Minute Plans and a Missing Camera: Part 3 of the Mystery of Mallory and Irvine

The discovery that George Mallory's camera is absent from his body pushes researchers to lean closer to the conclusion that he did, in fact, climb the Everest.

This is the third and final part of Philip Summers and Ajay Dandekar’s series on the baffling and enduring mystery surrounding the death of mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Read part one here and part two here.


“Some day you will hear a different story.”

– George Mallory

Since 1999 when Mallory’s frozen body was discovered, the expectation was that an answer to the saga may finally be at hand.

However, although much has been learnt, a definitive answer to the question of whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit has remained more elusive with many outstanding questions still unanswered. Nonetheless, research has continued around the world and new ideas have emerged that paint a more complex picture of Mallory and Irvine’s summit attempt, consistent with the new data that emerged from studying Mallory’s body and his artefacts.

 Officially, Norton and Somervell’s attempt was the last in 1924 as Mallory the designated “climbing leader” had essentially been over-ruled by his colleagues with oxygen use abandoned and replaced by two simplified summit attempts.

As he descended to the North Col on the June 2, Mallory was pre-occupied and perhaps annoyed at losing his last chance for the summit. The fact that Mallory went behind the back of Norton and Somervell whilst they were “out of the way” on their own summit attempt, descended to Camp III to recruit Irvine and his improved oxygen apparatus, together with as many cylinders and porters as he could muster suggests Mallory was unhappy with his situation and determined to not leave Everest so meekly.

Irvine was chosen by Mallory as Irvine by then had become a wizard with the oxygen apparatus and with any summit attempt with oxygen in the play meant that Irvine would have to be a part of it.

The key to unravel the mystery from here lies in essentially three questions:

What was the level of planning done by Mallory and Irvine;

How many bottles of oxygen they carried on the summit day; and

How come Odell saw them rapidly ascend the Second Step in a ‘free climb’ in five minutes whereas it should take a lot more than that?

Let us get the location of all two critical camps, Odell’s location and Mallory’s suggested ascent route inscribed properly as delineated on the picture below.

A superb view from just under the North-East Ridge, looking down and showing the ascent route taken by the 1924 expedition. Note the 1924 Camp V site in blue, Odell’s possible location where he sighted Mallory and Irvine at 8000 metres (yellow oval) and the 1924 Camp VI marked in red. Also of interest in the foreground are the terraced slabs similar to the terrain Irvine’s ice axe was found on in 1933.

As notes recovered from Mallory suggest, the planning by Mallory (with Irvine in agreement) was in fact minute, unusual and detailed and involved a far more complex thinking than the simpler previous attempts.

Studying his notes, it’s clear that Mallory took everything into account that he could, even a spare tent pole for Camp VI as Somervell had lost his ice axe and substituted the pole for his descent to the North Col. Also of interest was the intriguing addition of two extra sleeping bags and mattress’ for the use of Mallory and Irvine, and also one for a porter.

The two extra sleeping bags have a story of their own. 

Departing the North Col, Odell, their support climber, noted that the party did take extra bedding which is consistent with Mallory’s notes. As Somervell noted, all the sleeping bags taken by Mallory and Bruce were intact at Camp V, indeed Odell also used them during his dual visits to the campsite. Camp VI by contrast was stocked with a total of four sleeping bags by the afternoon of the June 7, comprising Mallory’s and Irvine’s new pair and Norton’s and Somervell’s old pair.

What is exciting is that when Odell reached Camp VI on the afternoon of June 8, he only found two sleeping bags inside the single tent, yet Mallory and Irvine took up two extra sleeping bags! Odell on June 10, actually used the two remaining sleeping bags at Camp VI to construct a signal marker to the North Col in the shape of the letter “T”, to signal no sign of Mallory and Irvine and all was lost.

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

So the question remains, where did the sleeping bags of Mallory and Irvine go? 

The answer may well lie in the account from 2001 where the deputy leader of the 1960 Chinese expedition, Xu Jing told Jochen Hemmleb and Eric Simonson that he saw a dead climber with a blackened face in a rotting sleeping bag as he descended to his Camp VI located around 8,100 metres on the north face of Everest, practically the same site as the 1975 Chinese Camp VI. Could Xu Jing have been the first to see Andrew Irvine?

