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?
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