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Stewart Green

Mt. Everest Mystery: Did Mallory and Irvine Summit in 1924?

By March 9, 2010

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Did 38-year-old George Mallory and 22-year-old Andrew "Sandy" Irvine reach the summit of 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) Mount Everest on June 8, 1924 nearly three decades before the first successful ascent in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary? This has been mountaineering's greatest mystery.

On that fateful day, Mallory and Irvine, climbing without oxygen, left their high camp at 26,700 feet (8,138 meters) to attempt to climb 2,300 feet to Everest's summit. The pair, "going strong for the top" according to the last man to see them, Noel Odell, disappeared in clouds somewhere around the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge at one in the afternoon. They were never seen again.

Well, actually George Mallory was seen again when his body was discovered high on the north slopes of Mount Everest by Conrad Anker in 1999. Anker and the rest of an expedition led by Eric Simonson were on Everest specifically to find Mallory and Irvine and their personal effects. After respectfully searching Mallory's body, the team recovered several artifacts including a bundle of letters, his watch, meat lozenges, a pocketknife, and goggles. They didn't find the collapsible Vest Pocket Kodak camera he carried, which could provide undisputed proof that the pair had reached the summit.

Now, reports Scientific American, 69-year-old Everest researcher Tom Holzel believes that he and five colleagues, the Andrew Irvine Search Committee, have located Irvine's body at 27,641-foot (8,425 meters) on the Yellow Band in detailed high-resolution aerial photographs of the mountain's North Face. The group found an anomaly, which Holzel calls an "oblong blob," that is 1.8 meters long or roughly the length of a human body and in a place and position where a Chinese climber in 1975 said he saw the body of an Englishman. The corpse was 750 feet below the spot where Irvine's ice axe was recovered in 1933.

Holzel is now trying to raise funds to put together a quick expedition this spring or in 2011 to locate the body and see if the camera is on Irvine. Eastman Kodak scientists say that the camera, if it's intact, could still have printable photographs after almost 90 years. If the camera isn't found, it is well known that Sandy Irvine also carried a detailed journal and possibly noted reaching the summit before their fatal fall. Despite having narrowed down the search area, it will still be very difficult to find the body, particularly if snow cover is heavy.

If the proposed expedition does find the camera, what will the images prove? Did they or didn't they? All the evidence collected in the 1999 expedition indicates that the pair could not have reached the summit given all the variables, including the lateness of the hour when they were last spotted and the difficult climbing on the Second Step. While all expeditions since 1979 have used fixed ladders on the step, Conrad Anker climbed cracks up the 100-foot cliff in 1999 and called it 5.8. Then Conrad and Dave Hahn, using oxygen, trekked another four hours to the summit, then turned around and spent six hours getting back to their high camp, which included descending the ladders down the Second Step.

Stay tuned. We'll see if Irvine's body and the camera are found this spring. It's really kind of macabre to be searching among the 150 or so dead bodies on Mount Everest for this one but the mystery is not going to rest until indisputable evidence is found. So, did they or didn't they?

Read more about Mount Everest:

Facts About Mount Everest
Mount Everest Timeline: 1848 to WWII
Mount Everest: The British Story

Photographs above: Mallory and Irvine attempted Mount Everest's Northeast Ridge in 1924 (top). George Leigh Mallory, the best British alpinist of his day, disappeared on Mt. Everest on the 1924 British expedition (bottom). Photographs courtesy BBC and ChinaReview.com

Comments

March 10, 2010 at 5:03 am
(1) Robert Pettigrew says:

Dear Mr Green,
Thank you for your interesting and succinct summary of the mystery of Mallory and Irvine. Although it has long been assumed that the ice-axe found in 1933 belonged to Sandy Irvine because of the three parallel markings – a system he had used at school to mark other sports gear, that has recently been disputed by a member of the team that found the axe and marked it to distinguish it from other of the parties’ axes. Perhaps this merits further research? Were you aware also that Mallory’s grandson has climbed the second step on his way to the summit of Everest and felt it was well within the capacity of his illustrous grandfather at the height of his powers and regarded in Britain as one of the foremost rock climbers of his day.
Thanks again Stewart,
Bob Pettigrew

March 10, 2010 at 9:40 am
(2) climbing says:

Bob, thanks for your illuminating comment. I wasn’t aware of an ice axe controversy and yes, that does merit more research. Anyone out there know more about this. I have heard that many believe that George Mallory was very capable of climbing the Second Step. He was strong and powerful climber. The big question has been the timeline of surmounting the Step, continuing to the summit, and then coming back down. And of course, it was a two-man party also, which can be slow. It’s unknown exactly what happened that killed the two men…a fall? The rope attached to Mallory’s body when found in 1999 appeared to be broken. So the mysteries continue. I, however, have always wanted to believe that they made it. Oh, then there is the question: If they didn’t make it back down, does it count?

