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  The Great Mystery© 2003 by Tom Holzel


 Mt Everest

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 predecessors.

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 mountaineer.”

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 altimeter.

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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