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Audrey Salkeld, Pioneering Historian of Everest, Dies at 87

Audrey Salkeld, a pioneering historian who mined archives that had been neglected for decades to write about mountains like Kilimanjaro and Everest, which she also ascended, died on Oct. 11 in Bristol, England. She was 87.

Her sons Ed and Adam Salkeld said the cause of death, at an assisted living facility, was dementia.

In a tribute, Climbing magazine called Ms. Salkeld “the world’s pre-eminent expert in Everest history.”

Her books include “First on Everest: The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine” (1986, with Tom Holzel), about an ill-fated Everest expedition by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in June 1924. When Mallory’s frozen remains were discovered on Everest’s slopes in 1999, Ms. Salkeld was the expert everyone wanted to speak with. She had even climbed the mountain looking for his body.

That mysterious and deadly peak in the Himalayas, the highest point on Earth, dominated her life and career, her sons remembered in telephone interviews from London. She was fascinated by the men who had dared to take it on and wanted to understand why they had done so.

“It was the eccentric kind of characters that were able to do this,” Ed Salkeld said. “That was what interested her.”

Ms. Salkeld carved out a singular place in the field in Britain, where mountains and mountaineering have had a particular pull, bound up with the country’s imperial history and its 19th-century fascination with the Alps.

Researching Mount Everest, she trawled 56 boxes of forgotten archives at the Royal Geographical Society in London, reconstructing the early expeditions and bringing to life mysterious figures like Mallory. For decades mountaineers had been haunted by the question of whether he had reached the summit, which would have made him the first, ahead of Edmund Hillary in his 1953 ascent with the sherpa Tenzing Norgay (sometimes spelled Norkay). Ms. Salkeld was unable to solve the mystery, though she remained a deeply informed skeptic.

“Mallory had always been portrayed as a sort of heroic figure,” she told a BBC interviewer, “and a lost hero always has a little bit more attraction, I suppose.”

David Breashears, a climber with whom Ms. Salkeld collaborated on films about Everest and Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, recalled that her modesty had led people to underestimate her considerable talents. At times she provided material for other writers, who didn’t always acknowledge her contributions.

“Audrey had a gift,” Mr. Breashears said in a phone interview. “She had a profound understanding of human nature.”

He added that she was haunted by the questions “Why do they go to mountains? Why do they climb?”

Being a climber herself allowed her to mingle easily with fellow mountaineers. She spent hours with Noel Odell, who survived the 1924 Everest expedition and was the last person to see Mallory and Irvine alive. “We were always visited by these incredible figures from the mountaineering world,” Ed Salkeld recalled.

Her son Adam said that “people were surprised that this young and pretty woman was working in the dusty archives.”

“She used to talk about the grumpy old men who dominated the establishment,” he added. But “the relations she made with the old Everesters, they lasted for years and years.”

Ms. Salkeld also wrote a biography of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who had starred in daring 1920s films set in the Alps. Gitta Sereny, a notable historian of Nazism, called the book “wonderful.”

There was a human mystery at the heart of the Riefenstahl saga: How close had she herself been to Hitler and Nazism? For Ms. Salkeld, that question recalled the mystery of the Mallory-Irvine saga and drew her in, Adam Salkeld said.

Audrey Mary West was born on March 11, 1936, in South London to Alice (Court) West and Cecil West, a building contractor. She attended Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam, a suburb of London, went to secretarial college and worked as a secretary for the Iraq Petroleum Company.

Keenly engaged by the outdoors, she began writing a column for Mountain magazine, which opened her up to the world of mountaineering exploits.

Two trips to Everest instilled in her a deep respect for it; she made it to within 8,000 feet of the summit. “You can’t control the savage weather of Everest,” her son Adam recalled her saying.

She married Peter Salkeld, an architect who liked to hike, in 1963. He died in 2011. In addition to Ed and Adam, she is survived by another son, Tom.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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