The Last Step But One

by JAKE NORTON

January 2023
Some additional thoughts on Noel Odell's final view of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on June 8, 1924. Did he see them on the Second Step? The First? The Third? Or, might he have seen them somewhere else, hiding in plain sight?

Following up on my post last week on what Noel Odell could see on that fateful day, June 8, 1924.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it recently, and have come back to a theory which hit me on April 28, 2001, as Brent Okita and I moved up the North Ridge toward the 1924 Camp VI, while following a similar path to Odell 77 years before. I fairly quickly dismissed it as folly, for everything seemed to point to Odell seeing Mallory and Irvine on either the First, Second, or possibly Third Steps. (In October 2021, I was reminded of this old thoughts by a comment from a reader, Milos, on an old Odell post.)

Odell himself vacillated on this many times in his life, but overall seemed fairly set on the climbers being on the Second Step. The issue with this, as has been written and discussed at length, is that he saw them only for a brief time, and in that brief time - maybe five minutes at most - he saw them move from the base of a great rock step, and on to the top.

A single tent under a protective cargo net is perched at 25,600 foot Camp V on the North Ridge of Mount Everest, Tibet. The Northeast Ridge and the First, Second, and Third Steps are clearly visible above. Photo by Jake Norton, 1999.

I’ve struggled with this for decades: How could this timeline make sense? Put simply, it doesn’t. The timing, the description, it just doesn’t add up. Let me explain a bit more:

  • The First Step could possibly match Odell’s sighting, but it is tough for climbers today - with oxygen, fixed lines, and a known route - to ascend it in five minutes; Mallory and Irvine of course did not know the route (which is not obvious), had no fixed lines, and were using a rudimentary-at-best oxygen system. Additionally, the mountain, from what I can tell, was fairly dry up high in ‘24, much like it was in 1999, when there was little snow on the First Step to accentuate the climbers Odell saw.
  • The Second Step is where most of us - myself very much included - have long wanted to believe Odell saw them, for if they were seen atop it at 12:50 PM, there almost no chance they did not make the summit, for at that point all the difficulty would be behind them. But, again, it doesn’t quite add up. The only place on the Second Step where it would be feasible for Odell to have seen them is on top of the Step, or on the direct ridgeline of the Step, which is not a feasible line of ascent. And, Odell noted that he saw them at the base and then the top. Seeing them at the base would be impossible as it’s too dark, and additionally there’s no conceivable way they could climb the Step - or even the final portion of it - in five minutes.
  • The Third Step has been offered up many times, but again it does not really quite make sense to me. First off, Odell was fairly adamant throughout his life that he saw them on the Second Step. Additionally, while it’s the only Step that could realistically be climbed in 5 minutes, it doesn’t align with Odell saying he saw them on a snow crest leading up to the Step, as the Third Step does not have a snow slope at its base.

So, where did Odell see them? I can’t say for sure, but I’ve come back to the old idea I had 22 years ago. I think it likely that Odell did see them on the Second Step, or at least what he may have considered to be part of the Second Step.

Let me explain my thinking a bit: While perhaps not official names, the first two steps it seems were noted as such in 1924. In The Fight for Everest, Norton writes of the Northeast Ridge route: “There was always the doubt that a feature in this route, which we called the second step, might cause considerable difficulty…” (Emphasis mine.) Note his language - which we called - indicating that referring to the Second Step as such was common on the expedition. So, we can infer that Odell - and everyone else - knew the First and Second Steps by those monikers.

Interestingly, though, in his accounts, Odell does not say he saw them on the Second Step. Rather, in the official account, he says he saw them on the “last step but one from the base of the final pyramid.” If it was the Second Step, why didn’t he say that, write that? Why, instead, did he say “the last step but one?” Perhaps because the point he was referencing was not the First Step, and not the Second Step, and not the Third Step - which is never referenced in 1924 and essentially dismissed as a non-obstacle - but instead the last but one?

Take a look at this photo, taken in 2001 from a similar vantage point to Odell in 1924. The First and Second Steps are clearly defined, clear as day. Between them, though, just beyond Mushroom Rock, there is another feature - a rock hump with a snow slope on its northern aspect. Could this be where he saw them? Could this be the “last step but one?” And, if so, why would Mallory and Irvine have been on that feature?

Climbing the North Ridge of Mount Everest off the normal route above Camp V and looking for the 1924 Camp VI, which was found by Jake Norton and Brent Okita on that day. This is a similar location and view to Noel Odell's famed final view of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on June 8, 1924, before they disappeared into the mist.

First, it seems to line up with what Odell said in Fight for Everest 1924:

I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid…

- Noel Odell in Fight for Everest 1924 (on Archive.org)

The rock hump has a snow slope on its north (left hand) aspect. It seems, from a distance - from where climber’s like Mallory and Irvine would stop to take a break and take stock - to lead up to the Second Step.

