Conspiracies & Lies: Thoughts on May 1, 1999

by JAKE NORTON

May 2024
Note: I dashed this off, and the video post, pretty quickly on May 1, in between other work and heading to the airport to pick up my friend and teammate from 1999, Jochen Hemmleb. It's far from perfect, and probably quite boring. But, I needed to get it off my chest, so here it is. […]

Note: I dashed this off, and the video post, pretty quickly on May 1, in between other work and heading to the airport to pick up my friend and teammate from 1999, Jochen Hemmleb. It's far from perfect, and probably quite boring. But, I needed to get it off my chest, so here it is. Enjoy the read, or enjoy the video; both are essentially the same. And, when you have a moment, please raise a glass of whatever you choose in honor of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. I know Jochen and I will.


Twenty-five years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. That long since that day, the day we climbed high, risked much, worked hard, got lucky, made mistakes, did our absolute, imperfect best, made history unintentionally, told a story bigger than any of us, bigger than us individually and collectively, a story that went bigger, that garnered more attention, than any of us ever imagined.

The 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition team on the Pang La Pass with Everest behind. From left to right: Jyoti Lal Rana, Peter Firstbrook, Andy Politz, Tap Richards, Jake Norton (kneeling), Eric Simonson, Thom Pollard, Conrad Anker, Dave Hahn, Graham Hoyland, Dr. Lee Meyers.

I won’t go into all the details of that day, as it’s been written and filmed and shared many times over. If you want to read about it, or watch it, drop down into the description below for some firsthand accounts of May 1, 1999, our discovery of George Mallory’s remains, and what we learned from it all. And, I’m thinking about doing a livestream presentation next week on the story of Mallory and Irvine, of 1924 and 1999 and the other searches I’ve been a part of; let me know in the comments if that is something you’d be interested in.

So, I won’t go over all of that again. Suffice it to say 25 years ago, May 1, 1999, remains a day etched into my memory, one of poignance and emotion and fear and reverence like nothing else I’ve had in 40 years of climbing. I get goosebumps and chills to this day remembering it, remembering the discovery, the time we spent with Mallory that day, the things we learned about he and Irvine’s final days and hours on the mountain.

What I’d like to talk about now, address somewhat, is the conspiracy theories being batted about, the fever dreams and innuendo and outright imagined “facts” spewed by those who seem convinced they know what was in the minds and hearts of the five of us sitting for hours at 27,000 feet on that day 25 years ago, what was in the minds and hearts and motives of the rest of our team at Basecamp, and those we worked with throughout the project.

I’ll start by saying I was hesitant to even broach this topic, as today we as a people, as a species, seem more polarized, more angry, distant, separated from one another, than anytime in the past. We seem less able to listen to one another, to hear one another, to hear ourselves at times, as we sit in the siloed chambers of internet anonymity, able to spew vitriol without looking the recipient in the eye, remembering they’re a real person, imperfect, flawed, with thoughts and emotions and actions that can easily be misinterpreted through the monodimensional lens of a singular reading or watching or hearing.

A big part of me thought, and thinks still, that there’s no point in confronting the misinformation, the innuendo, the “alternate facts” being shared as hubristic gospel; after all, if it can’t be cured in the larger society, how could I cure it in this tiny, ultimately-unimportant corner of the info-sphere.

But, I guess I’ve never been one who wants to sit silent. I hate confrontation, but I also hate dishonesty. I don’t want to be a part of either, but I’ll take the first to confront the last, and to make sure that, for my part at least, I’m being as transparent as I can.

A stormy morning looking north over the peaks of the Tibetan Himalaya from the North Ridge of Mount Everest, Tibet.

To start, I’ll admit readily a couple things: memory is an imperfect thing, especially after a quarter century. What I share here is my memory - it’s not fabrication here to discount stories and rumors, or to discredit anyone. It’s just what I remember, and as such it’s only what I remember - I could be wrong about certain elements, and others may remember things differently. I’ll be happy to stand corrected. But, what follows is my recollection of events.

