Laying Everest’s icy secrets to rest

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The members of the first assault on Everest (All photos courtesy of Dudley Green, Mallory of Everest)

The very history of mountaineering hangs in the balance as the 1999 Mallory and Irvine research team ascends the slopes of Mount Everest. They hope to resolve a controversial question that was raised in 1975 by a report of a frozen corpse. The team is searching for that as yet unidentified body and a camera that could contain evidence that two English mountaineers, Mallory and Irvine, conquered Mount Everest 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the official first men to summit Everest.

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Irvine, sans glace

On the 8th June, 1924, in the upper Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest, geologist Noel Odell squinted up into the sun, focusing on the figures of his fellow team members. High in the heavens, the two English mountaineers were battling the perilous mountain. Odell watched Mallory and Irvine painstakingly climb the treacherous escarpment. Suddenly a swirl of cloud obscured them from Odell’s view. He grabbed his diary and wrote: “At 12:50 saw M&I on ridge nearing base of final pyramide.” Little did he know that this moment would be the last time anyone would see Irvine and Mallory alive.

Nor has anyone seen Irvine and Mallory dead – or not conclusively.

In 1979 a Japanese mountaineer named Ryoten Hasegawa, exhausted from stumbling throuh the Everest snow, faced another kind of stumbling block: a language barrier. A Chinese mountaineer earnestly gestured and repeated a word they had in common: “English. English.” After a charade-like exchange Hasegawa understood that during the Chinese expedition of 1975, Wang Hongbao, an old Everest hand, had found two dead people. The first was an already identified corpse from 1934. But the identity of the second corpse was more enigmatic. Wang Hongbao indicated that the second body was at 8100m. He led Hasegawa to understand that this body was also English, and clothed in old style mountaineering garb. Furthermore, these clothes were fragile, crumbling at Wang’s touch, and blowing away on the wind.

Perhaps Hasegawa might later have garnered better details from Wang with the help of a translator – but fate intervened. The Chinese mountaineer’s find proved to be a portent of his own death. The day after he told his story, he was silenced forever in a fatal avalanche. Everest claimed him just as it claimed Irvine and Mallory.

Did Wang find the bodies of Irvine or Mallory? The story’s very uncertainty and openness to interpretation has inspired Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld to initiate the first pioneering research. All they have to work with are second hand accounts of agitated gestures in the cold, speaking across cultural divides, and men disappearing on a perilous mountain.

The most important aspect of Irvine and Mallory’s difficult legacy is whether or not they made it to the top of Everest. This question leads right to a dispute over exactly where the geologist Odell saw the two mountaineers in 1924. While his diary implies that they were on the Third Step, only a short distance from the summit, modern mountaineers disbelieve his account. Their reason is simple: it’s too difficult for two men, in a time when Everest was terra incognito, to have made it that far. Odell himself was persuaded that it must have been the lower and easier First Step that he saw the pair on. As well, Mallory and Irvine did not have the help of the Second Step ladder, which covers the final vertical section. It was placed by the Chinese in 1975 and has been used by every North Ridge climber since. Only one other expedition has ever ascended the Second Step without the ladder – the Chinese in 1960. The “mountain-too-high” proponents offer the opinion that Everest was technically impossible in 1924.

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Mallory and Irvine about to leave camp IV on the North Col for their final attempt on the summit, 6 June 1924. Photo: courtesy of Dudley Green, Mallory of Everest.

There is another speculative, grisly story that explains how Mallory could have made the ascent despite the overwhelming odds. Irvine was in his late twenties in 1924. Mallory was in his thirties, and had twice been defeated by Everest. Mountaineers tell stories about the mental extremes caused by Everest. The “Mallory-made-it” camp proposes that Mallory was obsessed, and he succeeded in conquering Everest by abandoning his young partner and refusing to listen to reason about turning back. He knew that time and energy were running out, and that the peak almost certainly meant death – and he chose to go for the peak.

In all likelihood, speculation about Mallory’s mental health will never be confirmed. Certain verifiable facts are proving to be equally as elusive. Attempts to prove Mallory and Irvine’s location is further confused by the 1933 Everest expedition’s discovery of Irvine’s ice axe 230m east of the First Step. Is it a valid lead, or did he just abandon it? Further grisly clues have been provided by the paths that the bodies of other fallen climbers have taken. Wu Tsung-yueh died in a fall near the First Step at 8500m and came to rest at 8100m, the same height Wang found the mysterious English body at. First, is it Irvine or Mallory’s body at 8100m? Could one of the team have fallen going up the First Step? Or — most importantly — did Mallory and Irvine summit and then fall going down the First Step?

Holzel and Salkeld have few facts and many questions. Almost 13 years after they started asking questions, a team of mountaineers have formed to solve the mystery, including 10 Americans, two Britons, one German and 12 Nepalese Sherpa guides. Their main goal is to find that all important camera. Eastman Kodak, the camera’s manufacturer, says the frozen film could be processed if the camera has remained intact and has not been exposed to light. Until the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition conclude their quest, Mallory and Irvine’s legacy is mere speculation. If the Englishman’s body can be found, and if he has the camera, and if he did take pictures when or if he reached the summit, the impact reaches into the history books. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, who history states were the first to reach the summit on May 29th, 1953, must toss away their laurels. If the camera contains summit pictures, Mallory and Irvine, at such horrific cost, are first to have stood on the highest mountain in the world.

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