Sunset panorama of Everest's Northeast Ridge from Camp VI at 27,300 feet. Visible are the First, Second, and Third Steps as well as the Summit Pyramid. Photo by Jake Norton, 2003.

And, if the Second Step is the last step, and the First Step is before it, but there is another, less obvious step-like feature between the two, could it not be therefore the “last step but one?” It seems reasonable.

On the second question - why would Mallory and Irvine possibly be there? - that makes more sense with a visit to Mushroom Rock, a prominent and obvious feature just before it. From Mushroom Rock, the modern route dips considerable below the crest of the Northeast Ridge, climbing the Second Step not from the crest but from well below, using the “Corkscrew Chimney” to access the snowpatch beneath the final headwall. But, this is not obvious, not simple, not at all appetizing, and hard to imagine Mallory and Irvine figuring out this route on the first try.

More likely, from Mushroom Rock, they would be enticed to continue along the crest of the ridge, if for no other reason than to scope out the terrain ahead, get a good view of the Second Step, and see how on earth they might climb it. While it seems counterintuitive to us to go this way - because thanks to a century of climbing it we know which way to go - it would make a lot of sense for Mallory and Irvine to do so. Continuing on the Ridge from Mushroom rock is a more natural, logical route at first blush than descending below along the narrow shelves and exposed benches of the modern route.

Take a look at the photos below to get a better idea:

So, what of it?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There are some out there who would prefer a definitive statement, a conclusion one way or other saying Mallory and Irvine had to have been here, there, or elsewhere. They must have done this, gone this way, picked up this or that, etc. Unfortunately, all of that is hogwash, mere conjecture. All we know is actually quite minimal: They left Camp VI, at some point they left a trail of gear beneath the First Step (a mitten, an ice ax, and an oxygen bottle), and they were last seen at 12:50 PM by Odell.

Do I know this is where Odell saw them? Of course not. It’s just a hunch, a thought, an idea that perhaps adds some fodder to the already rich pile of ideas surrounding their final days and hours. And, perhaps someone with a better brain, better eyes, and less preconception than me can turn my “observation to some account for the purposes of” history.

What do you think?

12 comments on “The Last Step But One”

  1. Greetings Jake. I've a few thoughts on this ... perhaps he said 'last step but one' because there was not yet a definition of the Third Step as ..., well, the Third Step! There does seem to be another hump past the Third Step where the modern route now goes off to the right before going up. Also, I've read of some divergence of opinion on what constituted the 'final pyramid' then (and now?), the idea being that the 'final pyramid' was the clear triangular block that is visibly distinct from the whole mound above the rock band. Given Mallory's great length of time on the mountain, his well-documented route finding skills and his obsession with the mountain, I really doubt he would have gone to the top of the First Step or your 'rock hump', because those clearly just go up and then down and there would be no reason to do that. Still, of course, none of us know and it is endlessly fascinating.

  2. Looking at the pic of the 2nd step and the terrifyingly sheer drop down the north face makes me think, "No way!". Mallory broke his leg, perhaps while attempting the 2nd step, or on the way down the north face with Irvine trying to lower him down. The only way to find out is to locate Irvine's body. Probably covered with rocks by the Chinese.

  3. I think we can rely on Odell's words. "The Last Step but one... "
    Which means that they never got past the second step, I am not a mountaineer , but all the photos of it look terrifying !

  4. I read the second article the day you published it, it's a magnificent series, there are no more riveting and honest presentations on the topic especially with visual support from photographs. I waited for others to comment first as i tend to have a less enthusiastic view on the fate of Mallory and Irvine. I accept the story based on Odell's sighting more as a panegyric in homage to their great adventure rather than verifiable history. Life ends in death for everyone, but in actuality few people really come to term with their future certain death decades ahead of its natural expected time (you kind of need an external trigger to do that like a serious illness, or living through the time of the great plague, the death of a close relative or living through a big war on the front. It is the latter that the two Englishmen experienced). Once you have, you no longer feel apprehension for your own death but rather seem to channel through and connect with the universe while alive and understand that this link will not be lost in death.
    I think an important part of the story of Irvine and Mallory is to exalt the glory of the spirit of adventure. Like the Odyssey of Greek Ulysse whom we don't know was a fictional or historical character who made a big journey to the ends of the earth and almost died many times, people love such lyrical stories, panegyrics of great chiefs. Imagination holds a big place in it, as it does in Irvine and Mallory's final ascent. At some point the story moves from history to myth to better serve the living as the dead no longer need historical accuracy.
    Sometimes such stories become exaggerated, emphatic praise, in an entertaining funny way : "to carry them above the eighteenth firmament. O my minister, I hold you at last! I can perfume you with the pastilles of the seraglio of praise, embalm you with a panegyric of my preparation !" (Reybaud,J Paturot,1842).
    I had another strange idea, while writing this comment, a board game could be created based on Mallory and Irvine's Everest climb with several possible outcomes, random factors from dices rolling and picking from a deck of cards and making the right choices along the path. When the game starts, six hidden cards must be picked by each player each a major challenge or good fortune that will be unveiled during the game. Some combination will decide the death in advance (just like a sudden change in weather, and insufficient gear, or an avalanche and lack of visibility, rock falling etc) but not be known to the player until that time comes. Other players may see the challenges of other players but not theirs, and at some point there must be a form of help between the players to succeed. A player may save another in exchange for beeing allowed to drop one of their challenge. etc..
    Back to Odell, the psychological impact of having to climb down knowing his companions died, can have a strong effect including memory confusion where actual belief and reality become intermingled. Then there is the well known english expression "to keep up the appearances at all costs".
    One would have to study how the british reported world war 1 casualties to get an idea of how willing they were to represent the truth when it's defeat. All to say that i don't entirely rule out the possibility that Odell convinced himself first, then the others that the two climbers had been were he wanted them to be. How worried was he already at the time of his sighting ? They were already much behind schedule and in his mind maybe not vividly but knowingly, he might already have counted their fate as almost sealed. In such state of mind seeing a mirage is possible. Often what happens is such situation is that something that actually happened earlier is altered and taken out of context and re-situated in a fictional setting and may not have occured at the given time but earlier. For example he might have seen Mallory and Irvine much earlier in the day when they were only 1 hour away from his position but with the shock of their imminent disparition he ended up believing to himself (and to keep up appearances) that he saw them much later and much higher up. In such situation the person truly does not believe they are lying, reality becomes blurred. I believe that cannot be entirely ruled out.

