Could They Have Climbed the Everest: Part 2 of the Story of Mallory and Irvine

The discovery of George Mallory's body throws up interesting questions in the circumstances that led to their deaths.

This is the second part of Ajay Dandekar and Philip Summers’ series on the baffling and enduring mystery of mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Read part one here.

Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here.”

– George Leigh Mallory.

Just what happened to George Mallory and Andrew Irvine back in June 1924 on their ill-fated attempt to become the first to stand on the summit of the highest mountain in the world? 

Could they have done it, did they actually do it and is there any evidence to suggest that?

Mallory and Irvine were last seen by their support climber Noel Odell at 12.50 pm, high on Everest’s North East Ridge and still climbing as the obscuring mists suddenly cleared allowing Odell at 8000 metres to see two black dots climbing in sequence on a mysterious rock step called the 2nd Step located on the ridge at 8610 metres and seen as the main barrier to the summit.

They both appeared to climb the step before the clouds swept in, again concealing the pair and they were never seen alive again. 

Since that last sighting however debate has raged and opinions changed too as human frailty and politics vie to determine whether Mallory and Irvine could have been the first to reach the top of the world.

In the intervening years though  the mountain has yielded some clues about their epic climb. 

In 1933, on the fourth British Expedition to the mountain, Percy Wyn Harris and Lawrence Wager, on their summit attempt left their high camp at 5.30 am and climbed diagonally up towards the ridge. 

The Summit ridge of Everest with the three rock-steps ascending from left to right.
Note the jagged 2nd Step in the ridge and the small 3rd Step at the base of the final pyramid.

In the words of Hugh Ruttledge the expedition leader, Wyn Harris, “who was leading, found the ice axe about 60 feet below the crest of the ridge and 250 yards east of the First Step…..it was laying free on smooth, brown “boiler-plate” slabs, inclined at an easy angle but steepening considerably just below.” It clearly belonged to either Mallory or Irvine.

It was only in the 1960’s that the ice axe was seen as belonging to Irvine via three notches that he carved into his kit as an identification marker. The ice axe was seen as a sign of an accident site where Irvine roped to Mallory, both fell to their death and the ice axe was flung aside in panic. Others suggest, perhaps Irvine attempted to belay a falling Mallory with both hands and so discarded and lost his ice axe? 

By the late 1970’s rumours from a Chinese expedition emerged of a dead body found by the climber Wang Hongbao during a short foray from their Camp VI. Wang himself, in 1979 on a joint Chinese-Japanese expedition narrated the story to a Japanese climber Hasegawa. In all possibilities Wang had found either Mallory or Irvine. Unfortunately, Wang himself died on the mountain and the location of the “English dead” went with him. 

Then in 1991 Eric Simonson accidentally found an old oxygen bottle just below the First Step, did it belong to the English pair? The reported discovery of the ‘English dead’ at 8100 metres rekindled once again speculation about Mallory and Irvine.

A rare view of the terrain very close to the 8475 metres #9 oxygen cylinder location. Note the “footpath” like rock slabs where in 1933 Irvine’s ice axe was found at lower left of image.

Into this debate then stepped a young German student studying geology at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, one Jochen Hemmleb whose passion was the mystery of Mallory and Irvine.

Already one of the world’s leading experts on the history of Everest expeditions, it was Hemmleb who provided the decisive breakthrough in the research by accurately calculating the location of the 1975 Chinese Camp VI by correlating existing photographs of the Chinese campsite with topographical features on the mountain. 

It was from this camp located at around 8150 metres that Wang had ventured out in 1975 on his now famous ‘walk’ and stumbled on the ‘English dead’.

Hemmleb’s proposed focii for searching for the “English dead” centred on the Chinese Camp VI, so now with its position now determined, any future search would be simplified greatly.

Eric Simonson and Jochen Hemmleb were fated to be together, with Simonson as the expedition leader and Hemmleb its foremost researcher in an expedition that was solely devoted to find out what had happened to Mallory and Irvine.  

The key to the search was the physical identification of the location of Chinese Camp VI which Hemmleb had pinpointed. Thus, if searchers could find the Chinese Camp VI, they would soon find the “English dead”. 

So, on May 1, 1999, a group of climbers were spread out across the north face of Everest moving west. This wasn’t an ordinary summit attempt, instead this was one of the first expeditions dedicated to solving one of the great mysteries of the age and certainly in mountaineering.

One of the climbers, Conrad Anker moved down rather than up in the general search area and soon found what the expedition was looking for, the “English dead”, they had found the remains of George Leigh Mallory himself!.

Mallory’s body was studied “in situ” and revealed to be mummified in the cold dry air, however later analysis did reveal many clues and new information identified by Hemmleb and his associates. Irvine’s body though was nowhere to be seen in the area.

Mallory appeared to have sustained a fall from higher on the mountain, but from the limited extent of his injuries, it appeared that a continuous fall from the ice axe site seemed unlikely as the 1933 expeditioners concluded. The ice axe site though is still a possible location for a minor fall in the evening which saw Irvine abandon his ice axe and with both arms try to belay a falling Mallory?

