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History

Why Was 22-Year-Old Andrew Irvine Climbing Mt Everest With George Mallory?

Irvine had hardly any climbing experience at all and at first glance would be an unexpected inclusion to join Mallory's final summit attempt.

“My face is perfect agony. Have prepared 2 oxygen apparatus for our start tomorrow morning.”
∼ Last entry in the diary made by Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine on the North Col on June 6, 1924.

Struggling against the increasing cold, the lone figure at just over 8,300 metres above sea level was the most isolated man in the world, situated as he was on the dark north face of Mount Everest.

Working to keep moving, he realised his only slim chance of survival was now to use the sleeping bags affixed to his back as any descent in these conditions and surviving was near impossible.

A short time ago, his climbing partner had fallen to his death, swallowed up by the black gloom as he fell off the terrace with a cry, unable to be halted. A broken rope was the last contact the climbers had between them. But despite the loss of his friend in what was a stupid, pointless accident, the howling frustration also hurt the lone man as this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen, not after what they had achieved earlier that day!

The only satisfaction was that the lost man’s camera still resided in a safe pocket of the surviving climber, with that one image that would change history.

Thus, the lone figure settled down in his sleeping bags, huddled behind the wind-breaking rocks and cliffs to begin the vigil to await the dawn.

What was the name of the lone figure in this ghastly cold lonely place?

Andrew Irvine was his name; the date was the June 8, 1924 and he was standing on the slopes of Everest.

On June 8, 1924 during a sudden break in the clouds engulfing the North East summit ridge of Everest, George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine were last seen by a support climber far below.

Nearing the base of the final summit pyramid, they were observed climbing a prominent rock step, but the vista soon vanished as the clouds again conspired to obscure the pair. They were never seen alive again.

Also read: Tenzing Norgay Award Winner Accused of Falsely Claiming He Reached Mt Everest Summit

Almost 75 years later, the remains of George Mallory were found in May 1999 well below the ridge. Whilst finding Mallory and the examination of his artefacts did answer some long-standing questions with regard to the epic climb, many more remained unanswered and paradoxically some new ones emerged. Despite many unknowns, there is enough information and clues, together with some new arguments, to now compile a reasonable picture of what happened to Irvine, what he and Mallory did together and where he is currently located.

Included in which is the distinct possibility that Mallory and Irvine adopted a radical plan to reach the summit and a very real possibility of a summit success by at least one of them. There has been an abiding interest in the pair due to the iconic nature of the summit attempt and the spell that Everest cast on Mallory.

But accompanying Mallory was the 22-year-old Irvine, who had hardly any climbing experience at all and at first glance would be an unexpected inclusion to join Mallory’s final summit attempt.

However, Irvine was an adept mechanic who redesigned the fickle oxygen apparatus and coaxed the best from the mechanism, which Mallory recognised was the key to the summit – and thus, by extension, so was Irvine. Combined with his strength, adaptability and friendly nature, he was a worthy counterpart to Mallory. Sadly, Irvine’s exact whereabouts on the mountain is still unknown, so even as we approach the centenary year of their climb within the next three years, Irvine’s story is still to be fully told. But if he were to be found, the examination of his artefacts and comparisons with Mallory would go a long way in providing a final answer to the mystery and tell us more about Irvine’s story on Everest.

But who was Andrew Irvine?

Andrew Comyn Irvine, “Sandy” to his family and friends, was born in Birkenhead on April 8, 1902. The son of a historian, Irvine had his family roots in Whales and Scotland. Irvine, a student of engineering at Merton College, University of Oxford was an excellent rower and was part of the successful rowing team at Oxford University. He was a member of the Merton College Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen which in a way approximated Everest conditions, and he excelled in that frozen environment. He was noticed by the expedition leader, Noel Odell, who was a noted climber and destined to play an important role in Everest history himself, ironically regarding the disappearance of Irvine with Mallory in 1924.

It was Odell who recommended Irvine’s name to the Mount Everest Committee as a possible member of the forthcoming expedition to Everest in 1924 and it was in no small measure due to Odell’s recommendation that Irvine was accepted as a member of the climbing team to join the third British Mount Everest expedition. General Bruce fondly called him ‘our experiment’ as Irvine did not have any prior experience of high-altitude mountain climbing.