    The hard facts, their last possessions found, a pick axe, an oxygen bottle and only one mitten could already foretell a bleaker story. Who would get rid of a mitten such an essential item to avoid frostbites ? to climb a rock face ? I think it's a small indication but a possible indication that things had already gone astray, and i cannot but think of stories of climbers with altitude sickness who started removing their clothes. Also the abandoned pick axe looks like an act desperation to me. I think that they succumbed to exposure and did not have all their mind to themselves their final hour, or was it just one of them. How high did they get ? I would think possibly above the first step at the most. But it does not matter and does not diminish their achievement, the odds stacked against them were enormous and only seen in hindsight, they didn't know. That's the idea for the board game.
    I believe the story doesn't end there. Maybe the Chinese have revelations to make or maybe not..
    Or maybe Irvine is still somewhere on the mountain waiting for that day when someone will find him and the camera.

  5. Back to a previous thought, there were four steps. From where Odell was, the rock band across the bottom of the triangular snow patch on the pyramid could be considered to be a step. I believe that is not actually the "final pyramid", the final is hidden behind this one. This understanding would have them on the Third Step as the last step but one. If it was me, I would have climbed the Third Step to get a better view of possible routes. They were the first up there, there was no established route and a major problem is getting a good view of what is before one. I think they took the Sommerville-Norton route, zig-zagged to the Third Step. From there, there is little doubt they could have made the summit and back in good weather. However, they were last seen enveloped in cloud. I have been enveloped in cloud. You can't see your hand at the end of your arm. Wayfinding is difficult. Issue in doubt.

    1. Merci beaucoup, Pierre, et un Joyeux Anniversaire très en retard ! J'espère que vous allez bien, et j'espère vous revoir bientôt ! (Did Google do a good job? My Mom would be horrified that I'm using Google to speak French!!)

  6. Faszinating thinking, Jake - and an idea that has occasionally came up over the years, namely by Walt Unsworth in "Everest" and, if I remember correctly, by Frank Smythe. I do disagree on one point: You state that "the Third Step does not have a snow slope at its base". When I watched Conrad and Dave approaching the Third Step on May 17, 1999, they crossed a distinctive stretch of snow, which from my position low down on the East Rongbuk Glacier (approx. along the same line of sighting as Odell) looked like part of the ridge crest. It is hidden by the upper edge of the Second Step in your wonderful shot from Camp VI, but it is just visible from the North Ridge - so perhaps in Odell's sight, who was between the two locations.

    1. Thanks, Jochen, as always for your great input and thoughts. I was unaware (or my aged brain just forgot it) that Unsworth and Smythe both noted the same possibility. I'll look for those, but would love it if you have references for those, too. To me, it really does make a lot of sense, and is a place/feature where Odell could easily have seen them. As for the Third Step, I see what you mean - the snow patch is slightly visible (I think it's what you're referring to) in this crop-shot from about Odell's location on the N. Ridge, and totally not visible in this crop from Camp VI. Ah! So many unknowns!

  7. Hi Jake.. just one more question..
    Is it true that Chinese found some oxygen bottles above second step ?
    There is some mention of that

    1. Hi Vukasin,

      I'm not aware of any confirmation that the Chinese found pre-WWII bottles about the Second Step. I've heard rumors over the years, but they turned out to be only that. Do you have documentation of where that came from? If found, that would be ground breaking information!

      Thanks,
      Jake

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