Great Days on Mount Everest

by JAKE NORTON

February 2024
Great days in the mountains don't always mean a summit. Sometimes - perhaps more often than not - they're comprised of exploration, solitude, adventure. Remembering a couple such days on Mount Everest.

It was a great couple days on Mount Everest.

A quiet Camp VI at sunset on Mount Everest's North Face, Tibet, May 19, 2004.

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.

Dave Hahn climbs up the North Face of Everest toward Camp VI on May 18, 2004. Similar to the location where Noel Odell famously made his final sighting of Mallory and Irvine on June 8, 1924.

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.

Sunset from Camp VI at 27,200 feet on Mount Everest's North Face, Tibet, May 18, 2004.

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.

Entering the search terrain covered by Jake Norton on May 19, 2004, high on Mount Everest, Tibet.

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.

The Second and Third Pinnacles on the Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest as viewed from the Northeast Shoulder and site of the 1938 Camp VI, May 20, 2004.

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.”

A full moon rises over Advanced Basecamp on Mount Everest, Tibet. The Rapiu La is the prominent pass on the left, out of which rises the Northeast Ridge.

6 comments on “Great Days on Mount Everest”

  1. Sounds like pure bliss with two great guys.
    Oh the tragic irony of 🇷🇺 🇺🇦 in retrospect.
    Great read, Jake! Thank you.

  2. Hello Jake, just wondering what your thoughts are on the Jamie McGuiness video with Thom and his comments about the Chinese removing Sandy Irvine's body. Thanks for all you do.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your note! I just watched Thom's interview with Jamie last night. While interesting, I personally didn't see anything revelatory or new per se in the interview. It seems to me - spoiler - that the anonymous Sherpa is most likely Chhiring Dorje, who in 1995 was climbing in support of the Japanese 1995 expedition on the Northeast Ridge Direct. Chhiring talked about his find quite a bit in the early days, but then went quiet about it all, likely/possibly because of pressure from or fear of the Chinese authorities. But, from what I know, Chhiring was climbing from below the Third Pinnacle up into the Yellow Band - likely along the Longland Traverse somewhere - when he made his find. Below is a cool shot of entering the Longland from the '95 expedition:
      Entering the Longland Traverse on Mount Everest from the Northeast Shoulder.

      As for the Chinese removing Irvine's body, I think we sadly still don't know for sure what happened. It's a lot of whispers and stories from third parties, but nothing concrete. I think there is a good chance that the Chinese did "clean" Irvine off the mountain, and my guess is that it happened in 2008 when they made a big effort to sanitize the mountain for their torch climb. What they did with his remains (assuming they found him) is sadly a mystery, and one we may never know the answer to.

      I wish I had more concrete info on it all. Here's to hoping someday sooner than later the Chinese will understand that there is nothing to lose by helping tell the full and complete story of 1924.

      Thanks, Robert, and I hope you're well!

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Great Days on Mount Everest

Great days in the mountains don't always mean a summit. Sometimes - perhaps more often than not - they're comprised of exploration, solitude, adventure. Remembering a couple such days on Mount Everest.

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