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Four Strange Mount Everest Stories

All About Mount Everest

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Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is also one of its most storied with many tales of adventure, bravery, strength, daring, and death. Here are four strange yet odd stories about Mount Everest, including an unknown Soviet attempt, a profile of Sandy Irvine, a bizarre solo attempt by a cross-dresser, and the answer to the question: Who was first on Everest's summit?

1. Who First Reached the Summit of Everest?

Photograph courtesy Sir Edmund Hillary/Tenzing Norgay

Did Edmund Hillary or Tenzing Norgay reach the summit of Mount Everest first in 1953? The climbers, first to stand on the summit, agreed that they would say that they reached the summit together, thereby negating anti-colonialism in Nepal and India.

Evidence, however, indicates that expedition leader John Hunt and Christopher Summerhayes, British ambassador to Nepal, covered up the fact that Hillary actually reached the summit before Tenzing. A three-page memo by Edmund Hillary in the Royal Geographic Society archives stated that he was first to reach Everest's summit: "[I] stepped on top of Everest… I quickly brought up Tensing [sic] beside me." The official public version by Hillary said: "A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on the summit."

2. The Strange Case of Mr. Wilson

One of the strangest attempts to climb Mount Everest was by Maurice Wilson (1898-1934), an eccentric Englishman, who tried to climb Everest after flying to the mountain--despite knowing nothing about mountaineering or flying. Wilson decided to climb Everest while recuperating from illness, forming a plan to fly to Tibet, crash the plane on the mountain's upper slopes, and climb to the summit. He then learned to fly a Gipsy Moth plane, which he named Ever Wrest, and spent five weeks hiking around Britain for practice.

He flew to India in two weeks and spent the winter in Darjeeling planning his expedition. Wilson, with no climbing equipment, approached up the Rongbuk Glacier, getting lost and crossing difficult terrain. On May 22, 1934 he tried to climb to the North Col but failed at an ice wall. On May 31, his last diary entry read: "Off again, gorgeous day." His body was found in 1935 in snow, surrounded by his blown-apart tent.

The last twist in the Wilson saga was that it appears he was a cross-dresser who had worked in a ladies dress shop in New Zealand. He was supposedly found wearing women's underwear and had women's clothes in his pack. A 1960 Chinese expedition added fuel to the story by finding a woman's dress shoe at 21,000 feet. It seems Mr. Wilson wasn't dressed properly for conditions.

3. What if the Russians First Climbed Everest?

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared high on the Northeast Ridge in 1924.
Photograph courtesy ChinaReview.com

Did the Russians try to climb Mount Everest in 1952, acing the first ascent from both the Swiss and British? According to a report in the Alpine Journal by Yevgeniy Gippenreiter, a large Soviet expedition with 35 climbers went to the north side of Everest in Tibet to attempt the Northeast Ridge Route in late 1952. The group, led by Pavel Datschnolian, worked up the mountain to a high camp in early December, placing a team of six for a summit bid. But the men, including Datschnolian, vanished, probably swept down by an avalanche and were never found.

Russian climbers have researched archives, mountaineering journals from the 1940s and 1950s, and checked all the known climber names and discovered nothing. It was like none of the supposed climbers, including the leader, or the expedition ever existed.

Just imagine what might have been if they had succeeded? As the Sydney Morning Herald noted in the April 21, 1952 edition: "…Russia has more 'firsts' to her credit than any other country. Russians invented steel, the electric lightbulb, the radio-telegraph, and the ten-gallon hat. So why not be the first up Everest, even if it is only to prove that the "abominable snowman" is a capitalist warmonger?"

4. Who Was Sandy Irvine?

Photograph courtesy Julie Summers

The great mystery of Mount Everest is the question: Did George Mallory and Sandy Irvine reach the summit in 1924 before perishing on it? Everyone knows about Mallory, but who was Irvine? Andrew Comyn Irvine (1902-1924), nicknamed Sandy, was a young climber who excelled at rowing and studied engineering at Oxford.

Irvine, the youngest member of the expedition, was a whiz at keeping the oxygen sets working properly, a skill that factored in Mallory's choice of Irvine as his summit partner, although some people have made the absurd posulation that Mallory was sexually attracted to Irvine. The pair disappeared on the Northeast Ridge near the Second Step on June 8. It appears they fell and the rope broke. Irvine's ice axe was found in 1933 but his body has not been found (Mallory was found in 1999), although a couple Chinese climbers reported seeing the body of an "old English dead." It is hoped that when Irvine is found, one of the expedition cameras will be on his person and the film could shed light on the mystery.

Julie Summers, one of his living relatives, doesn't care if Irvine reached the top. She writes on her blog: "I am constantly asked 'Wouldn't you like to know if Mallory and Irvine got to the summit?' The answer is that I don't really care either way. What they achieved is so remarkable and inspiring that the last few hundred feet do not matter. And, in Hillary's famous words, you have to descend in order to be able to claim the summit. What does bother me is people's determination to find an answer and in doing so to expose Sandy's frozen, bird-pecked mortal remains to greedy media hungry for sensational images."

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