After 2001, the notion of a sleeping bag with Irvine was mostly dismissed, but later reconstruction of the sleeping bags movements demonstrated that four were taken to Camp VI and if Xu Jing is right then Irvine and perhaps Mallory took their sleeping bags on their summit attempt along with their oxygen.

To what end? One possibility would be to extend their timeframe to reach the summit by having some bivouac shelter stored high on the mountain and so not necessarily return to Camp VI or lower by nightfall? If sleeping bags were stored on the ridge, Mallory and Irvine could push towards the summit later into the afternoon and ensure this was reached with or without oxygen and then descend late in the evening to fetch their sleeping bags before dark and bivouac if necessary.

A more realistic possibility, though, would be for one man to use the sleeping bags whilst his companion proceeded to the summit as he waited before they rendezvoused and continued the descent together.

The experience of Somervell in 1924 and later Eric Shipton in 1933 suggests that an ailing climber will pull out and await their companion, so perhaps Mallory and Irvine wanted greater protection for the waiting man as the other went up alone after a point in time, as Norton had done.

Another issue is about how many oxygen cylinders they took with them on the final summit attempt on June 8, 1924. The notes recovered from Mallory by the Simonson expedition in 1999 tell an intriguing story.

On an envelope found on Mallory were some cryptic notations of numbers. They were 100, 110, 110, 110, and 110. Opposite to them were no. 33, no. 35, no. 10, no. 9 and no. 15. These were in fact the pressures in each cylinder and the numbers indicated the cylinders whose numbers identified the pressure in each. One of the five, the oxygen bottle no. 9 was recovered close to the First Step in 1999.

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

So, did Mallory continue to the summit alone with the fifth cylinder whilst Irvine bivouacked in the sleeping bags somewhere above the Second Step awaiting Mallory’s return from the summit? It is an exciting prospect and there are a number of sheltered boulder clusters that Irvine could have used just below the Third Step that are now seen as potential sites for future searches.

There are other anomalies as well!

Mallory in 1999 was found without a pocket camera, yet it is known that he borrowed Somervell’s on the North Col. Irvine too is thought to have carried at least one camera. So why wasn’t Mallory’s camera upon his person as that was surely the one item he would have been mindful of in the summit attempt, as the only verification of a success?

If it were perhaps lost during his fall, it is disingenuous to consider that of all the many items on his person, from bootlaces to a broken altimeter, of all the things the camera was lost! Granted, it is possible as there is a presumed copy of a satchel-like pouch missing from his person in 1999, draped about his neck and worn like a weighted scarf. Could the camera be there, perhaps ripped off during his fall and still residing on the North Face somewhere above on his fall line?

It is possible, but he may also have given the camera to Irvine for safe keeping, especially as his bloodied clothes suggest he sustained a minor accident before his later fatal fall. In this case, a weakened Mallory may well have given his camera to Irvine for safe keeping and if so it suggests that there was something on that camera Mallory very much wanted to keep safe for the world to see.

A view from the summit perhaps?

Logically, if Mallory had a bad day and failed to summit with nothing of importance on the camera, it would simply be forgotten and remain in his pocket as dejected, he and Irvine would then descend to camp with no reason to hand over a camera with no summit photo within! Conversely, a summit photograph followed by fatigue or minor accident may well see Mallory hand over that camera to Irvine for safekeeping lest Mallory fail to make it safe to camp.

Time may tell and if Irvine’s body is ever found, it will be interesting to note if he has Mallory’s camera as well as his own on his body. It is doubtful that any images can be rescued in that moisture rich environment and as the oxidation of Mallory’s recovered artefacts attest, but it may not be necessary to develop any degraded film as the camera itself on Irvine would tacitly indicate a summit by Mallory at least!

The only objection to this logic is if Irvine was the designated photographer for the summit attempt and thus in charge of all the cameras. However, the weakness in that argument is what if Irvine was lost first taking all the cameras with him in a fall, thus most likely each man would keep their own cameras unless there was a need for Mallory to hand his over to Irvine. That may tacitly indicate that Mallory at least did reach the summit!

So up till now here is what we think happened. Mallory and Irvine departed in the early hours, perhaps at the crack of dawn, with five oxygen bottles as well as at least one sleeping bag if not two. They discarded the first bottle near the First Step and continued to the base of the Second Step which is where Odell saw them at 12.50 in the afternoon scaling it “with alacrity”. Given the severity of the Second Step how did they scale it with alacrity? The Second Step is the last major obstacle on that route, and beyond the Step the summit ridge beckons.  

