Mallory & Irvine and the Second Step

by JAKE NORTON

June 2007
Did George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reach the summit of Everest on June 8, 1924? Could they have climbed the famed and difficult Second Step?

It was 83 years ago today that George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine took their final, fateful steps up the Northeast Ridge on Mount Everest, hoping to reach the 29,035 foot Top of the World…and become the first people to do so.

They made it! Picture of Geore Leigh Mallory - Everest pioneer - and his wife, Ruth, along with Mallory's partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine, held by photographer Jake Norton on the summit of Everest on May 30, 2003.
They made it! Picture of Geore Leigh Mallory - Everest pioneer - and his wife, Ruth, along with Mallory's partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine, held by photographer Jake Norton on the summit of Everest on May 30, 2003.

As I mentioned on a CBS segment several years ago, while our 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition team uncovered many clues about the final days and hours of the pioneering duo, we came to no definitive conclusions about the greatest of mountaineering mysteries: Did Mallory & Irvine reach the summit of Everest on June 8, 1924…some 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzin Norgay? (I returned to Everest in 2001 and again in 2004 to search for additional clues, but still no firm answers.)

When asked, as I was today when presenting my Lost on Everest keynote, about whether or not Mallory & Irvine reached the top in 1924, I always am clear about 2 things:

  1. We cannot prove conclusively that Mallory & Irvine reached the top of the world in 1924.
  2. We cannot disprove conclusively that Mallory & Irvine reached the top of the world in 1924.

Basically, we know more than we did before 1999, but still have no firm answers, only conjecture.

Conrad Anker playing on seracs at Advanced Basecamp, Tibet, 2003.

As Kraig over at the Adventure Blog has written, Conrad Anker, Leo Houlding, cameraman Ken Sauls, and several other friends of mine are currently on an expedition to retrace the footsteps of Mallory & Irvine and put more pieces of the puzzle together. Anker and Houlding will climb in vintage gear and the film and support team will take down the ladders and fixed lines on the Second Step to make it look as it did back in 1924.

Interestingly, however, free-climbing the Second Step will not be a first time effort. As noted on MountEverest.net, Spaniard Oscar Cadiach free climbed the Step back in 1985 without oxygen and in full-monsoon conditions. Pretty amazing feat! And, the climb was repeated in 2001 by Swiss climber Theo Fritsche. Interestingly, both Fritsche and Cadiach rated the climb at about 5.7-5.8, which falls within Mallory’s climbing skill level on technical rock.

One thing MountEverest.net and others have left out of the discussion, however, is the 1960 Chinese ascent of Everest via the Northeast Ridge. In that year, the Chinese – who had occupied Tibet since 1949 and thus had open access to the mountain – made the first recorded ascent of the mountain from the north, and climbed the Second Step without the ladder. (That was installed by the 1975 Chinese Everest Expedition.)

What is interesting here is the technique used to ascend the Second Step. With a tag-team approach, climber Chu Yin-hua took off his boots and gloves, stood on the shoulders and then head of teammate Liu Lien-man, and was able to pull himself to the top of the Step that way. He paid dearly with frostbitten fingers and toes, but his efforts enabled his team to reach the top several hours later.

While climbing the Second Step in modern style, using modern technique, is interesting and makes for good film footage, we should not forget that, in Mallory’s day, using the tried-and-true ten fingers – or head standing as the Chinese did – was not only acceptable technique, it was used quite often.

And, let’s remember that Andrew Irvine was over 6 feet tall…probably taller than Liu Lien-man!

Combine those techniques with Mallory’s obsession with reaching the top in 1924, and you have a strong case for them pulling it off.

But, again, we have no proof…either way.

3 comments on “Mallory & Irvine and the Second Step”

  1. I started a preliminary project on the summit times of the Russian Andre B. during the 1996 expedition – and somehow got over to Mallory in the 1922 expedition when crossing the slope he lost seven sherpa. My data suggests, by the names of the Sherpa to each meaning one of the seven days of the week. How this relates to Mallory is: He noted much grief from the loss, and stated this on several occassions as reported in later written books on the subject. What if: Mallory did not plan to come off the mountain? I know that sounds “rather odd”, but there was a matter of trust. Odd Hypothesis – but does open some additional doors to consider both the summit attained and a personally acknowledged debt paid, and of course: the “because they are thier” comments, have always ment to me that Mallory was not being trite in his statement as reported, but refering to the ancient Celtic Ideals and the source thereof

  2. Jake,
    Something occurred to me just yesterday, something about the Second Step, and the embattled attempts to prove that M&I might have climbed it. Like myself and Michael Tracy, you believe that M&I most likely reached the summit.
    [https://jakenorton.com/what-really-happened-to-george-mallory-andrew-irvine-part-ii/]
    However, you also believe that the NE Ridge and Steps may have been their preferred route. You may be right. Odell described the two figures appearing at the base of one of the Steps. First one surmounted the Step 'with alacrity', and then the other did likewise. If this happened at the First or Third Step, or on any other rise along the Ridge except the Second Step, why didn't they proceed roped together in single file, staying close to each other? Could it be that they climbed a rope to the top, which Mallory had set earlier, having free-climbed, with his consummate rock skills, the Second Step? He then descended the rope to test it, to convince Irvine, and to pick up his gear for the ascent. Two on the rope at once would have been hazardous, so they climbed separately. Odell's confusion about the Steps and his surprise at the late hour of M&I's location now becomes understandable, as Mallory must have taken up several hours in performing the feat (like the Chinese in 1960). The seeming 'synchronicity' of Odell's sighting with the climb of the Step was due simply to the opportune break in the weather. The late summitting, and the descent across the Yellow Band after dark, and the consequent mishap now also become understandable.

  3. Jake and mountain friends: With our collective mountaineering and scientific brains, we may in this manner yet hope, in these centennial years, to generate a solution to the Mallory and Irvine mystery. By this I mean we may assemble information, form hypotheses, propose research techniques, and suggest items to be found on the upper slopes of Mt. Everest and specific places to seek them. But no amount of armchair science can yield actual results: discovery can only occur on site, accomplished by real mountaineers and scientists working diligently and in cooperation under specific guidelines for exploration. I believe this is the best approach to success, though I suspect that most of the details will have to be worked out by others more knowledgeable than myself in the practical necessities of the expeditions. I therefore encourage a group effort, and welcome comments posted on all relevant site pages, including my own https://cywelsian.wordpress.com/2021/08/21/mallory-meta-analysis/
    S.I. Wells, Donner Pass, 24 August 2021

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