March 10, 2010 at 10:50 am
(3) Mount Everest says:

For those interested:

“The deadline for obtaining funding for a 2010 mini search expedition to Everest North side has passed, and we have only succeeded in obtaining a small portion of the pledges necessary to pull the trigger,” Historian Tom Holzel wrote in an email to friends and members in the Andrew Irvine’s Search Committee last week.

You can read more about this in my Blog.

Mount Everest The British Story
Climbing News

March 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm
(4) climbing says:

Colin, thanks for that update about the spring expedition. I figured the window for raising the money…some $200,000…had to be pretty short. So next year it is…

March 10, 2010 at 3:49 pm
(5) Erfan Fekri says:

Dear Mr Green
How are you, I hope you will be finne all the time.
Sincerely

March 22, 2010 at 1:46 pm
(6) Tony says:

Mr Green, thanks for the intriguing Everest account. Evidence that Mallory and Irvine summited would be the most dramatic historic mountaineering discovery of our times. And indeed it would ‘count’ as a benchmark of human endeavour that is unmatched and pristine. I look forward to the rest of the story….

April 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm
(7) Amountain says:

Mallory and Irving WERE using oxygen. A well-known photgraph of them setting out shows this, as well as other
statements from the expidition members.

May 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm
(8) Jake Norton says:

Hi Stewart,

Thought you might want to know, if you hadn’t already seen it, that I have put up my own theory about M&I on my blog. Lots of chatter out there these days, so I thought I’d dive into the mix, too! Anyway, you can see the posts here:

Part I: http://blog.mountainworldproductions.com/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-george-mallory-andrew-irvine.html

Part II: http://blog.mountainworldproductions.com/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-george-mallory-andrew-irvine-part-ii.html

Hope all’s well with you…Happy climbing!

-Jake

August 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm
(9) Jake Norton says:

Hi again, Stewart,

Forgot to post, if anyone is interested, the final part of my Mallory & Irvine story, Part III.

Here it is, FWIW:

http://blog.mountainworldproductions.com/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-mallory-irvine-part-iii.html

Take care,

Jake Norton
MountainWorld Productions

December 27, 2010 at 4:10 pm
(10) Marc says:

Well, people that reach the summit today and die before making it back down are included on the list of people who have summited everest, so if Mallory reached the summit it should count.

March 3, 2011 at 1:14 am
(11) Steve says:

I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mallory and Irvine made the summit at all.
1) They were in fact climbing with supplemental oxygen.
2) Their skills, boots and equipment were adequate to the task. It has also been found that their silk underwear and many layers of wool would have protected them against the cold quite well.
3)It is possible that once they were seen above the second step they ignored the lateness of the day because of summit fever and pressed on to the summit.
4)They probably ran out of oxygen just before or soon after they started their descent.
5)Because of darkness, exhaustion and lack of supplemental Oxygen they suffered a fall or series of falls and then died of exposure and their injuries (Mallory’s corpse had a broken leg and a head wound)
Its a fascinating mystery.

March 10, 2011 at 4:14 am
(12) AZDave says:

I think Mallory could have climbed the 2nd step given his skill and determination, but would have been stopped by Irvine’s lack of technique. Plus, how would they have descended safely on the return? I have not read any consideration of the possibility of a second step decent w/o the ladder.

At this point or perhaps even before reaching the 2nd step, they might have opted for another line of attack. This may explain why neither of the oxygen back packs have been found. A key point, IMO.

One radical suggestion…there is a YouTube video of a helicopter briefly touching down on the summit seemingly w/o any difficulty.

Would this type of very high altitude helicopter be useful in the search for Irvine? TH, if read this, I suggest contacting the manufacturer for publicity funding…

March 10, 2011 at 4:31 am
(13) AZDave says:

Regarding they theory M & I were spotted on the 1st Step on a frustrated return to check out alternative routes for future use, it doesn’t add up for me given their absolute determination to summit. I can’t imagine them turning back so early in the day.

It is also hard to comprehend how they would have opted for anything other than a very early start given the importance of the day. It’s been argued equipment problems might have delayed them. I would suggested the equipment had been tripled checked the night before and if there was a problem, the climb would have been postponed one more day.

I think at some point they tried an alternative route and stayed with that either to summit or not; but in any event, ran out of light or luck on their decent.

