Because it’s there…

An ambitious young composer sets his sights on the ultimate summit - and gets bitten by the climbing bug.
June 29, 2022

It’s fair to say that the world’s greatest musicals feature some or all of the following attributes: drama, romance, jeopardy, adventure, mystery – and not always a happy ending.

And so it may well be that young Manchester composer Ollie Mills has a winner on his hands, with a fledgling composition which has already been viewed at The Lowry, and Hope Mill Theatre.

Mallory on the Mountain has been a work in progress for some eight years with Ollie learning about the slow way that such projects make their way into the world. “I have such big ideas but I have learned to start small,” he says. “Small, human stories are what’s wanted now in musical theatre. And while Everest might be the world’s biggest mountain, the story of Mallory, and his disappearance, is a very intimate one.”

Recap. George Mallory was a climber and explorer who disappeared on an expedition to Everest in 1924. He’d been climbing in the Alps since his schooldays, and after graduating from Cambridge and taking up teaching, he spent all his spare time refining his skills in Wales, as well as the Alps. Other climbers at the time noted his natural, catlike climbing ability and his ability to find and conquer new and difficult routes.

George Mallory

He joined the prestigious Alpine Club and was selected for their very first expedition to Everest in 1921, mainly a reconnaissance project; the team had to first locate Everest before they could trek to and then around the mountain’s base. Their attempts to climb were halted by high winds at the valley that came to be called the North Col.

A second expedition in 1922 saw the first use of bottled oxygen on the ascent, though Mallory and his team climbed without supplemental oxygen and reached a height of 27,300 feet (8,230 metres).This expedition ended disastrously when the team was caught in an avalanche that killed seven porters.

In 1924 Mallory was selected for the third expedition, and before he left he was asked why climbers wanted to scale Everest, to which he gave the famous reply, “Because it’s there”. 

The expedition had a difficult time with high winds and deep snow. On June 6 Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. The two started out from their last camp at 26,800 feet (8,170 metres) on the morning of June 8. Another member of the expedition claimed to have caught a glimpse of the men climbing in the early afternoon when the mists briefly cleared. Mallory and Irvine were never seen again.  

But did they actually get to the top? Were they, perhaps, the first people to reach the world’s highest point almost 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their successful climb? The mystery remains unsolved. Mallory’s body was found, in 1999, at 26,760 feet (8,155 metres), and it was determined that he had died after a bad fall. There was no sign of his camera, which might have proved whether or not he made it to the top. 

Ollie Mills first came across this story when he saw an IMAX dramatised documentary film in which renowned climber Leo Houlding, known to OIlie through a family friend, played the part of Irvine.  “I was just blown away by the experience, by the story of the expedition, by the mystery of the man who MIGHT have got to the top of Everest. I was fascinated to think about how it might translate to the stage. 

“Then, at university, I came across a book by Peter Gillman, The Wildest Dream, which was more than just a narrative about the daring attempt. It was a very personal story, about a man who’d been an officer in World War 1, who’d led a very full and fascinating life. It’s a really rich story about dreams, about finding yourself, about being in love.” 

Ollie, who describes himself as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, was studying music at The University Of York. After graduating, he directed The Tree Of War, about the First World War, co-written with Rachel Mann (Anglican minister and former poet in residence at Manchester Cathedral). It involved more than 50 people, was performed at Manchester Cathedral, and then at St Nicholas in Burnage, Manchester, where the church was turned into a trench. 

Ollie Mills

It’s why Ollie had to re-learn that most projects start small and progress slowly. “It was a big, dramatic start to my career. I realise now how that was out of the ordinary!” He’s been teaching vocals at a Manchester College, he’s musical director for a number of choirs, and he is working with Rachel Mann on a subsequent project about the Second World War, Realms of Glory. As a composer, he’s written in a wide range of genres, with his work appearing on TV, in regional theatre, concerts and online platforms, and he takes commissions as a songwriter and choral arranger.  

But Mallory was never far from his mind, and when he formed his own company, Imaginality Productions, he was given some Arts Council funding to develop his idea further, with a rehearsed reading, and then a “curtain raiser” excerpt at the prestigious Lowry Theatre in Salford. There was a subsequent read-through at Hope Mill Theatre, and a fuller version at St Nicholas Church with an audience of 120. Hope, and determination, indeed. 

Ollie also started climbing: “Only really getting started with indoor stuff, but I figured that, given what I'm working on, I should at least give it a go. And I’m just a stone’s throw from the Peak District, it's one of my favourite places to explore.” 

Throughout all this time, friend and performer Alex Cosgriff has played Mallory, and another actor/singer Emma Harvey has taken the part of Mallory’s wife, Ruth. They are both members of the Imaginality team, along with musical director Joe Clayton, and stage manager Emily Humphrys. Their determination to achieve Ollie’s dream is in step with the dreams of all those who aim to climb Everest. Here at Mag North we’re looking forward to being in the audience when the show is eventually premiered. 

In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview: