When the desiccated body of George Mallory was found high on the north face of Everest last year, the discovery appeared to confirm one of the century's most enduring myths. Seventy-five years before, Mallory and his youthful partner, Sandy Irvine, had disappeared into the mist shrouding the summit, spurring a legend of two brave men going forward stoically to meet their fate. Last year's discovery did not resolve whether they had reached the top - the consensus remains that they did not - but it did add substance to the legend, made more poignant by the items found in Mallory's pockets: a box of Swan Vestas, a tin of meat lozenges, a tube of grease to soften skin cracked by wind and sun.
Over the decades, the legend has acquired other subtexts. Mallory and Irvine became emblems of the mix of innocence and arrogance with which the three 1920s Everest expeditions supposedly embarked on their quests: passengers on a ship of fools, blithely assuming that Britain's territorial reach extended to any part of the planet. The received view is that they were woefully ill-equipped, relying on little more than stout shoes and hacking jackets, together with sublime self-confidence.
Where Mallory is concerned, the truth is more complex and intriguing. He was an impressively modern figure who relished the challenges of new ideas and experiences, in mountaineering as in life. He was a socialist, a campaigner for female suffrage, an enthusiast for the new movements in art and literature. As a schoolteacher, he had progressive ideas on education still echoed in current debates. Far from exemplifying the stiff-upper-lip tradition of human endeavour, he developed an emotional literacy that shone through his mountaineering writing. Everest, which he was allegedly obsessed by, occupied only the last four years of his life.
Mallory's radicalism is all the more surprising given his conventional upbringing. He grew up in the village of Mobberley in Cheshire, where his father was the vicar. He was sent away to prep school and won a maths scholarship to Winchester, where at first he enjoyed the public school ambience. At 17 came the first evidence of dissent, when he bravely complained about a school bully, who was dealt with. When his parents urged him to follow an army career, Mallory deliberately failed the entrance exams.
In 1905, at the age of 19, Mallory arrived at Cambridge after winning a scholarship in history to Magdalene College. It was the gateway to a heady new world. The newly formed Labour Party won 29 seats in the 1906 general election. Mallory joined the Fabians. The fight for female suffrage was becoming more militant and Mallory was the Magdalene representative on the university Women's Suffrage Association. He moved away from the church, becoming an agnostic.
It was also a time of increasing curiosity about the wellsprings of human motivation and the allied quest for the basis of moral obliga-tions, issues that were explored by writers such as E M Forster and the philosopher G E Moore. Mallory belonged to a group that discussed these topics at the home of a university librarian, Charles Sayle; others included Rupert Brooke and Geoffrey Keynes, the brother of the economist John Maynard Keynes.
Sayle's menagerie, as it became known, was one of a number of overlapping groups at Cambridge, the most celebrated being the Apostles. Geoffrey Keynes helped to organise Fabian summer schools attended by, inter alia, Brooke and the future Labour chancellor Hugh Dalton. The outdoor life was becoming part of socialist ideology and rambling was one of the activities on offer. Many participants also joined the celebrated Pen y Pass parties, based at an inn in Snowdonia, where climbing and walking occupied the day, political and philosophical discussions the evening. Mallory first climbed in Wales with Geoffrey Keynes and Hugh Wilson, another member of Sayle's menagerie. At Pen y Pass, Mallory was one of the stars, not only on the rocks but also in the evening sessions. Others who attended included the Huxley brothers - Aldous, Julian and Trevenen - and the historian George Trevelyan.
Back at Cambridge, as the debates on human nature and relationships intensified, Mallory found himself in turbulent emotional waters. The discussions among Sayle's menagerie broadened to encompass the nature of human sexuality, concluding that, where morality was concerned, there should be no taboos. Brooke wrote to a cousin: "Do you understand about loving people of the same sex? It is the question people here discuss most, in all its aspects. And of course most of the sensible people would admit it." In 1909, Mallory became infatuated with James Strachey, the younger brother of Lytton, then in his third year at Cambridge. One of Mallory's most striking characteristics, and a key to his persona as mountaineer, was a determination to take experiences to the limit. He twice made sexual overtures to Strachey and, on the second occasion, Strachey succumbed. The experiment was not a success: as Strachey told it, Mallory was "shocked and showed no desire to repeat the business".
