One hundred years ago this week, a schoolteacher from Barnard Castle was about to arrive at Base Camp at the foot of Mount Everest on an attempt to conquer for the first time the highest mountain on the planet.

It was an attempt that was to end in heroic, and mysterious, failure when, on June 8, 1924, the clouds in the Himalayas parted to reveal the two lead climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, within 600ft of the summit.

Then the clouds rolled back again, and it can never be known for certain whether the pair reached the summit before they fell to their deaths.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Bentley Beetham's picture of Base Camp with Mount Everest behind

Natural history teacher Bentley Beetham might well have been with them on the push for the summit had not his back given out in the extreme conditions on May 17.

Beetham was born in 1886 at 95 Stanhope Road North, in Darlington. His unusual name was in fact his mother’s maiden name. At the age of eight, he went to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School just a walk across Stanhope Green, and aged 13, he became a boarder at the North Eastern County School in Barnard Castle (in 1924, it became Barnard Castle School).

The school inspired in him a love of the natural world, but he left in 1903, aged 16, to become an apprentice architect in Darlington. However, he returned in 1914 and became a natural history teacher.

Ornithology and photography were his first loves. He toured Europe taking pictures, climbing trees to record the home life of birds such as spoonbills and storks, and going to more and more extreme places to find them. Gradually he became a rock-climber, and then a mountaineer, climbing first in the Lake District and then in the Alps.

By the early 1920s, man had conquered the planet’s poles, but the highest mountain stood out like a sore thumb.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Mountaineer Bentley Beetham.

In 1921, the Royal Geographical Society selected the country’s most able climbers for a reconnaissance mission to Everest. Mallory, a Charterhouse master, was among them.

In 1922, on a second expedition, Mallory was on the slopes when an avalanche wiped out seven Sherpas. The deaths, the first on the mountain, brought that attempt to an end.

Two years later, a third attempt was planned and Beetham was selected. He was an experienced climber, had great skill as a photographer and, more importantly, he had the right temperament. A fellow climber said: “He was perpetually boiling and bursting and bubbling over with keenness and enthusiasm – the kind of man that nothing less than a ton of bricks could keep down: nineteen hundredweight would have been of no use.”

When he sailed from Liverpool on February 29, 1924, with Mallory and Irvine, their departure made national news.

They arrived at Darjeeling in India on March 25 and then began the long journey into the Tibetan foothills, accompanied by their supplies and equipment in 1,000 cases carried by yaks in a caravan which was five miles long.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Bentley Beetham rock-climbing in the Lake District

They arrived at Base Camp, at 16,500ft, on April 29 – 100 years ago on Monday – where the night time temperature dropped to minus 21 degrees.

“There is a wonderful view of Everest from here,” wrote Beetham, who was recovering from a nasty bout of dysentery, “standing like a sentinel at the head of the valley. The atmosphere is so marvellously clear that it simply annihilates the effect of distance… stretching invitingly ahead is the broad Rongbuk glacier leading right up to the foot of the mountain.”

There were to be six camps up Everest, and from the sixth, the climbers would strike for the summit at 29,029ft.

By May 4, they had reached Camp III at 21,000ft when the weather turned against them, whipping up the worst May storms for 30 years. One Gurkha died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by the cold, another had frostbite in the legs.

Holed up in his tent, Beetham somehow wrote to a schoolmaster back in Barney: “We are in the middle of the first attack on the mountain and have hit a bad patch of weather. At the moment, a long moment, we’ve been held up 30 hours – a blizzard is making life outside the tent almost impossible. Inside the same it’s not too rosy – 20 degrees of frost and everything, including one’s hair and whiskers, covered in snow.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Expedition members at base camp in April or May 1924. 
Standing, left to right, are: Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edward Norton, Noel Odell and David Macdonald.
Seated, left to right, are: Edward Shebbeare, Geoff Bruce, Howard Somervell and Bentley

When the weather cleared, they retreated down to Base Camp and the nearby Rongbuk monastery, where, for two rupees per person, the head lama gave them his blessing in a mystical ceremony that calmed the nerves of the Sherpas.

