“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” –George Leigh Mallory
If you could meet anyone from the past, who would it be and why? Well, let me tell you about my pick, Mr. George Herbert Leigh Mallory, the greatest dreamer of his time. Not just his head, but his whole body vanished in the clouds on June the 8th, 1924 as he was heading for the summit of Everest with his young climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. Did one or both of them reach the summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay? It seems we shall never know. Both never made it down (unlike Hillary and Tenzing who did), as they met their deaths on the slopes of Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Earth. The mystery surrounding the legendary Mallory and Irvine is one that has obsessed many a mountaineer, and commoners such as myself too, who could only dream of climbing Everest.
I will introduce Mallory by briefly discussing the mystery that surrounds him- and focusing on some key pieces of evidence: a witness account, the importance of the second step, the picture of his wife Ruth Mallory, an ice axe, and the “English dead”.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen by Everest expedition’s “oxygen officer” Noel Odell at 12:50 p.m. on June the 8th, 1924. He noted in his diary: “At 12.50 saw M & I on ridge nearing base of final pyramide.”
In a report in the Alpine journal his story was as follows:
“The entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. […] The place on the ridge referred to is the prominent rock-step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid.”
And then a reworked version appeared later in the same issue:
“I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud, and I could not actually be certain that I saw the second figure join the first. […] [T]he point at which they were last seen – namely, an altitude which Hazard later determined by theodolite to be about 28,230 ft. [8604 m]”
Now why is the discrepancy between the first and second description so important? In the classic North Face Route for Everest (the one climbed often today and elected by Mallory and Irvine), climbers must pass a series of “steps” on their way to the summit. The first and third are not considered to be major obstacles, and most experts believe Mallory and Irvine were capable of climbing them. However, the second step is more formidable. It has a height of 40 meters, including a final nearly vertical five meters. Most experts believe the technical difficulties of the 2nd step were too great for even Mallory, the greatest mountaineer of his day, to climb. Ultimately this could have been the stumbling block for Mallory and Irvine, and yet Odell in his first account describes them as climbing up the second step. So which account is correct? And why did he change his words? Was it self-doubt? Pressure from others debating the issue?
It should be noted that the altitude Odell cites in his second account was the accepted altitude for the top of the second step in those days.
A third account was later published in the expedition book:
“I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud once more, and I could not actually be certain that I saw the second figure join the first.
Owing to the small portion of the summit ridge uncovered I could not be precisely certain at which of these two ‚steps’ they were, as in profile and from below they are very similar, but at the time I took it for the upper ‚second step’. However I am a little doubtful now whether the latter would not be hidden by the projecting nearer ground from my position below on the face.”
Though Odell believes he saw them on the second step in his final account, doubt is still at hand. And this doubt makes an enormous difference in resolving the fates of our dearest George and Sandy.
As a last bit about the second step, I think that it is still possible that they climbed it because the ice, snow, and even rock structure at the time could have been different – potentially allowing for an easier climb.
Mallory’s body was found 75 years after his disappearance on the 1st of May, 1999 by American climber Conrad Anker. Mallory’s body was found face down on the north face at 26, 760 feet. His clothing and body were very well preserved due to the cold and altitude. His wallet, letters, and some other documents were found on his body. However, one crucial item was missing. A photograph of his wife Ruth, that Mallory had promised to leave at the summit should he make it. Peculiar, no?
In 1933 an ice axe was found below the first step. It is generally accepted as being Irvine’s due to the marks on the shaft. Though many people believe this is an indication of Irvine’s fall and ultimate death, Noel Odell thought differently. He suggested that “It seems to me very possible that one of them – and more plausibly Irvine, who was less used to carrying an axe on a rock-climb than Mallory – may have decided to leave his axe on the ridge during the ascent, to be picked up on the descent, in view of the climbing being almost entirely on rock under the conditions prevailing at that time; one axe would be retained by the party in case of eventualities, a practice by no means uncommon on Alpine rock-peaks.”
Noel’s explanation would support why Irvine’s body was nowhere to be found next to the ice axe. If Irvine’s body was found at all (another matter of speculation), it is not beneath the first step. In 1960 Xu Jing, a Chinese climber, spoke of having seen an “English dead” below Everest’s northeast ridge. Through translations and interpretations of his account, it is believed he found the body on the ridge between the first and second step, much higher up than where Mallory’s body was found. Since no one before 1960 but Mallory and Irvine had disappeared on the mountain that high up, the body is believed to be Irvine’s. However, it was never seen again. So why are Mallory and Irvine’s bodies so separated? How did they get separated? And where is Irvine’s body now?
If Irvine’s body is found, it is possible that Irvine’s Kodak camera would still be with him and Kodak experts say that film might still be developable. Of course, even if found and developed, not finding a summit shot would still not be proof that the two did not make the summit. However, finding a summit shot…
Personally (If I have not already made it obvious with my writing above), I would like to believe that both Mallory and Irvine made the summit. But biases aside, I think there is a good chance that Mallory did (and did so perhaps without Irvine). Knowing what I know of Mallory’s character (unfortunately I never met him personally, but from the all the reading I have done about him) and his obsession with Chomolungma I think that at this point in his life there is no way that Mallory would have turned around without either reaching the summit or meeting his demise on the way up. Without giving it his absolute all, it would have no doubt tormented him for the rest of his life. Which is also perplexing considering he had a wife and three children at home that he loved very much… but that I will discuss in another entry.
Another notable point I would like to make is that in Noel Odell’s first published description he states that where he saw Mallory and Irvine was “the prominent rock-step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid.” Could that not then be the third step which is right beneath the final pyramid (not labeled on the picture, but you can see it above the second step)? Were Irvine and Mallory not at the first, not at the second, but at the third step when Odell saw them? So frustratingly and enticingly close to the highest and most revered platform of our beloved earth? Should we not at least engender this possibility?
There is a plethora of writing surrounding this riddle and many more clues and pieces of evidence to discuss, but I think I’ve covered the most salient ones for now. I would, however, be quite happy to endlessly speculate about and discuss this issue with you. Much of the above information, along with more details can be found at: http://www.affimer.org/hemmleb.html. If you want any links regarding the mystery, do let me know!
Summit or not, Mallory will always be a mystery. But he was also far more than that. He was a mountaineer, a pioneer, a sportsman, a husband and father, a writer, a teacher, an artist, and a dreamer. Stay tuned for more blogs about this remarkable man!
“Climbing in air too thin for mortal breath
These men stood poised on the World’s parapet;
Watched by the stars, on the last height they met,
Content in Victory, the Kiss of Death” – Quoted by Noel Odell in his private writings from a well known Himalayan explorer , regarding Mallory and Irvine