Mallory did not conduct further sexual experiments. He nevertheless maintained close relationships with men such as the artist Duncan Grant, who attended at least one Pen y Pass party. Grant provided Mallory with an entree into the new literary and artistic circles coalescing in Bloomsbury. Mallory was astounded by the epochal post-impressionist exhibition of 1910, with paintings by Picasso, Cezanne and Van Gogh, and proselytised on its behalf. When he formed his first close relationship with a woman, Cottie Sanders (the future novelist Ann Bridge), he insisted on taking her to see it. Sanders was sceptical, but Mallory persuaded her to abandon her prejudices and sympathise with the artists' intentions.
In 1910, a year after leaving Cambridge, Mallory became a teacher at Charterhouse. He was soon at odds with the customary tenets of public school life: the brutal discipline, the emphasis on compulsory sport, the concentration on exams. He based his approach on pupil-centred learning of the kind that the British government and its chief inspector of schools is still trying to destroy. Some of his charges found his approach inspiring - Robert Graves said Mallory was the best teacher he ever had.
Mallory's marriage in 1914 brought him into contact with other new worlds. He had fallen passionately in love with Ruth Turner, the daughter of an architect, Thackeray Turner, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. They decorated their house in Godalming with William Morris wallpaper and oak furniture.
When Britain and Germany went to war, Mallory was profoundly dismayed, as he had believed that wars could be avoided by international co-operation. Even so, his first instinct was to enlist, but teachers were required to stay at their posts. Finally, in 1916, after several of his climbing partners and former pupils had been killed, he persuaded his headmaster to release him. He was posted to an artillery unit on the Western Front, where he was appalled by the slaughter and waste and by the lies and jingoistic excesses of the Northcliffe press.
When Mallory returned to Charterhouse in 1919, he was more dissatisfied than ever. He and two colleagues drew up plans for a school of their own. Mallory's draft prospectus proposed a broad curriculum with an emphasis on initiative and self-learning, no compulsory games, and close links between school and home. In the end, the group lacked the collective impetus to see it through.
In a search for another occupation, Mallory turned to politics. He still believed in internationalism, and wrote to a British lobby group, the Union of the League of Nations, in search of a job. It had nothing to offer but commissioned him to go to Ireland to report on the ruthless war between the republicans and the British counter-insurgency force, the Black and Tans. The British government was adept at disseminating atrocity stories and Mallory, already sympathetic to the republicans, was keen to establish the truth. In his report, he described being roused from his bed in the small hours by British security forces and related tales of the Black and Tans' own atrocities. He concluded with a plea to stop demonising the Irish and to recognise the justice and passion of their cause.
In 1921, Mallory was invited to join the first Everest expedition. It was launched in a blaze of patriotism and the boast that it would venture where no white man had ever trod. Mallory disliked such nationalistic fanfares and was climbing for more personal reasons of adventure and quest. At 34, he was one of the youngest members and was irked by the leader, the blimpish figure of Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury, the owner of a large Irish estate, opponent of Irish nationalism, and a future Conservative MP.
When he returned to Everest in 1922, the team was younger and more congenial. His closest friend was Howard Somervell, a surgeon who was so disturbed by the poverty he witnessed in India that he remained there after the expedition and became a medical missionary. As for the assumption that the climbers were absurdly out of their depth, wearing clothing more suited to a Lake District ramble, this is a distortion. They had taken advantage of wartime research by the newborn RAF to design breathing apparatus to combat the lack of oxygen at high altitude, and their clothing drew on lessons learnt from polar exploration. The fatal lacuna in their knowledge was the debilitating effect of dehydration, an outcome of exertion and the dry air at altitude.
By then, Mallory had resigned from Charterhouse, hoping to make a living between expeditions as a climber, lecturer and writer. He was determined to describe the emotional core of his experiences and his accounts of the Everest expeditions helped pioneer a style of mountaineering writing where the inner journey is as important as the record of events. But he was not earning enough money and, in the summer of 1923, became an extra-mural lecturer in English history at Cambridge. The job was ideal, using his teaching skills and matching his ideological goals, since it consisted of lecturing to adults who had been denied their opportunity in Britain's privilege-ridden education system. His classes were packed and his pupils praised his imaginative approach.
When Mallory was asked to join the third Everest expedition in 1924, he was in two minds. Everest was losing its allure and he had his new job, plus a growing family - by then, he and Ruth had three children - to think about. He half hoped that the university would refuse him leave, but when it did not he felt a responsibility to "finish the job". He and Sandy Irvine disappeared and thus became enshrined in history as an emblem of heroic defeat. Had he stayed at home, he may not have achieved such renown - but his many talents would surely have led him to equally worthwhile challenges.
The Wildest Dream: the biography of George Mallory by Peter and Leni Gillman has just been published by Headline, £18.99