Second, I am speaking only for me, not for my teammates. I cannot and will not speak for them; this is my memory, and my recollection, and my story of our collective story. I will say this, however: Our team in 1999 was an amazing one. From the bottom to the top, we had great people joined together for a great endeavor. We were, individually and collectively, there for the right reasons. Eric Simonson picked the team for that purpose: people who would climb high to search, to learn, to help gain a better understanding of 1924, and not be out for their own personal gain. Those five of us who gathered around Mallory that day? They are my heroes. Dave and Tap and Andy and Conrad, salt of the earth. I’d clip into any rope with any of them on any mountain any day, and I don’t say that lightly. And the same goes for Eric and Jochen, without reservation.

So, let’s dig in a bit.

I’ll start off with the admission that none of us, not one of us on the team, was a trained archeologist. We were climbers, we were amateur historians, we had advice from archeologists and others, but at the end of the day we were climbers. And, I think it’s safe to say - without ego - that it is because we were climbers that we were able to get to the site, to the search area, search it, make findings, and come down again in one piece.

Did we do everything right? Without a doubt, no, we did not. Any archeologist worth his or her salt would likely raise issues with what we did and how we did it. But, that same archeologist might be inclined to give us a bogey given the location, and realities of life at 27,000 feet.

Did we do our best? I firmly believe we did. We may at times have been, as Conrad chose to describe it, like punch-drunk kids: there was certainly excitement, not the excitement of treasure seekers or bounty hunters, but the excitement of having found what we were looking for, of touching history, of learning in that visceral, first-hand, personal way something you’ve wanted to learn about your whole life. Did we say things in the heat of it all, the nerves of it all, the headiness of it all, that we may wish we hadn’t said? Well, I’d imagine that yes, we did, but I haven’t ever seen the raw footage from 1999; to my knowledge, Wade Davis is the only one outside a NOVA or BBC studio that has, and he never shared it with me or bothered to talk to me before writing his book. So, I cannot say with any certainty.

Rocks. Rocks. Lots of rocks. Yellow Band rocks and Grey Band rocks and North Face rocks. They were everywhere, inside everything, gravel and dust and bits of decomposing Everest as far as the eye could see. But, no, we didn’t look for them. Honestly, we didn’t think to, and perhaps in hindsight that was a mistake. As I’ve said, we made them, but not with intention. So, no, we didn’t look for summit rocks in his pockets, and for that I reckon I’m regretful.

The full moon rises above the shadow of Mount Everest arcing across the spine of the Himalaya; from Camp V at 25,600 feet on the North Ridge, Tibet, China. Prominent, visible peaks are Pumori, Cho Oyu, and Gyachung Kang.

Gloves and rope and souvenirs. This is one of the more curious and - to give credit where credit is due - inventful imaginations, that we, for some reason, absconded with bits of rope from Mallory’s waist and even swiped a glove. I have no idea where the former comes from, and the latter comes from a discrepancy between our official expedition book, Ghosts of Everest, and Conrad Anker’s book, The Lost Explorer. Both are linked below. Ghosts says we found one, fingerless glove, Conrad’s book (written by the late David Roberts) says a pair were found. I can only say regarding the gloves that I only remember finding one glove, and Tap Richards and I were doing most of the finding of artifacts on Mallory’s body. My hunch is that David Roberts made a mistake, and it was not caught in the final edit because, simply, it was not of great consequence. None of us were interested in keeping souvenirs from Mallory’s remains.

On the burial we did on May 1, and the decision to send Andy Politz and Thom Pollard back for a second search on May 16, I guess again it comes down to best intentions and hindsight. On the first search day - May 1 - we made the decision to search before our upper mountain infrastructure was ready, before the route was fully fixed and before Camp VI was in, because we were concerned the monsoon could break early and hamper our chances. 1999 was one of the driest years recorded in the high Himalaya, and we wanted to be able to take full advantage of it all. So, we launched our first search, a cursory one, intended to mainly give us a feel for the area. We didn’t expect to find much, if anything. But, of course we did find something, and it was a big discovery. However, given our expectations for the day, and the fact that we were carrying loads to Camp VI before searching, we did not take a metal detector with us. Thus, while we searched Mallory thoroughly, upon returning to Basecamp and going over all the details, we realized that, sadly, we could not say without a shadow of a doubt that there was nothing left to search for, no reason for anyone to disturb Mallory again. We decided that we needed to send people back to Mallory with a metal detector, we just were unsure who, or when.

