Most of us know the basics: On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set off from their high camp at roughly 27,000 feet on Everest’s North Ridge. That day, at 12:50 PM, their teammate, Noel Odell, last saw the pair less than 1,000 feet from the summit…just before they disappeared into a pre-monsoon snow squall. Mallory & Irvine reappeared only in the pages of history.
And, so began the greatest mystery of mountaineering – perhaps the greatest mystery of all exploration: Did George Mallory & Andrew Irvine reach the summit of Everest in 1924, a full 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary & Sherpa Tenzing Norgay climbed the mountain from the Southeast Ridge?
In recent years, and in recent weeks, there has been much talk in the news about the mystery of Mallory & Irvine. From the new film The Wildest Dream to Jeffrey Archer’s Paths of Glory to recent news that Julia Roberts has teamed up with Kevin Townsend and Shekhar Kapur for a major production on the mystery, to the fact that there are people as we speak scouring the upper North Face of Everest looking for more answers, there is a lot of Mallory & Irvine buzz out there.
And, since it is now eleven years since I stood with my teammates Conrad Anker, Dave Hahn, Tap Richards, and Andy Politz, high on the North Face of Everest as we investigated the remains of George Mallory, I thought I’d take some time to offer up my opinion on what really happened to Mallory & Irvine so many years ago.
Let me first start by saying it is simply that: opinion. No one…well, no one but Mallory & Irvine…knows for sure what happened on that fateful day. No one can say with any degree of certainty that they reached the top on June 8, 1924, and likewise no one can say with any degree of certainty that they did not reach the top. It is simply a game of conjecture and personal opinion.
So, I will offer mine, which is based on my own personal bias, but also on a lot of experience with the story, the mystery, and the mountain:
- 1999: I was a member of the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, and was present when we found Mallory’s remains on May 1, 1999.
- 2001: I was a member of the 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition. On that expedition, I found the remains of the 1924 Camp VI on the North Ridge, and many other artifacts from the pre-World War II era.
- 2003: I climbed the Northeast Ridge, reaching the summit via the intended route of Mallory & Irvine.
- 2004: I returned to the Northeast Ridge with Dave Hahn for a small scale search expedition. I searched and scoured most of the prominent gully systems in the Yellow Band, a place many believe holds potential answers. I also located the remains of the 1938 Camp VI on the Northeast Shoulder, earning the dubious distinction of being the only person to visit and document all pre-World War II high camps on Everest.
Additionally, I have been asked to consult on various film projects on the history and mystery of Mallory & Irvine, and have written extensively on the subject on my blog and elsewhere.
So, the mystery: We should start with the relatively little that is known about the duo’s disappearance in 1924:
- As mentioned, Mallory & Irvine were last seen by their teammate, Noel Odell, at 12:50 PM disappearing into a monsoon squall. Their location was most likely atop either the First or the Second Step; as Odell put it, they were on top of “the great rock step at a short distance from the base of the final pyramid.”
- In 1933, British climber Percy Wyn-Harris stopped on some limestone “terraces” just below the First Step to warm his cold feet. Looking into the rubble of the Yellow Band below him, he noticed some wood. Investigating, he found an ice ax which was later determined, most believe, to be Andrew Irvine’s ax. (We know it had
to be either Mallory or Irvine’s, as no one else had been to that point on the Northeast Ridge aside from them.)
- In 1960, Chinese climber Xu Jing was ascending through the Yellow Band toward the Chinese Camp VII on the Northeast Ridge and spotted a body. He first recounted his discovery to Jochen Hemmleb and Eric Simonson after our 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, and later elaborated to several other interested parties. While the details are shrouded somewhat by forty plus years of time, Xu consistently places his “body” in the Yellow Band en route to the Northeast Ridge crest. His description seems to indicate the body was sitting upright in the lee side of a dihedral, or “open book”, in the Yellow Band strata.
- Fifteen years later, in 1975, another Chinese climber, Wang Hung Bao, saw a (presumably) different body in a 20 minute vicinity of Chinese Camp VI on the North Face. He later described the body as an “English dead”, noting to Japanese climber Hasegawa that the clothing disintegrated when he touched it, and it’s “cheeks” had been pecked at by birds. (Massive Tibetan ravens, called goraks, are commonly seen high on Everest, scavenging camps and human remains.
- In 1999, our expedition discovered the remains of George Mallory at nearly 27,000 feet on the North Face. Important artifacts recovered include his watch, altimeter, detailed equipment lists and notes, goggles, and climbing rope. Also of great import was the discovery of numerous, severe injuries sustained in a fall, or falls.
Additional discoveries were made by cameraman Thom Pollard and Andy Politz on May 17, 1999, when they revisited Mallory’s remains and found his watch and discovered a severe head wound. On that same day, Tap Richards and I re-discovered and recovered Oxygen Bottle #9 from just below the First Step. Seen by Eric Simonson in 1991, this was one of Mallory & Irvine’s oxygen bottles from their summit attempt.
- In 2001, I discovered with Brent Okita the remains of the 1924 Camp VI on the North Ridge at just under 27,000 feet. Very few items were found in the camp remains. Additionally, I discovered a heavy, woolen mitten at the top of the “Climber’s Gullies” on the Northeast Ridgecrest, which could have been either Mallory or
Irvine’s mitten, but realistically tells us very little.
There is a substantial amount of additional research and findings, done through the hard work, passion, and effort of many people, including Jochen Hemmleb, Tom Holzel, Pete Poston, Phil Summers, and others. I would suggest that anyone interested read more online, since this is, as noted, simply one of many theories on the fate of Mallory & Irvine.
So, there we have the beginnings…Too much to write in simply on post, so please stay tuned for Part II of the story where I’ll go in depth into what I believe happened to Mallory & Irvine 86 years ago.