Noel Odell's Final View of Mallory & Irvine, June 8th, 1924

by JAKE NORTON

August 2007
On June 8, 1924, Noel Odell made the final sighting of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on the summit ridge of Everest. What did he see? What could he have seen? And, what can we learn about this final sight, before Mallory & Irvine disappeared into the ether?

As many of you know, the mystery of Mallory & Irvine has been a major part of my life and passion over the years. I’ve written about it extensively here on The MountainWorld Blog, put together a Squidoo Lens a Squidoo Lenson the story, and been fortunate enough to take part in the 1999, 2001, and 2014 Mallory & Irvine Research Expeditions.

A few days ago I was chatting with some friends about Noel Odell’s famous final sighting of Mallory & Irvine on June 8, 1924. If you are not familiar with the story, Noel Odell was a strong climber and Himalayan veteran who was also a member of the 1924 Expedition. While he was not deemed “fit enough” to accompany Mallory on his final, fateful summit bid, Odell did climb up to Camp VI on Mallory & Irvine’s summit day to support them.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Odell’s sighting of the duo going strong for the top would be the final sighting of them alive. Odell later wrote of the sighting:

At 12.50, just after I had emerged from a state of jubilation at finding the first definite fossils on Everest, there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.
[From Gareth Thomas’ excellent website]

This final view, the last sighting of Mallory & Irvine alive, has forever been a source of great debate: Did Odell see them reach the top of the First Step, or the Second Step? If the former, at 12:50 PM, it is doubtful at best that they reached the top, for it would have been already too late in the day. But, if they were atop the Second Step at that time, it is almost unthinkable that they did NOT reach the summit: with all major challenges behind them, it would be smooth sailing from there to the top of the world.

I won’t give my full opinion here and now, but rather would like to share a couple of images with those who are interested.

I took these shots from roughly Noel Odell’s vantage point on the North Ridge while Dave Hahn and I were climbing in 2004. They were taken 2 minutes apart, one zoomed out to roughly the level of the human eye, and the second image zoomed in showing people quite clearly on the ridgecrest.

Take a look, zoom in, pan around, and enjoy the images.

Image #1: The Northeast Ridge of Everest taken at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2004, from roughly Noel Odell’s vantage point when he last sighted Mallory & Irvine on June 8, 1924. Note that this image was taken with a 50mm focal length which is the rough equivalent of the human eye, thus replicating approximately what Noel Odell would have been able to see.

View of the First, Second, and Third Steps of Everest from Noel Odell's vantage point on June 8, 1924, when he made the final sighting of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their fateful summit bid.

View of the First, Second, and Third Steps of Everest from Noel Odell's vantage point on June 8, 1924, when he made the final sighting of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their fateful summit bid.

Image #2: A panorama of the same view taken 2 minutes later at 11:33 AM on May 18, 2004, again from roughly Noel Odell’s vantage point when he last sighted Mallory & Irvine on June 8, 1924. Note that now climbers are clearly visible at Mushroom Rock, on the Second Step, on the Third Step, and one can be made out on the summit pyramid.

Panoramic view of the First, Second, and Third Steps of Everest from Noel Odell's vantage point on June 8, 1924, when he made the final sighting of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their fateful summit bid.

Panoramic view of the First, Second, and Third Steps of Everest from Noel Odell's vantage point on June 8, 1924, when he made the final sighting of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their fateful summit bid.

Do they spark any thoughts or theories? Please feel free to comment and share your views.

One comment on “Noel Odell's Final View of Mallory & Irvine, June 8th, 1924”

  1. More to talk about...

    Good job, Jake, to take and post these shots. I really enjoy your postings. In part 3, your writing of the end of their attempt was thoughtful and poignant.

    My questions are these:

    Why the assumption...and it's practically taken as gospel, these days...that Mallory would have ignored Norton's advice to Mallory that the traverse-to-the-couloir route was doable, in favor of the much more difficult 2nd step? That has never made sense to Me.

    (Incidentally, when Sommervell dropped out, on his and Norton's attempt, he might well have been somewhere just below the Second Step, but wherever he was, both he and Norton surely got a good look at that headwall, as they traversed past it on their way to the couloir. Apparently, they wanted nothing to do with it. It would seem reasonable to assume that they would have informed Mallory of that "pass".)

    Also, nowhere around the first step, nor the second step, is there a snowfield that would match up with Odell's report of the last sighting of the two climbers. In fact, from the vantage point of your camera shots of the Northeast Ridge, it looks to me as if there is no "terrace" that would have supported a snowfield that might have been seen by Odell. All you have are two shots, including the one of people in profile against the skyline, until you get to the pyramid snowfield where you can just make out a climber, against the white snow.
    As what seems to me to be an irrefutable aspect of Odell's account of his sighting of Mallory and Irvine, it appears that there is just no place for a snowfield at either step, that would fit Odell's statement.

    Accepting Odell's initial report of what he saw, for me, puts Mallory and Irvine a short way into the snowfield that is just above the THIRD step. I know that over the years, his certitude on that changed, but I believe that there was a growing "agenda" at that time, to leave the summit unclimbed, for someone else to make it up, and back. As has been speculated, repeatedly calling into question Odell's sighting, e.g., as possibly being birds, etc., could have worn him down and led him to amend his initial statement to accommodate the idea that Mallory and Irvine had failed.

    It's as if people were attempting to push Mallory and Irvine up the second step, no matter that it was completely terra incognito, and very difficult terra, at that. His youth and strength notwithstanding,
    Irvine must have taken a look at that and realized that he'd never attempted anything like it.

    I understand the questions about the timing of the attempt; that is, their daylight start from camp VI.

    I've tried using a scale on some good photos of the NorthEast Ridge, and what I've come up with is that the traverse was about 900-1000 feet, horizontally, from directly below the second step, to the couloir. That's not "as the crow flies: it's adding a little, for up and down scrambling.

    I also scaled the distance from camp VI to the summit, adding in what I thought to be a fair amount of distance for moving up and down. It looks to me to be about a mile-and-a-half, roughly.

    Do you think that's "ballpark"?

    I'm just an armchair mountaineer ( :O) ), but I well understand that a mile-and-a-half, or even 900 feet, at 28,000-plus feet, takes a lot more energy and time, that it does at sea level, or the relative comfort of the Scottish Highlands, for example.

    So much hangs on what Odell saw.

    If his initial observations about their being at the snowfield just above what we now call the Third Step, and their being there at about 1PM, then the odds swing heavily toward their making the summit.

    Timewise, would it have been impossible for them to traverse to the couloir and regain the ridge just above the third step?

    I hope someone joins me on this. The mystery is endlessly fascinating.

    Thanks again, Jake!

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