Ten days or so later, on May 15, all six of us - Dave, Andy, Conrad, Tap, Thom, and I - sat pinned down in a windstorm at Camp V. We were moving up to make summit bids, but the storm had messed up both schedules, and more importantly, time and supplies. We didn’t have enough for everyone to try for the summit and to launch a secondary search. Eventually, Andy Politz and Thom Pollard volunteered to do the second search for logical reasons: Andy had summitted before, so that wasn’t a motivating factor, and Thom was contracted to shoot video for PBS. We needed a cameraman on both the second search and the summit attempt, and Dave, who was contracted by BBC, had more experience up high than Thom, so it made sense for him to accompany and film the summit attempt.

None of us relished the idea of a second search. We hoped that the metal detector would not ping, would not indicate we missed something, and Mallory could remain undisturbed. But, it did, and we had. Thom and Andy got a signal from the detector, investigated, and found Mallory’s wristwatch in his pants pocket, an item Tap and I had missed the first time around. Andy and Thom then reburied Mallory and again consecrated the site with Psalm 103 as we had two weeks prior. As I was not there, I cannot say much more about what went on. I can say none of us wanted a second search to be needed, but it was, and so we did it as best possible.

The final bit I’ll cover is about good old oxygen bottle #9. After Tap Richards, Dawa Sherpa, Ang Pasang, and I turned around at Mushroom Rock on summit day, May 17, Tap and I decided we would, as had been discussed previously, look for the oxygen bottle Eric Simonson saw on his summit bid in 1991. We rappelled the First Step and prepared to look. Tap went off to begin searching while I first tended to Fran Arsentiev’s remains; she had passed away the year before, and was still attached to the fixed lines. Her family had sent a request to move her if possible. I tried, but she was as fused to the mountain as Mallory was, and I could not budge her. So, I moved the climbing route up by 30 feet or so, tying off and re-anchoring the fixed line so the route no longer went right to her. I then moved down to near Tap and began looking around as Eric gave some guidance over the radio. For whatever reason, I was drawn to the ridgecrest beneath the First Step, and was walking in whiteout conditions along the cornices one is led to in this part of the Ridge. I saw a shadow, faint, but strange, in front of me. Wary, I reached and probed with my ice ax, eventually discerning what it was: a body-sized hole in the cornice, dropping down the Kangshung Face. It was quite possibly where my friend Vasily Kopytko met his demise a week earlier. I moved away from the cornice quickly and descended from the ridgecrest, looking for Tap who was down below. We met up minutes later, him carrying something: a long, brown, rusted cylinder, obviously from another era. This turned out to be Oxygen Bottle #9, one of Mallory and Irvine’s from 75 years prior.

I never saw the spot where Tap found the bottle, nor did we have GPS to take coordinates. And, it was a whiteout, so photos would have done no good. The issues here, the conspiracy theories, are twofold. First, I’ve been accused of “moving” the bottle’s location by improperly placing it on the Virtual Mount Everest I created during Covid. Michael Tracy kindly pointed the issue out to me, and I moved the pin for it to a location he suggested. My excuse? Carelessness, in all honesty, and ignorance. Carelessness in that I wasn’t making the virtual Everest as a research tool, but rather as a fun, informative, interactive thing, so I placed the marker for the body in roughly the right place, without precision. And, admitted ignorance as I didn’t really know where the bottle was found, as Tap was the one who found it.