April 30, 2011 at 12:56 pm
(14) Interested Reader says:

There are so many different reports and theories on the net that it is so hard to keep everything straight. I read Conrad Ankers very detailed report that was a fascinating read. It talked about the condition of Mallory when he was found, right leg broken in 2 places though not bad enough to pierce the flesh, right elbow deformed from what looked like a dislocation, the rope, the head wound etc.

According to some reports, Odells description of where he last saw the pair didn’t match the first or second step but it did seem to match the lesser known third step.

To me, after all the different reports and accounts that I have read it appears that Mallory could have been successful due to several factors: his skill and technique, sheer determination and will and resignation that he would rather die then give up a third time. Also his goggles in his pocket indicated that his death happened later in day when the sun was no longer a problem which meant he was more than likely on his decent.
It is truly heartbreaking to think that these two men failed after the way they suffered.

As I said it is hard to figure out what really happened and even harder to figure out who’s theory is in fact closest to the truth given that there are so many of them.

It is now heading into May again of 2011 and I was wondering if there were in fact any expeditions this season. Does anyone know if there are any plans for this climbing season?

July 15, 2011 at 11:14 am
(15) Aslam Khota Johannesburg says:

I am equally fascinated with the Mallory and Irvine story and find all the research and writing of great interest. I believe a search for Irvine is most vital in the quest to unravel one of man’s and climbings greatest mystery.
Has the team approached DISCOVERY CHANNEL or similar, to fund the search? I believe it is in their interest to do so. Hopefully the expedition materialises and the mystery, whether the pair reached the summit and the cause of Irvines death will shed light on one of mans most daring adventurers.

August 12, 2011 at 7:05 am
(16) Sovanratana Boung says:

Thank you for this important article Mr Green. After reading the article above, I was really surprised that I’ve found the information I wanted. I was studying about the Everest Mountain, so this would be a great knowledge for me to learn. Anyway, if I can search for some more article or information about the Everest Mountain, I’ll be more surprised than that. I wish the climbers could find the dead body of Irvine and could find Mallory’s camera, too. Mr Green, if you know more information about the Mt. Everest, you could post it on the internet anyway. But if you have no more, I’ll still be grateful to you.

August 18, 2011 at 6:22 am
(17) Stuart says:

I’m very interested in the search for that elusive camera! – Can anyone tell me if there is any expedition planned to find Irvine’s body? – I’ts August 2011, I just hope someone somewhere can prove that these brave men reached the goal that they strived for!!! – God bless them!!!!

August 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm
(18) Bill says:

It’s now been proved that Mallory and Irvine never seperated during their summit attempt. Evidence from Mallorys’ body showed they were roped together at the time of the fall. It is also certain that Irvine did not have the skill to climb the second step. Mallory ‘may’ have been able to climb it but it would have been at his limit. Therefore if Irvine never got up the second step they never summited. It really is as simple as that. Forget about what Odell saw or didn’t see or the camera they may have had. Forget about what time Odell saw them. Unless Irvine could climb the second step they couldn’t summit. End of story.

September 7, 2011 at 7:45 am
(19) Sovanratana Boung says:

Odell last saw them was at 12.50 pm, when the cloud comes, Mallory and Irvine disappeared. As I think, they slipped and fall in the second step. Because there are three steps and the second step is the hardest, more harder than the first and the third step. I also have some information about why Mallory disappeared too.
“They are climbing down together in the dark. Irvine is going first, Mallory is behind. Suddenly, Mallory slips and falls. Irvine tries to save him but the rope breaks. Mallory falls faster and faster. When he hits the ground his leg breaks in two places. But he does not stop. He is sliding down the steep slope, towards the Rongbuk Glacier thousands of feet below. He has dropped is ice axe, but he turns on his face and digs his fingers into the snow above his head, trying to slow down. He stops, but he has hit his head on a rock. He lies there, unable to move, dying alone in the dark.
Somewhere far above him, Irvine is injured too. He calls to Mallory, again and again, but there is no answer. Slowly, he tries to crawl towards Camp 6, but he cannot find it. Alone, and lost in the dark and icy cold at 8,200 meters, Irvine dies too.

September 8, 2011 at 3:14 am
(20) P Smith says:

Bill, can you post a link to evidence that they never separated.

Also, in Jake’s blog, there is the theory that they did separate for the summit. If the rope is clearly broken, could Mallory not have summited alone, then returned to the second step where, after its descent they re-roped, the fall coming and broken rope coming later?

September 27, 2011 at 11:57 am
(21) Sid says:

Has anyone given a thought that the second step might not have been all that difficult to climb in those days. There could have been a snowbank or rockbank that might have fall off in later years.

Anway any news on when the search will continue?