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With a broken leg, puncture wound to the forehead and various dislocations, cuts and bruises, Mallory’s injuries pointed to a short fall that may have been self-arrested by him gripping the ground and finally sliding to a halt. 

Intriguingly, a thin cotton rope was wrapped about his torso and legs but having two broken ends. Added to this was significant bruising and even the imprint of the rope on the skin of his upper left side torso which indicated some great force was applied to pull the rope up and causing the bruising to his torso. 

This must surely mean that Mallory was either roped to Irvine as he fell to his death or the rope was tied to a boulder perhaps as Mallory alone tried to ascend, but an overstrained rope broke sending him to his death!

Significantly, his snow goggles were in a pocket, which tacitly indicated a late descent probably at night as a spare pair seemed unlikely due to the very limited number of items he carried. 

Also curious was the fact that his wristwatch and altimeter were broken with the glass face on both devices missing but no oxygen apparatus or camera was ever found on his body, which implied that once the oxygen expired, the apparatus was discarded on elsewhere on the mountain.

Curiously, the fact that Mallory had the time and inclination to remove his broken watch and store it along with his broken altimeter suggests this was done still with sufficient light and good weather, either on their ascent or during his descent while there still was some light.

However, there were blood stains on his sleeve but oddly none on his pocketed handkerchief which may indicate that Mallory sustained a minor fall and was slightly injured but required a rapid descent with Irvine’s help toward camp? Ironically Mallory and Irvine’s Camp VI was just 200 metres away from the location of Mallory’s body!

Other curious facts centre on Mallory’s posture as the climbers in 1999 had to basically “excavate” his body from the frozen scree and rock, which means that Mallory was unmoved since 1924 but the broken rope ends were located to either side of his body and below his head and torso which is a glaring anomaly as if Mallory slid to a self-arresting halt, then by rights the trailing rope ends should have stopped soon after he stopped and thus be located above his headline.

This suggests that Mallory may have survived for a short time and may have tried to drag himself uphill some distance and enough that the rope ends finished up frozen to the ground below his head and torso line after Mallory expired.

Also curious was the discovery of a small satchel-like pouch that would be draped around his neck by a strap, however the second one was missing which may mean that it’s still somewhere on the mountain and may contain further artefacts such as a missing camera or notes. 

Kinematic analysis of Mallory’s fall suggests that a closer examination above his fall line still may yield lost items like the second satchel pouch that were ripped off by the fall’s violence?

Also read | An Enduring Mystery on Everest: The Story of Mallory and Irvine

However, the most intriguing clues centre on the scribbled notes he had on various envelopes and papers which detailed for the first time the precise logistical preparation and thinking Mallory had made. 

Everything from spare sleeping bags to a mysterious 5th oxygen cylinder called #9, whose pressure was listed with others. It was #9 cylinder that was found in 1999 at 8475m and may have been the first cylinder to be discarded as Mallory and Irvine neared the rock steps on the ridge and it was the same oxygen cylinder that Simonson had seen below the First Step in 1991. That cylinder too was retrieved by the 1999 expedition party.

Further by combining the altitude gain, known capacity and flow rates of the #9 cylinder, it’s possible to compute their climb rate that morning at approximately 275 vertical/feet per hour which was reasonable under the circumstances but would lead by the time the 2nd Step was climbed with   likely just on or above the step itself.

However the strange list of 5 oxygen cylinders with their pressures measured and mentioned found on Mallory’s person seemed to be earmarked for the summit climb and we now know were definitely carried holds out the intriguing possibility of a spare cylinder for redundancy or mishap and may have been used “in extremis” by one climber to continue above the 2nd Step and closer to the summit itself alone!

How far a man could continue alone is still debated, but certainly the upper slopes of the final pyramid and even the final 125 metre long summit ridge itself would be possible with that last oxygen bottle, taking them tantalisingly close to the summit!

The long “plateau” above the 2nd Step leading to the 3rd Step and final snow pyramid with the summit proper some 125 metres beyond the apex of the snow pyramid.

Mallory’s notes point to a well-prepared final summit attempt and suggest he and Irvine were maximising their efforts as best they could with as much redundancy as possible in case of failure.

It suggests an early departure likely before dawn if possible. A spare cylinder (#9) was taken, perhaps at the insistence of Irvine together with other items to increase their success.

The ridge was reached late in the morning and the first cylinders expended soon after with the rock steps gained around the middle of the day, 

The ridge to the 2nd Step is difficult and exposed but by 12.50pm when Odell spotted them their alacrity on the 2nd Step suggests they were still strong and desperate enough to keep climbing as time was fast running out!.

Once above the 2nd Step though they had important decisions to make and that is where the supposed 5th cylinder may have come into its own, with perhaps one man continuing on and the second man finding a place to rest and wait, as the leader continued alone?

Philip Summers is an Australian researcher, historian and writer with a particular interest in the early British Pre-War Everest expeditions and the Soviet/Russian Space programme to the present day. He can be contacted at everest1924@mail.com.

Ajay Dandekar is a Professor in the Department of History, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR. He can be contacted at: ajayd16@gmail.com.

This is the second part of Ajay Dandekar and Philip Summers’ series on the baffling and enduring mystery of mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Read part one here.