Second, Dave Hahn has said that one of the Sherpa said they found an old bottle on our summit day and moved it to a place where it could be found more easily. I do not remember that, but I believe Dave. That said, we don’t know - or at least I don’t - if that was truly an old bottle, or just an older one, like from 1975 or 1960. The latter look quite old, but aren’t as old as the ones we wanted to find. And, the only Sherpa with us that day were Dawa and Ang Pasang. They stayed with us until we were back at Camp VI, so if there was another bottle to be found - after they saw what bottle #9 looked like - I think they would have said something. And, finally, if a different old bottle was found by either Dawa or Ang Pasang and moved to a better spot, a spot easier to find, it seems odd they would have put it off the climbing route, on the ridge proper, instead of in the rocks of the climbing route, tied to the fixed line, where it would certainly not be missed.

So, I’m pretty certain the bottle Tap found is the bottle Eric saw in 1991 and directed us to in 1999.

Finally, one funny - to me at least - thing that keeps coming up is I’m repeatedly accused of (a) not putting my entire Everest photo library up on the web, and (b), for not releasing the drone footage shot by Renan Ozturk for National Geographic in 2019. On the first count, my Everest library is a couple hundred thousand images, and I don’t have time, energy, or desire to put them all up on the web and do so in a way that anyone could find anything they were looking for. That said, I’ve put up and shared most of the shots from my archive that have any relevance to the story, and have no problem with sharing more if and when asked. As for Renan’s drone footage? I’d love to see it, too. But, it’s his, not mine. I haven’t seen it, I don’t own it, I can’t release it. Hard stop. (But, I don’t think his not releasing it is an indication of anything aside from time, energy, no one asking, and the footage showing a lot of…nothing to see.)

At any rate, this is a lot of information, and a long video/blog post. I could go on, but part of me wonders: To what end? Sadly, those prone to distrust and disbelief, those who want to assume the worst rather than assume the best, those who see nefariousness and conspiracy around each corner rather than seeing the world as it is - imperfect and full of imperfect people doing their best - well, I’m not going to change their minds in a boring YouTube video. So, to them, to those of you who are certain we did wrong in 1999, who botched the story and messed up the evidence and hid the truth and lied about it all…Well, I invite you to go up there and have a look yourself. It’s a beautiful place, I can assure you. Search around and see what you find; it’s not easy, but I for one hope you find something, and if you do, I’ll believe what you say, applaud your efforts, forgive your errors, and hope it tells us more of the story. In 100 years, we’re the only only team that found much of anything, and we only did so because of an amazing convergence of a great team, great leadership, solid partners, hard work, tenacity, and a heavy dose of luck.

The memorial plaque remembering George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who lost their lives on June 8, 1924, high on Mount Everest. The original plaque was stolen years ago; this one was put in place by Mallory's grandson, George, in 1995.
The memorial plaque remembering George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who lost their lives on June 8, 1924, high on Mount Everest. The original plaque was stolen years ago; this one was put in place by Mallory's grandson, George, in 1995.

2 comments on “Conspiracies & Lies: Thoughts on May 1, 1999”

  1. Let me try to bring these comments over from the YouTube video, and add a few more. I assume that if this doesn't work we can delete it. Thanks, Jake.
    ===========
    @JohnDavidHays
    10 days ago
    Jake, thank you for addressing this issue. I read a quote from Tap Richards from back in the early 2000s where he said that he believed all the facts should be made public. I assume he also meant all the photos and videos from 1999. I also assume he meant that you guys should be open and transparent to all questions. Jake, I wasn’t there in 1999, all I know is that there seems to be a lot of questions people ask now that are met with a stone wall, or people who ask are banned from social platforms. Artifacts that were recovered are now nowhere public to be found. For instance, where is Mallory’s neck pouch? Where is Mallory’s small notebook? Where is the inventory? Why are there serious questions about the discovery location of the #9 oxygen bottle — before May 1st, 1999 there were supposed to be two 1924 oxygen bottles below well below the ridge. The two bottles were written about before you and Tap got there. What’s up with that? So I understand your position and frustration. All I can recommend is to do everything possible to release all photos and answers all legitimate questions.

