In 1924, 37-year-old George Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) was perhaps Britain's most famous mountaineer. The handsome, charismatic, ex-schoolteacher was already a seasoned Himalayan veteran, having been part of the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest and then a serious attempt on the mountain in 1922, which ended in disaster with the deaths of seven Sherpas in an avalanche. Mallory did, however, break the 8,000-meter barrier, climbing to 26,600 feet without supplemental oxygen.
Two years later George Mallory's name was on the list for the 1924 Everest expedition. He had great hopes for success on the world's highest mountain, despite a premonition that he wouldn't return home from another attempt to his wife Ruth and three small children. Mallory, with a better understanding of the monsoon weather, felt the group had a good chance of success. He wrote Ruth from Everest base camp: "It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shant get to the top" and "I feel strong for the battle but I know every ounce of strength will be wanted."
The expedition's first summit attempt was by Major Edward Norton and Theodore Sommervell on June 4. The pair set off from Camp VI at 27,000 feet and labored up strenuous terrain without oxygen to 28,314 feet, a high-altitude record that stood for 54 years. Four days later George Mallory teamed up with young Sandy Irvine for a summit try using oxygen cannisters.
On June 8 the pair set off up the Northeast Ridge, plodding upward at a good pace. At 12:50 p.m. Mallory and Irvine were last seen alive by expedition geologist Noel Odell who spotted them through a break in the clouds on the Second Step, a rock outcrop on the ridge. Odell then climbed up to Camp VI and squatted in Mallory's tent in a snow squall. During the quick-moving storm, he stepped outside and whistled and yodeled so the descending climbers could find the tent in the white-out. But they never returned.
Whether George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were able to climb to the summit of Mount Everest on that June day has been an enduring mystery of Everest mountaineering. Some of their gear was found over the ensuing years, like Irvine's ice axe in 1933. Then Chinese climbers reported seeing the bodies of English climbers during the 1970s.
In 1999 the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition was able to locate Mallory's body along with some of his personal effects including goggles, altimeter, knife, and a stack of letters from his wife. The party was unable to locate his camera, which might provide clues to the mystery. They did surmise that the fatal accident happened on the descent and probably in the dark since the goggles were in Mallory's pocket and that the two were roped together. So the mystery of George Mallory remains. Did Mallory and Irvine fall while descending from the summit or were they retreating after a failed attempt? Only Mount Everest knows and it holds the secret close.