The difficult 2nd step and the main obstacle to the summit on the ridge. A fearsome sight.  At 8610 metres, it’s now affixed with a ladder (first installed in 1975 by the Chinese expedition).   Typically, its takes 1-1.5 hours to reach the base of the 2nd step from the lower 2nd step.  Note the snow patch mid-way up the 2nd step which may have been where Odell first saw Mallory and Irvine at 12.50pm. (Possible ascent path blue line).  Note too the inclined plateau once above the 2nd step that leads to the small 3rd step and final pyramid which is easy terrain. Typical times to reach the 3rd step are around 30-40 minutes.

One possible solution is to look at Odell’s sighting in a different context where basically, suddenly the clouds parted and Odell saw Mallory and Irvine climbing the rock step. Since 1924, it’s been assumed that around 12.50 pm is when Mallory and Irvine actually reached the Second Step and Odell was fortunate to witness this brief vignette.

However, in truth we actually have no idea when Mallory and Irvine reached the Second Step and its equally possible that they could have arrived much earlier whilst still obscured by the clouds to then spend some time investigating routes and that could include Mallory performing a solo climb up the Step, including fixing the rope once at the top to aid Irvine scale the Second Step.

Then Mallory could descend and after a rest and preparation, ascend the Second Step again but now with Irvine and their oxygen with both making use of a fixed rope installed by Mallory a short time earlier. This experience and assistance may well explain the surprising speed of the pair climbing the rock step, as we now know that it takes a lot more time to scale the Second Step.

Another possibility could be to use an ice axe wedged into an off-width crack of the Second Step crux section, and to use that ice axe as a fixed “leg up” to reach the top ledge of the Step? All the above scenarios have evolved since 1999, and are based on several anomalies. They paint a more complex picture of what Mallory and Irvine may have done.

Possibly Mallory never expressed these radical ideas to his colleagues, but we can now discern Mallory’s possible thinking by closer examination of the anomalies in the clues we currently have. Only the discovery and examination of Irvine’s body will determine how accurate is our estimation.

But where is Irvine? The clue to that perhaps is again upon Mallory’s body.

A rare view of Mallory’s left side and shoulder area showing his mummified discoloured skin and intriguingly, a part of the rope with actual imprint marks still visible caused by the force of the rope. Logically, Irvine was most likely at the other end of the rope, trying to belay Mallory’s fall and thus causing these force marks which suggests Mallory and Irvine were together at the end and even today, Irvine’s body is close by.
Photo: Still image from video footage taken by Dave Hahn, May 1, 1999 from archive/J.Hemmleb. Courtesy: Jochen Hemmleb

Finding Irvine somewhere on a terrace low on the slabs of the “Yellow band” rock strata around 8,300 metres and examining his artefacts, especially the cameras, is now paramount to solving the mystery, even if the film can’t be developed, which it probably can’t after all this time.

However, as shown here there are a number of intriguing possibilities supported by some curious anomalies that suggest a far more complex and imaginative plan by Mallory and Irvine, premised on the mindset of a man determined to succeed, bypassing those who would hinder him with their conservatism and prepared to use radical approaches in order to, finally after three expeditions, reach the summit and succeed. There may still be a prospect of confirming that possible summit success by the examination of Irvine’s artefacts if he is ever found.

Crucially, by using the spare fifth cylinder in a solo summit effort whilst Irvine bivouacked below the Third Step in sleeping bags, Mallory would have had a fair chance to summit alone. The fact that his pocket camera is still missing, of all the many items he still had on his person in 1999, suggests that if not lost, Mallory had a good reason to give his camera to Irvine and the only reason for doing so is that his camera may well have reached the summit on June 8, 1924.

So we are left with the tantalising prospect of a possible success, but with troubling questions regarding whether George Mallory led the first successful summit attempt to the top of Everest on the afternoon June 8, 1924. He may have well done so!

It is poignant that on May 14 1995, Mallory’s grandson George Mallory II climbed Mount Everest, scaling the Second Step following the route pioneered by his grandfather and placed his grandparents photograph on the summit.

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.

The rights to all the photographs used are held by Philip Summers.

This is the third and final part of Philip Summers and Ajay Dandekar’s series on the baffling and enduring mystery surrounding the death of mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Read part one here and part two here.