    =========
    Jake Norton:

    ·

    9 replies

    @jake_norton
    6 days ago
    Hi John, thanks for your note and thoughtful comment. I can't speak to what Tap was referencing, and I of course cannot speak to what others from 1999 say or do. But, I can say for my side that I've been as transparent and honest and open with what I did, we did, what I've seen and uncovered and explored - and what I have not - and have shared for decades the photos I have that might help tell some more of the story. As for your specific questions:
    1. Mallory''s neck pouch was not retrieved, at least not by me on May 1. I was the one who felt it as I reached underneath Mallory's body, and felt a rectangular metal (hard) object inside. I cut it open with my knife, and pulled out what turned out to be the tin of beef lozenges. Other items if memory serves were in the pouch, including Mallory's pen knife, pencil, and the small notebook.
    2. All the items we recovered from Mallory - every single one - was inventoried at Basecamp. They then traveled back to Seattle for analysis post-expedition. After that. certain personal items were returned to the family directly to Clare in the Bay Area, and the remainder went on to the RGS. So, the notebook should either be with the Mallory family or with the RGS. I was not in charge of the artifacts after the expedition, so don't have any more definitive information.
    3. We only found bottle #9, and it was right where Eric described having seen an old bottle in 1991. I honestly was not really aware of the rumors of a second bottle having been possibly seen prior to our expedition. I asked Jochen this weekend and he said Eric thought he might have seen another one in 1991, but was not sure. The one Eric knew he had seen was not well below the ridge, nor did he ever describe it that way to me; it was always near the ridge crest below the First Step, right about where Tap found it.

    Hope this helps some, and thanks.

    ==================

    John Hays:
    Jake, thanks for the reply. As you may or may not know, I started my semi-adult life as a professional archaeologist and spent twenty years at that pursuit. My approach to this problem is largely from from the perspective of material culture, i.e. artifacts and features. Perhaps I should ask my questions on your blogsite where there are more people who could be interested? Here is a bit from Simonson, Hemmleb and Anderson's Outside Magazine article ("Ghosts of Everest") from October 1st, 1999: "Finally lifting up Mallory's right shoulder, Norton reached underneath to find a pouch around Mallory's neck. Inside was something hard and metallic—but not the camera. It was a metal tin of bouillon cubes, “Brand & Co. Savoury Meat Lozenges.” With the tin was a brass altimeter missing both its face and hands, and an envelope, perfectly preserved, the ink script of the letter inside crisp and clear. " I have been told that you sliced open to pouch to get to the contents? That single pouch is visible around Mallory's neck in Odell's famous photo from Camp IV-North Col at 8:40 AM on June 6th, 1924.
    ========
    Thanks, John, for your reply, and nice to meet a real archaeologist, not just one who plays one in the mountains! Feel free to ask questions on the blog if better, whatever is best for you. Yes, you're correct the pouch is the same pouch (presumably) seen in the June 6th photo taken at the North Col. I thought it was the knife, pencil, and notebook that also came out of the pouch, but those could well have been in his breast pockets where Tap and I found additional items. Thanks.
    ====
    More from John Hays:
    .
    Okay, here is a microcosm of the provenance problem with the 1999 discovery and partial exhumation of George Mallory: (edited)
    .
    “Finally, they were able to access his pockets and a small bag under his right arm. From the outside it felt promising – a hard, metallic-sounding shape, around the size of a small camera, but when they cut the cloth, inside there was nothing more than a tin of beef lozenges. In another pocket there was an altimeter, calibrated to 30,000 feet, but the hands and the glass were broken.”
    Conefrey, Mick 2024 - “Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition.”
    ===
    Inside was something hard and metallic—but not the camera." This quote about the pouch from the 1999 Outside Magazine article is most likely to have been written by Hemmleb.
    .
    "With the tin was a brass altimeter missing both its face and hands, and an envelope, perfectly preserved, the ink script of the letter inside crisp and clear. " Neither Simonson, Hemmleb, or Anderson who "authored" the ghostwritten article "Ghosts of Everest" were on the mountain with Mallory on May 1st, 1999. Because of this, their "recollection" of the contents of the pouch are next to worthless.
    .
    I find it doubtful that the altimeter was inside the pouch where it would be inaccessible on a climb in which frequent consultation of the altitude would necessitate it be in one of the outside breast pockets. Unlike the watch, it didn't need to be kept warm for it to operate. I seem to remember another quote from 1999 that said the altimeter was in one of those two pockets, and the goggles in the other.
    .
    This brings me to Jake's recollection of the contents of Mallory's pouch. Yesterday (May 6th, 2024), he wrote me, "I thought it was the knife, pencil and notebook that also came out of the pouch . . ."
    .
    Add to that from the Ghost of Everest article, " an envelope, perfectly preserved, the ink script of the letter inside crisp and clear." Is this the Stella letter? I don't know, but think it is.
    .