Thus, on February 29, 1924 Irvine set sail on SS California from Liverpool for what was to become a legendary climb as his family waved him goodbye from the docks. His younger brother is reputed to have muttered, “Well that’s the last we’ll ever see of him!” One can only imagine the admonitions he received from his parents with those words.

Thus, the young Oxford student embarked on the greatest endeavour of his life. But was Irvine as driven as Mallory to reach the summit of Everest? Early clues to that question are linked to the original composition of the summit teams that were devised well before the expedition party reached the Everest base camp. In fact, the early composition was announced to the members even before they reached Shekhar Dzong as they crossed Tibet.

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

We know this from the notes in Irvine’s diary as reproduced in Julie Summers’ poignant work on her grand uncle. The tentative teams and the summit plan itself had Mallory’s clear “signature” as announced in the meeting held around April 21, 1924.

Initially Odell and Bruce would establish Camp V, then other teams would establish two more camps at 26,500 ft and 27,300 ft with the first non-oxygen attempt conducted by Norton and Somervell and the oxygen attempt by Mallory and Irvine. Odell, Bruce, Hazard and Beetham were to be in reserve.

Undoubtedly Irvine was pleased to climb with Mallory in the oxygen attempt as Mallory had seen in Irvine the required knowledge and abilities he needed to gain the summit. His diary acknowledgement too importantly dismisses the controversy that Irvine was a last-minute choice made by Mallory on June 2 or 3. This planning also raises two fundamental questions that haven’t been addressed in the debate regarding the summit climb planning.

First, why was Mallory’s plan abandoned, especially the use of oxygen for which Mallory was convinced was the key to reach the summit? It’s known that on May 27, after many weeks of bad weather and struggle, Norton chaired a meeting at Camp I which invariably resulted in the abandonment of Mallory’s plan as outlined above, for a simpler effort comprised of two summit attempts without oxygen which was in direct contravention of Mallory’s original plans and convictions.

Secondly, on the night of June 4 now back in Camp IV, why did Norton question Mallory on his choice of Irvine as his partner when Norton knew full well about Mallory’s choice for the first oxygen aided ascent as early as April? Why was Norton so surprised and against the decision as in truth, all Mallory was doing was reverting to his original well-articulated plan that Norton not only knew about but summarily rejected in late May down at Camp I?

Was Norton trying to sideline or hinder Mallory’s plans for the summit for his own self- serving and perhaps self-aggrandising reasons, so as the appointed expedition leader, Norton simply over-ruled Mallory and his plans in favour of his own preference of two simpler summit attempts without oxygen that maximised his (Norton)’s summit prospects whilst ensuring that Mallory’s plan was finally discarded together with Mallory’s hopes of reaching the summit first?

This important question has profound implications and the background to Mallory’s planning and subsequent actions bears examination.

As he descended from Camp V to Camp IV on June 2 after his abortive attempt on the summit without oxygen, Mallory appeared to be both dejected and pre-occupied, such that whilst Norton and Somervell continued upward with the second and officially the final summit attempt of 1924, Mallory actually continued down to Camp III to prepare a new surprise third attempt, but this time reverting to his original plans of using oxygen and taking Irvine along to best manage that aspect of the attempt as well as to support Mallory.

Thus, by the evening of June 4, Mallory, Irvine and a group of some 15 porters carrying most of their usable oxygen stores, had returned to the North Col and presented a defeated Norton with a new and final summit attempt. It’s possible Mallory as the appointed climbing leader, felt not only “side-lined” by Norton and his colleagues but perhaps also humiliated in having his plans arbitrarily discarded in late May for the two seemingly hopeless summit attempts.

So whilst Norton and Somervell were now out of the way on their own invariably failed summit attempt, Mallory simply reverted to his original plan in response, but now doing things his way by incorporating Irvine and the oxygen which both saw as the key to finally gaining the summit! It’s clear that if Mallory hadn’t organised the oxygen aided climb in the 48 hours from June 2 and then presented it as a fait accompli to Norton on the night of June 4, then Mallory and Irvine’s attempt simply wouldn’t have taken place.

