The Hillary doubters have been quick to suggest that the legendary New Zealander and Tenzing Norgay were beaten to the summit of Everest by George Leigh Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine in 1924.
Perhaps, but probably not. It was something Hillary was sufficiently curious about to look carefully for any traces when he reached the summit on 29 May, 1953.
Mallory’s body was found very quickly in 1999 by the first expedition to actually depart from the now well worn routes up Everest to search for the relics of a bygone era instead of jostling for a few moments on a crowded flag infested summit.
That expedition led by Eric Simonsen of Seattle went sideways instead of up, across a ghastly series of slopes littered with bodies that have fallen off the NE ridge. Beyond them they spotted something ‘whiter than snow’, a very old body, lying face down near the bottom of a steep slope of broken rocks, well to one side of those where the more recent dead lie amid items of the brightly coloured clobber of the ‘modern’ decades of mountaineering.
But this team, which included eminent Everest researcher Jochen Hemmleb, didn’t find any trace of Irvine where his body was described by members of two Chinese expeditions, in 1960 and 1975.
Those were the first post-war expeditions on the Tibetan side where grand pre-war expeditions by the Empire’s finest consistently failed. The body of ‘a dead English’, was found only a few tens of metres off a route followed by some of today’s ‘hordes’ of Everest peak baggers.
It was in a ‘precarious’ position from which it is subsequently assumed to have become dislodged, long before the crowds of $$$ummiteers turned up, which also assumes that the Chinese had not actually stumbled across Mallory in these first instances.
Mallory was found hard frozen into position, about 80 metres beyond the reported location of Irvine’s body.
Together with other historical detective work done by the 1999 party, Mallory’s body revealed more clues as to what happened before being finally buried on the spot where he died so long ago in such a different world.
These clues didn’t cast any light on how far Mallory and Irvine went before they died trying to descend to their high camp.
But they do lift their chances of having reached the summit from ‘highly unlikely’ to ‘possible but still unlikely.’ They allow plausible evidence-based scenarios about what Mallory and Irvine did in the hours before they fell roped together for a short distance down a steeply angled slope of slabby rocks and scree.
Those last hours must have started near the crest of the NE ridge where in 1933 Irvine’s ice axe was found lying on the one section of their route which is so broad it would take a running jump to actually fall off it.
Recently, a glove belonging to one of these men was also found near the ice axe site, wedged in a crack as if to stop it being blown away.
This has to be where they began the final stage of their intended return to their last high camp. Why? Because they would not have left an ice axe, or one or more gloves, in that position while heading higher along an unknown ridge toward what proved to be an infamously difficult ‘second step’, or the summit far beyond and above it.
This tells us both climbers went further and higher, but not how far or high, before something significant happened well above where they were to perish in the late afternoon or evening of June 8, 1924.
Earlier that day, the last glimpse of Mallory and Irvine is by fellow climber Noel Odell from the highest camp site through the gathering clouds of a typical afternoon snow squall that cleared by the onset of a nearly moonless evening. Odell thinks he has spotted them on the ‘second step’, which would mean they were grappling with the hardest part of the climb a long way from the top dangerously late in the day. But he later expressed doubts as to where they were.
From his vantage point, near the tent the two men intended to return to, the ridge, its ‘second step’ and then the less challenging ‘third step’ that defines the start of the summit pyramid are all foreshortened.
Hemmleb’s detective work also uncovered lists and notes showing the men had hoarded 50 per cent more bottled oxygen for a summit push than previously known, but it isn’t known if they actually used it or decided to travel lighter on the last day of their lives. If they were carrying more oxygen and had reached the third step by 12.50pm when Odell saw them, their chances of reaching the summit are much better than they would be from the second step.
Cut forward to something Hemmleb doesn’t mention, but which is very odd in the images of Mallory’s body. One hand is open in a peculiar thumb-opposed-to-index finger claw position seen in stroke, paralysis and frostbite victims.
Could it have been that on returning in defeat or glory to the point where they need to descend through the much steeper rocks of a section called the Yellow Band to get down to the shelter to their high camp, that an ice axe is thrown to the ground in frustration?
Mallory has a paralysed arm. They are in a bad way. The supplementary oxygen has run out. Yet an ice axe is superfluous to the immediate task of getting down over a section of the route which is free of crevasses to the refuge of the tent and its sleeping bags and stoves.
Ice axes, especially the long shafted ones used in their times, can be a hindrance if down climbing rock in failing light or heavy afternoon snow with one man suffering a form of stroke or paralysis. The incapacitated climber is going to have to be lowered on a tight rope most of the way. So the ice axe is deliberately abandoned at that point.
And the glove? Is Mallory or Irvine suffering so badly from exposure he has reached that point where victims start taking their clothes off because the circulatory system stops protecting the vital store of core heat, and lets it surge outwards, cancelling the perception of cold?
The so-called Mallory route through the Yellow Band is well known today. But the men after whom it was named never had a guide book to navigate them through it. They lose the optimal decent path, something those who’ve climbed the Yellow Band say is very easy to do, and emerge well off course into the dangerous but less steep slopes below it.
Mallory’s snow goggles are found folded in his shirt pocket, either because it was night, or because they turned back early in the snow squall, in conditions where goggles constantly ice up and become useless.
Once below the Yellow Band they hope to sidle toward their tent. It is dark. Oxygen starvation is shutting down their capacity to think and move. A falling rock breaks open Mallory’s skull exposing brain tissue still visible in 1999. Mortally wounded, he falls dragging Irvine with him. Irvine attempts to hold him on the rope but fails, and they tumble down for several hundred metres into a place that will catch dozens more.
Mallory died almost immediately from internal and external injuries, hastened by shock and exposure. An ankle dangles from a shattered lower leg. His finders note the compression injuries where the drag of the rope has forced organs up into his rib cage. Irvine, Mallory’s ‘good soldier’, extracts himself from the tangle. His climbing mate is dead. He struggles away in the direction of high camp, but death takes him too. Their lives are over but the immortality of an heroic tragedy has begun.
Nearly 29 years later, from the other side of this highest cenotaph, Hillary and Tenzing reach the fabled summit, and write the crowning climax to the final chapter of the golden age of mountaineering.
And coincidentally or otherwise, the finders of 1999 find no trace in Mallory’s pockets of the photo of his wife which he carried with him to place on the very tip of Mount Everest.