    These are the elements of George Mallory's "writing desk" pouch, why it was all in a separate small bag, easy to get to. The notebook there, from which he tore out pages to write notes to be carried down to Odell and John Noel by the Tiger Sherpas: " Mallory’s porters brought me the following message:(edited)
    [8:50 PM]
    Dear Odell, – We’re awfully sorry to have left things in such a mess – our Unna Cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment. Be sure of getting back to IV to-morrow in time to evacuate before dark, as I hope to. In the tent I must have left a compass – for the Lord’s sake rescue it: we are without. To here on ninety atmospheres [1] for the two days – so we’ll probably go on two cylinders – but it’s a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job! Yours ever,

    G. Mallory." (edited)
    .
    Now, Getty Images has photos of the notebook, the stub pencil, the envelope of the Stella letter with oxygen cylinder information written on it by Mallory, and his pocket knife with its leather sheath. These photos can be found online.
    .
    If this pouch was essentially Mallory's writing desk/communications pouch/letter carrier and he kept it outside of his clothing, not in a pocket, that is likely because he intentionally carried his small notebook, and letters in it, where he could easily get at it to write notes to Odell and Noel, and notes to himself.
    .
    Why the knife in the pouch? Mallory was right-hand dominant, the pouch was slung on his right side in the "kitting up' photo taken June 6th at CampIV-North Col. But that's a pocket knife, why is it not in his right front trouser pocket as right-handed men carry such knives? It would be easy to get at there in that pocket, why was the knife not there? Two answers: (1) The knife was in his "writing desk" pouch because that was his pencil sharpener. Look at the Getty photo of the list of food supplies for Camp VI and see the pencil there on top of it. See how the pencil has been sharpened with that very pocket knife? And (2), Mallory could not put his pocket knife in his right front trouser pocket because that is where he kept his wrist watch, where it was protected, easily accessible as a pocket watch, and most importantly because there next to his skin, under the skirt of his Burberry coat, the Borgel-cased (and expensive) wrist watch was kept warm enough to keep accurate time. You can't put a steel knife into a pocket where you keep your watch because it would destroy it. Please note that according to Thom Pollard there was nothing else in that trouser pocket except the watch. Why alone? To make it easy to pull it out and check the time. Also, if you look at the first photo of Mallory's wristwatch when it was just removed from Thom's baggie at Base Camp. You can see there how the straps were still folded under the bottom of the watch to keep the dial and face in unimpeded view. The 1920s were still a time when pocket watches were the norm and wristwatches the oddity.
    ====

    So there is something else that had been in that pouch before Jake and Tap opened it. I'm talking about the photo of his beloved wife Ruth, and probably at least one letter from her. No photo of Ruth was found among the papers and letters Mallory carried that day. Such a photo is conspicuous by its absence. People in those days were sentimental and George Mallory was particularly so. Later, after the 1999 expedition, Mallory's daughter Claire asked whether her mother's photo was found on his body. She said Ruth had told her that George had promised her to leave her photo on the summit of Everest, the height of his greatest triumph. Isn't it likely that's what he did, and isn't it likely that he carried her photo to the summit in that very pouch?

    1. Hi John, running around a lot lately, but didn't want you to think I'm ignoring you! I'll reply later today or tomorrow to your questions!

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