September 29, 2011 at 8:17 am
(22) Rose says:

Those who think Irvine couldn’t get to the top of the second step are wrong. Once Mallory is up there it would be no problem to get Irvine up. They did have a rope. And this continual talk about Irvine’s lack of technical experience is a red herring. By the time he was on this summit journey he would have picked up enough technique from Mallory. Bet he was a fast learner.

November 3, 2011 at 4:50 pm
(23) rosa says:

well i think that mallory didn’t get to the tp & he died before reaching the summit and fell down the mountain ….

November 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm
(24) partonni says:

P Smith: I believe the answer to your question is no, as it would have taken many hours for Mallory to climb from the base of the second step to the summit and back again. For Irvine to sit and wait that long would be impossible, especially with the clothing that they wore, without freezing to death. If the pair had separated, they would not likely have reunited.

Rose: The lack of reliable rope, belay devices, and other modern climbing equipment means that Irvine would have had to climb the step with no more protection than a thin cotton rope and a ‘gentleman’s belay’. This would be, in effect, little different from a free climb. Not an impossibility perhaps, but certainly not probable, given the circumstances.

May 16, 2012 at 1:32 am
(25) Walking holiday everest base camp says:

It doesn’t matter where Mallory’s body was found, people have been known to actually fall DOWN on Mt. Everest. Things are always changing. People are constantly learning new things that may or may not cast doubt on something ‘you think is true’.

October 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm
(26) Robert says:

If Mallory could have climbed the second step, then so could have Irvine. Let’s not forget the rope – depending upon how long it was, Mallory could have free climbed the second step and then helped haul Irvine up. This assumes that Irvine couldn’t climb it, but Odell had climbed with Irvine earlier in Norway and Wales and was quite impressed with his climbing abilities. It end to think that Irvine may have been able to climb it on his own, but even if he couldn’t the rope would have helped Mallory get him to the top of the Second Step. Of course, getting down would have been a problem. However, I have a theory on that.

Let’s assume that they did actually summit, or at least reached the Third Step before turning around. By this point, the weather would have been deteriorating and Mallory, summit or no, would have had to have realized that he and his young charge needed to get down the mountain. Fast. What route to take? Might they have attempted to get to the Norton-Somervell Couloir route? Malory had to have known it was there, in at least a general sort of way. It offered a path lower down the mountain back to their camp. Might they have attempted it? It may help explain why Mallory’s relatively undamaged body (relatively, since he clearly did not fall from high up on the ridge) was so low on the mountain; he didn’t fall far when he died. It would also explain why Mallory’s body is not on the fall line from the ice axe spot – because the two were unrelated. It may also explain why their oxygen sets have never been found – because they were abandoned in a totally different part of the mountain than searchers have looked.

Any huge holes with this idea? Is there a route from the Third Step or the summit pyramid to the couloir and the Norton-Somervell route?

Robert

March 10, 2013 at 10:24 pm
(27) Simon says:

Robert,

I think that you might be on the right track! I’m very interested in this entire fascinating story, and after looking (for more hours than i care to mention) at maps of the mountain itself and maps of the locations of the artifacts of the climb, i’d venture to guess that M+I did attempt to move down into the Couloir.

I’m not basing my theory on facts, rather, personal experience. As a climber, i would have taken this route down. George Mallory was a very experienced climber, and he must have known that it was impossible (or at least suicidal) to attempt to climb down the Second Step. Either he had a crazy idea or he attempted the couloir.

Simon

April 2, 2013 at 11:00 pm
(28) Bob says:

Personally, I do not think they would have made it up the second step. Mallory already had the beginnings of frostbite earlier on the trip. Once frostbite starts, it makes the flesh more susceptible. Plus let’s not forget the first summit to Annapurna. Soooo much frostbite in the old school boots. I’m not questioning his skill as a rock climber. At sea level, I’m sure he would have tackled it easily. But at altitude after that much time on the mountain and in that gear….. no. I watched the Conrad Anker climb in the documentary and it convinced me Mallory could not have done it. It’s all fingertips and toes and I can’t believe he didn’t have at least some frostbite. That being said, there are alternate routes and I believe they explored and likely found another based on the locations of both (assuming the Irvine theory is correct) bodies. Reinhold Messner climbed down without using the second step so it is certainly possible. Also, they were explorers who were not bound by today’s set routes. Even at altitude, the human brain can easily process when there’s an obstacle and that it might be easier to go around. Clearly they did not end their journey at the second step.

April 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm
(29) slick says:

How far was Mallory’s last camp from where he died????

November 29, 2013 at 6:14 am
(30) sid says:

cool epic and brilliant

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