Then, on May 17, Beetham was struck down.

“As for me, curse me, I went and got sciatica,” he wrote. “Was as fit as a fiddle during the awful weather of the first attempt and when we had come down and were resting at Base Camp, the devil suddenly struck me.”

Somehow, he staggered 5,000ft up to Camp III and hobbled around with his camera taking pictures, before being ordered down.

“I was awfully sick for in myself. I was awfully fit and felt I could have done some distance up the old heaps,” he wrote. “Sleep, or rather lying on ice with sciatica, is hell, but it was worth it, ten times over.”

It was also the expedition’s loss. Mountaineer Howard Somervell wrote that the climbers “all agreed that he (Beetham) was the likeliest man of us all to get to the top” – he may well, instead of Irvine, accompanied Mallory on that final, fateful attempt.

At Base Camp, he took charge of the expedition photography. “The developing, washing and drying of negatives under such conditions was a considerable feat in itself,” said The Northern Echo in 1957 when it interviewed Beetham at his retirement home in Cotherstone. “He frequently had to break through thick ice to reach the water in the bucket and on some occasions he took the developing tank into his sleeping bag to speed up the drying process.”

He was down at Base Camp when his colleagues began their attempt on the summit more than 10,000ft above him.

Somervell and Norton went first, without oxygen, and reached 28,000ft without oxygen – higher than anyone before – when Somervell suffered frostbite of the back of the mouth. They were forced to retreat to Camp IV.

Next up were Mallory and Irvine, with oxygen, accompanied by Noel Odell.

Darlington and Stockton Times: George Mallory, who died on the 1924 expedition. When his body was found in 1999, there were suggestions that he could have made it to the top

“So on June 6 their little party set off on the last attempt,” wrote Beetham. “Norton was there in his tent on the North Col to grip them by the hand to wish them success: he could not see them go for he was suffering from acute snow-blindness. After his return from 28,000ft, he contracted this most painful malady. For 60 hours, he was racked with pain and totally blind.”

They reached Camp VI by nightfall on June 7, and next morning Mallory and Irvine went for the summit.

It was Odell who spotted them at 12.30pm when the clouds momentarily parted and he could see them, four hours behind schedule, but negotiating the Second Step just 600ft from the top.

Then the clouds closed in, and they were gone.

“That was the last that was ever seen of Mallory and Irvine,” wrote Beetham. “Beyond that point, everything must remain a matter of conjecture and individual opinion. All that we know for certain is that those two splendid fellows perished on the mountain they had struggled so valiantly to climb.”

He continued: “It has been suggested that they might have reached the top. Personally, I should prefer to leave it at a plain statement of fact and not to indulge in conjecture, for, knowing Mallory, I am sure he would not wish us to claim for him anything about which there is a shadow of doubt.”

Beetham returned from Tibet to Teesdale in autumn 1924, and now his pupils looked up to him in awe, just as he had looked up to Everest. He was an inspirational, if rather bluff, teacher, and continued to climb around the world – his favourite was the Haut Atlas mountains in Morocco and he always took his pupils to Borrowdale in the Lake District.

He retired to Cotherstone in 1949 where in 1953, he heard that, nearly 30 years after his own attempt, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had finally reached the top of the world.

He knew someone would.

Thrice in the early 1920s, the mountain had defied the humans’ attempts, and as he left it in 1924, he had written: “It was the end of the third round. We had taken punishment. We were retiring to a corner to recuperate. There was to be another round, or rounds, of course. The mountain could be, and would be, climbed.”

And he didn’t regard his expedition, which had gone higher than ever before, as a failure.

He wrote: “Surely a defeat of a kind like this is really a glorious success. In one bound they had raised man’s pedestal nearly a thousand feet – one more similar lift and Everest will be vanquished.”

He died in 1963, and his ashes were scattered from the top of Shepherd’s Crag in Borrowdale.