On June 8th, 1924, two British
climbers—Mallory & Irvine--were spotted from below clambering over one of the
major remaining obstacles of their route. The summit of Mt. Everest was only
a few hours away. Swirling mists closed in and they were never seen again.
Their disappearance left unanswered a question that has haunted mountaineers
ever since: Had they reached the top? Even Sir Edmund Hillary—the first to
certainly reach the top (and to return)—looked for signs of any possible
Early Everesters didn’t think so.
Subsequent Pre WWII expeditions during better weather and with greater
resources were thwarted by the immensity of the challenge. But one thing was
left out of the early pessimistic assessments—the effect of the controversial
use by the two climbers of “artificial” breathing oxygen. Many contemporaries
felt its use was unsporting, and angrily discounted evidence to show that
climbing speeds easily doubled with its use.
The next expedition, that of 1933,
retraced Mallory & Irvine’s steps and discovered one of their ice axes some
250 yards from the First Step obstacle. For decades, that was the only other
clue as to their fate. In the early 1970’s I studied the best available
topographic maps of Mt. Everest, and notice that the site of the ice ax lay
above a large snow terrace. Would a falling climber come to rest on the
“8200m Snow Terrace”? And if so, would the cameras each of them was known to
be carrying, still hold the answer of how high they got? After extensive
tests, Eastman Kodak thought “fully printable images” could be obtained if the
camera was found intact.
The north side of Mt. Everest lies in
Tibet, which was closed to foreigners after WWII. In 1960, the Chinese, who
now controlled the country, launched a large expedition via the Mallory &
Irvine route, and apparently succeeded in reaching the summit. There was no
news of any clues. It was only in 1979 that a rumor wafted through the
mountaineering ether that the secretive Japanese Alpine Club had obtained the
first permission to make another attempt.
After asking them to be on the lookout for
any clues on the 8200m Snow Terrace, the JAC wrote back to reveal an
astounding new clue: A Chinese porter on the massive 1975 Chinese Mt. Everest
expedition described finding an “English dead” on the North Face at 8100m.
When he touched the body, the clothing “danced in the wind.” The day after
giving the Japanese climbing leader his revelation, Wang Hung-bao died in an
avalanche! Given the location at the bottom of the 8200 Snow Terrace right
below the ice ax site—it could only be Mallory or Irvine.
I mounted an expedition in 1986 to search
the terrace for possible clues. The expedition was snowed out and we returned
empty handed—except for one new clue. Meeting with the tent-mate of the
Chinese porter Wang, we learned that—in spite of official Chinese denials,
yes, Wang had told his fellow climbers about discovering “a foreign
The next break came with the Eric
Simonson’s fabulously successful expedition of 1999. Using a search protocol
developed by Everest historian Jochen Hemmleb, climber Conrad Anker wandered
out from the 8100 Chinese bivouac and stumbled onto the body of George
Mallory. This sensational discovery was trumpeted in newspaper headlines
around the world. In spite of rope trauma mottling around Mallory’s waist
indicating that they fell together, a through search of the body and
surrounding terrain revealed no sign or Irvine—and no sign of a camera.
Many theories arose about what Irvine’s
fate may have been since that historic discovery. The two most likely
possibilities are that Irvine continued his fall over the edge of the 8200m
Snow Terrace, or that Irvine only fell a short distance before the rope broke
and, mortally injured, struggled on back to their highest camp—which he did
not reach. One additional clue was that the two climbers left much important
climbing gear (flares, lamps) in their high tent, to save weight and allow a
quick dash to the summit. This suggests that only a single camera was taken,
as well. This would undoubtedly have been carried by Irvine—a prolific
photographer, and therefore in a position to take a snapshot of Mallory
standing at their highest point, holding up his custom-made 30,000-ft
But where was Irvine and his camera to be
found? A reasonably widespread search of the ice ax fall-line turned up
nothing. Over the intervening years, a number of North Face climbers have
reported a number of tantalizing clues. Some acute photo analysis of random
images taken on the North Face, added additional information. One of the
1960’s Chinese climbers described spotting a body lying wrapped up in a what
appeared to be a sleeping bag—but off-route in a rather unusual location.
For the past 2-3 years, EverestNews.com has been quietly
compiling other reports, and organizing them for relevance and probability. A
few months ago, the newest information caused this accumulation of facts to
reach a critical mass. Now it could be said with almost certainty: Irvine had
been sighted. It appears EverestNews.com are going to try to pull this off and
go get the camera…
Mallory and Irvine The Final Chapter: The retrieval of the camera
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