Thus, as Mallory shared his tent with Norton on the North Col on the night of June 4, he outlined his plan for the summit which now comprised of including both oxygen and Irvine as his climbing partner which Mallory saw and likely argued were the key to gaining the summit. The attempt entailed taking a full complement of some 10 oxygen cylinders and to include as much redundancy into the effort as possible, especially for the equipment that was vital to the task.

Also, previously at Camp VI, Norton’s sleeping bag was soiled by frozen tea from a leaking thermos, so Mallory listed extra sleeping bags to be taken to Camp VI in part to compensate for this accident, but its likely Mallory had already planned to take extra bedding to Camp VI anyway as a personal preference for the climbers as the decision was likely made before Mallory returned to the Norton Col with Irvine on June 4.

Even today there’s little realisation of just how unconventional, indeed radical a plan Mallory and Irvine had devised before they left the North Col which also included a different route to the summit. Previously, no British summit attempt had deviated from a route that involved climbing the terraces of the so called “Yellow band” and always staying well below the ridge crest on the North face to then reach the “Great Couloir”, crossing that and finally climbing onto the north face of the final pyramid to the summit itself.

 

This became the “standard” route ever since the North Col and North Ridge approach was adopted with Norton and subsequently every other expedition in the pre-war years favouring the traverse below North East Ridge and then climbing out onto the face on to the summit pyramid. This route pioneered by Norton, was finally climbed by Messner in 1980.

By contrast, Mallory and Irvine broke new ground by climbing to the North East Ridge as early as possible and then following the crest “skyline” to the summit.

The impressive North face of Everest, with the dashed line marking the likely route of Mallory and Irvine climbing “skyline” on the North East Ridge. Note the location of the 1924 Camp VI at 8140 metres (green dot) and also Mallory’s found location of 8155m (red arrow). The yellow dot indicates the likely location for Irvine, based on previous glimpse and projecting upwards from Mallory’s location with the still attached rope with force marks caused by Irvine’s belaying on the rope. Photograph courtesy of Stuart Holmes with sincere thanks from the authors.

It’s quite possible their ascent route hasn’t been attempted since, as initially they climbed to the  ridge crest until the rock bollard feature called the “mushroom rock” was reached between the first and second rock steps and where their route intersected with the modern route taken by climbers for the rest of the way to the summit.

Additionally, the radical nature of their climb also is discernible through other decisions they made and left tantalising clues that were only much later realised. One was the number of oxygen cylinders they took toward the summit on June 8, despite being a ‘bloody load’ for climbing as Mallory wrote at the time. Also, although seeming innocuous, the extra sleeping bags intended for Camp VI were entirely overlooked for decades as they also formed part of a radical plan that Mallory and Irvine devised to aid their summit attempt, perhaps quite late too, such as the night before they departed for the summit.

The significance of the two sleeping bags was finally realised by one of us (Summers) and has since then raised intriguing possibilities about the possibility of a summit success as a result of this realisation. That clue is also critical to finding the whereabouts of Irvine on the north face of the Everest, likely low in the Yellow Band according to our calculations.

Thus, on June 6, 1924, after a breakfast that was not done justice to by the climbing team, Irvine waited with his two hands in his pocket as Mallory fiddled with the last-minute adjustments, as unknown to them, Noel Odell snapped them with his camera. We in that photograph see a somewhat impatient Irvine with two oxygen bottles, hands in his pocket and looking towards Mallory as he seemed to be preoccupied, fiddling with his oxygen apparatus.

As Odell watched, at 7:30 am they left the camp on the North Col for the last time.

“My last impression,” he wrote later, “of my friends was a handshake and a word of blessings, for it was only in my imagination that I could see the little party winding its way amid the snow humps and ice crevasses leading to the col.”

Odell in fact was again the last one to see them alive, later in very different circumstances on June 8, 1924, two days later at 12:50 pm on what was the crux of the climb, in an iconic moment…

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].