trees and bushes deepen the feeling of seclusion. Hushed and withdrawn from the world, this small spot doesn’t really reflect the type of person Sandy Irvine was. Only the flame captures the essence of his spirit that the cloistered spot fails to honor.

Departure time eventually came. Before I left, Julie announced that the family considered me to be Sandy’s official biographer. Her father, whom I’d interviewed on tape, told me the family had every confidence in me before he hugged me goodbye.
After my return to the States, I was contacted by the PBS television show NOVA. The expedition in search of Sandy and Mallory’s bodies was on the mountain. NOVA wanted me to be “on call” for an interview should Sandy’s body be found.

Work on the book was going smoothly. Mountaineer’s Books in Seattle expressed interest.

And then Mallory’s body was found, and my world came crashing down.

The blow fell with a single phone call from Julie. Sandy’s relatives were upset (to put it extremely mildly) over the way the discovery of Mallory’s body had been handled. They had no desire for Sandy’s body, should it be found, to receive the same intense publicity Mallory had received. Julie told me that the family had decided she would be the only one writing any biography, and that she thought a phone call would be better than simply telling me, and I quote, “to fuck off.” To this day, I am uncertain what one has to do with the other—did the family assume I would desecrate Sandy’s body with my biography? Did they think that I was somehow going to publish pictures of Sandy’s dead body (never mind that as of this writing—April 2011, over a decade after Mallory’s body was found—Sandy has not been found let alone photographed), as had been done in British tabloids with Mallory’s? And, regardless, what had happened to the family who had welcomed me with open arms and seen me off at the station with a hug? It was baffling behavior.

To add insult to injury, a friend told me in an e-mail in July 2002 that if she remembered aright “Nicholas Hellen [a reporter for the London Sunday Times] had been going to co-write the biography with Julie Summers.” Nicholas Hellen had, just six days prior to this e-mail, e-mailed me himself without a single hint that he and Julie had possibly been undermining me all along. I had by this time e-mailed Julie and told her that I had some interesting new information; I had heard unconfirmed rumors that Sandy had fathered a love-child, and a woman claiming to be his granddaughter had contacted me. (I did not reveal another and far more astonishing piece of information that had by then fallen into my hands regarding Sandy’s love life.) In her reply, Julie told me that there was a “journalist in London who would love to talk to your gossipy girl about being Sandy’s granddaughter. Can I put him in touch with you via email? He’s been chasing this story for months. Lots of love, Julie.” I of course told her yes, and then e-mailed Hellen. The possibility that Julie (“lots of love”) was baiting me for information is galling.

In retrospect, knowing what I now know about Nicholas Hellen, I am extremely grateful that I did not, in the end, give him any information at all. He stopped e-mailing me, and I did not—luckily for me—pursue it. Hellen attempted to blackmail a London-based blogger—via e-mail, of all things—in August 2006. The blogger, whom I will continue to refer to as Abby Lee (her chosen nom de plume, though Hellen did in fact publish her real identity), writes a blog called “Girl With a One-Track Mind.” She valued her anonymity, especially considering the subject matter of her well-written blog. He told Ms. Lee that he possessed unflattering photos of her, that he knew her mother’s place of residence and profession, and that he would publish his article outing her true name unless she agreed to a photo-shoot and interview. She reacted by posting his e-mail on her blog for the world to see, and the whole thing unleashed a firestorm that continues to some degree today. The blogging community saw to it that when the name “Nicholas Hellen” is placed into the Google search bar, the first things that come up still are all articles dealing with his attempted blackmail of Ms. Lee.

Hellen has been called a “glorified royal correspondent” who “enjoys tormenting junior staff, screaming down the phone and trying to cover up his own errors by blaming others.” Blogger Madame Arcati wrote of Hellen that people “who deal with him describe him variously as a ‘psychopath’ or a ‘loony’, a ‘bully’ or just ‘a plain nasty piece of work’.” This is the man who may very well have been given a large role in Julie Steele’s biography in a collaboration that could easily have begun while I was staying under Julie’s roof. How Nicholas Hellen, a man of whom Madame Arcati said that “there can be few people so morally unpleasant and self-seeking,” would have better handled Sandy’s body in a biography than I would have is another thing that remains unclear to me.

It’s been twelve years since then, and though I am thanked in Julie’s book, Fearless on Everest, in the last paragraph but one on the last page of acknowledgments, I must admit that the experience was a bitter blow that left deep wounds.
Audrey urged me, after I sent her a despairing e-mail, to write my book anyway. The time has come, more than a decade on, to acknowledge Everest’s hold on me. To acknowledge Sandy’s hold on me. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to follow Audrey’s sound advice.

An additional spur to finishing the book I’d begun was my receipt, in 2001, of a diary purportedly written by Sandy’s girlfriend, a girl named Flora Louise Deacon. This is the piece of rather explosive material I did not reveal to Julie Steele or Nicholas Hellen. Three years before this unlooked-for information had been sent to me, I had been unceremoniously fired by phone, and therefore owed the Irvine family nothing further. To Nicholas Hellen, I had never owed anything in the first place. The diary was sent to me by one of Flora Deacon’s relatives, and proved to contain a wealth of information. The girl writing the journal had known Sandy Irvine, that much became very clear as I read her words. Could I trust that she was who she claimed to be, Sandy’s only love? Weighing the diary in one side of the balance, and what I knew of Sandy’s life and character in the other, I came to the conclusion that the diary was in all likelihood quite genuine. There is not one word in it that doesn’t meld perfectly with what is known of Andrew Irvine.

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