It was a great couple days on Mount Everest.
Twenty years ago, the mountain was a lot different than it is today. Absent were the crowds and massive commercial expeditions, especially on the Tibetan side of the peak. Russell Brice and Dan Mazur had big expeditions, but the rest were fairly humble affairs with but a handful of climbers. Daniele Nardi climbed solo up the North Face/Great Couloir, while a powerful Russian-Ukranian (tragic irony) team forced a new route up the North Face’s Central Pillar.
For Dave Hahn and I, the relative solitude was a blessing. Not only did it offer a quieter, simpler experience on the mountain, but we’d also be able to break off the climbing route high on the mountain to do some extra-curricular exploration.
We were there in 2004 to follow up on an account from Chinese climber Xu Jing who, in 2001, said that in 1960 he found a body high on the mountain. Xu had been descending from the Chinese Camp VII high on the Northeast Ridge, and made his sighting in the Yellow Band. With no other known corpses that high on the mountain at that time, if Xu indeed saw a body, it had to be that of Andrew Irvine. Having been a part of the 1999 and 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expeditions, Dave and I were well-steeped in the story of 1924 and were back once more to try to put together more pieces of the puzzle.
As a small team - just Dave and I on the hill, assisted up to Camp VI by our friends and climbing Sherpa Danuru and Tashi - we could be pretty nimble on the mountain, moving when it worked best for us, dancing around the machinations of other teams more fixated on the summit. Per usual, the weather dealt us some blows in 2004, disrupting our acclimatization and slowing some progress.
But, by May 17, we had one round of acclimatization under our belts with a night at Camp VI, and were back up for another round. The goal was, admittedly, a bit hazy: our hope, based on the information we had, was to explore some of the Yellow Band from a fall line between the First Step and the Warts (AKA, Twin Towers) on the Northeast Ridge. In theory, this would get us into terrain likely traversed by Xu Jing in 1960 as he descended the mountain and made his sighting.
The challenge, of course, was this was (and remains) pretty uncharted terrain, and not super receptive to unprotected exploration. Dave, being the older and wiser of our duo, didn’t love wandering about small ledge systems on downsloping, fractured limestone with 10,000 feet of exposure below. Being younger and dumber, I was less bothered by the implications of it all, and thus spent much of May 18 poking about, traversing one ledge system to another far off in the Yellow Band, looking, hoping, yearning to find something, to see something, to discover some bit or piece of evidence from June 8, 1924.
Alas, the mountain - and the mystery - had different plans. Despite a lot of walking, scrambling, crawling, panting, staring, looking, pondering, and repeating, Dave and I found nothing. No sign of climbers from 80 years prior, no Andrew Irvine tucked, tragically, in a rocky dihedral (as one translation of Xu Jing’s account attested), no information, no answers.
Of course, that’s not to say it was a waste. Far from it. We covered ground, old and new; we found “new” camps (1960 Chinese Camp VIIa and 1938 Camp VI); we made it home in one piece. And, we had freedom on the mountain: the opportunity to move freely high on Mount Everest - to climb and explore outside the confines of a route or summit plan, with no rope or protection aside from my own (hopeful) skill and sense - was pure bliss, a rare experience anymore on Everest. I could move as a climber, picking the logical path to a logical goal, adjusting course as terrain and ability and conditions allowed or dictated, rather than simply clipping a fixed line and following footsteps.
I was, without doubt, in my happy place, a place of exploration and newness, a small brush with, in George Mallory’s words, “the spirit of adventure [that keeps] alive the soul of man.”