Few mountains of the world have captured the imagination of mankind quite like Mt. Everest. It is a colossal peak that for centuries was seen as one of the last unconquered domains on earth, its peak beckoning explorers and remaining just as inaccessible as the face of the moon. The mountain has also claimed its share of victims, its sheer size and unforgiving, almost malevolent weather seemingly conspiring against those who would attempt to climb it. Among these is an expedition launched in the 1920s, which would aim to be the very first to climb to the summit and which would disappear under mysterious circumstances, spiraling into one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.
Located within the remote Mahalangur section of the Himalayas and with a peak standing at a mind boggling 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) above sea level, Mt. Everest has long been a mysterious and awe inspiring place. It has also always held a powerful allure for adventurers, its siren call drawing in many brave climbers over the years who would conquer it, yet the soaring peak of the mountain once remained frustratingly elusive and inaccessible, defeating numerous well-equipped expeditions with a seemingly endless barrage of perils including difficult terrain, notoriously unpredictable weather, avalanches, altitude sickness, treacherous gorges and chasms, frigid temperatures, and many other weapons in an arsenal of an apparently malevolent mountain that almost seemed to not want to be climbed. History currently holds that it was not until 29 May 1953, with the groundbreaking expedition of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, that the summit of this perilous, monstrous mountain was finally reached, but is this true? Was there anyone else who may have reached the summit long before Edmund Hillary’s historic achievement? There very well may have.
Go back to the 1920s and Everest loomed large not only over the landscape but also in the public imagination. This was a time when the age of exploration was in full swing, with the North and South poles already conquered and humankind making great progress in penetrating into the previously dark and mysterious remote jungles, oceans, and mountains of the world. Everest was widely seen as posing one of the great final frontiers for exploration, having never been climbed and very little known about whether it was even possible to do so. By 1921, no one had ever climbed higher than 24,600 feet and each step closer to the summit tested our knowledge of our own physiological limits, each extra foot gained a new frontier into the unknown. No one knew what would happen to the human body at such altitudes, or if we could even survive at such heights, making this truly uncharted territory, and so by 1922 the closest we had gotten to the summit was 8,320 m (27,300 ft), still far from the summit yet as far as anyone seemed to be able to go, leading Everest to become known as the “Third Pole.” The peak of the mountain became an almost mythical, seemingly unattainable quest for many, including one adventurer by the name of George Leigh Mallory, who in 1924 would go on to launch an expedition that would go on to puzzle both climbers and historians alike, and take its place in the pantheon of great adventure mysteries.
The 36-year-old Mallory was a highly experienced and celebrated British climber, who had already made two unsuccessful runs up the face of Everest in 1921 and 1922. Other expedition members often spoke of Mallory’s obsession with reaching the summit, a mission which he took as a very personal quest which he would die trying to achieve if it came to that. He was an undeniable tough as nails, old school adventurer, eschewing the use of supplemental oxygen since he saw it as somehow unsporting, although he would later come to the conclusion that reaching the top of Everest would be physically impossible without it. It was for this reason that he ended up hiring a fresh faced, 22 year-old undergraduate student by the name of Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, who had zero high altitude climbing experience but was nevertheless an avid sportsman, having been an accomplished rower, and had incredible engineering acumen, being an expert at repairing the supplemental oxygen equipment used by the British mountain expeditions; unwieldy bottle-like apparatus which were heavy, unreliable and prone to breaking or leaks. Irvine would also be invaluable for maintaining the cameras, stoves, and pretty much every other mechanical device during the expedition. With the help of Irvine, Mallory was able to increase the functionality and strength of the oxygen tanks, designing a tank that weighed 5 pounds less than usual called the “Mark V,” but it was still a cumbersome beast to drag up a steep mountain, at around 33 pounds. Nevertheless, this oxygen was seen by Mallory as the key to reaching the forbidding summit of Everest.
The two made their preparations and with great fanfare started their adventure as national heroes with a 13 strong expedition and equipment that would have been very primitive by today’s standards. After several days of ascending the face of Everest, Mallory and Irvine had climbed up to 26,800 feet on the eve of their final push to take the summit in order to set up a small camp, after which Sherpa guides were sent to tell the rest of the expedition who were at another camp farther down the mountain that they planned to reach the peak the following morning. The next day, on June 8, 1924, Mallory and Irvine set out for the summit of Everest in clear conditions, although the last person to see them, team geologist Noel Odell who watched through a telescope, noticed that something must have gone less smoothly than planned as the pair began their ascent at 12:50 in the afternoon rather than the early morning hours they had originally stated. Nevertheless, Odell reported that the two climbers appeared to be climbing strongly and reached a place at around 28,227 feet called the Second Step, just below the summit pyramid, without incident. Odell felt sure at the time that they would have no trouble reaching their goal, but then a thick bank of sudden clouds and mist enveloped them and they were lost to view. They would never be seen alive again.
The concerned Odell made his way up to the high camp from which Mallory and Irvine had set out to investigate, and found evidence that Irvine had been tinkering with the oxygen apparatus, with hardware from the equipment strewn about the tent. Unwilling to go any farther up the mountain to search due to a sudden swirl of fierce wind driven snow and mist that had descended upon the mountain, Odell returned to the lower camp and resigned himself to keeping a lookout for the two men. For two days, there were no signs of the two lost adventurers or indeed of any life at all from the cold wasteland above, and Odell went back one more time to the high camp to find that the tent remained abandoned. Subsequently Mallory and Irvine would be declared missing, yet it was totally unknown if they had actually reached the summit or not and no sign of what happened to them could be found. It was as if the mountain itself had swallowed them up.
It would be years before any clue whatsoever from the doomed expedition would be uncovered. In 1933, a member of the Fourth British Everest Expedition by the name of Percy Wyn-Harris found an ice-axe at around 8,460 m (27,760 ft) which it was determined must have belonged to Irvine due to the characteristic three nick marks that he was known to put on his belongings. The ice-axe find prompted a good deal of speculation, with various theories thrown about for why it was there, including that it was evidence of the scene of a fall, that it had been dropped accidentally, or that it had simply been placed there to be picked up again on the way back down. No one knows. Another tantalizing clue would be found in May 1991 in the form of an old-fashioned oxygen cylinder determined to be from the expedition, but of the bodies of the climbers themselves would remain elusive. Over the years the mystery of the Mallory and Irvine disappearances would draw several expeditions in search of answers, and even Edmund Hillary himself kept an eye out for any evidence of what had happened to them during his own expedition, yet there were no clues, no further traces of the two vanished men.
The most major clue of all was discovered in 1999, when the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition located Mallory’s body, which had originally been thought to be that of Irvine, lying face down, arms akimbo and with fingers dug stubbornly into the ground as if he were still trying to climb even in death, as well as with a rope around the waist, in a funnel shaped basin around 300m below and 100m to the side of where the ice-axe had been found in 1933. The body had been remarkably well preserved by the unrelenting frigid cold, and was covered with various contusions and gashes, suggesting a fall. This was further supported by the presence of severe hemorrhaging in the area where the rope was tied, indicating major rope-jerk trauma and implying that he had fallen a long distance, possibly while still tied together to Irvine. In the forehead of the body was found a large puncture wound that matched the dimensions of what would be inflicted by an ice-axe, which led to speculation that Mallory may have been sliding down the slope and using the axe to control his speed when it bounced up from striking a rock to hit him in the head and kill him. That the body was found off their intended route and several hundred feet below where the ice-axe found in 1933 was located also seemed to indicate an accident. However, despite all of these clues, it is still unclear as to what had actually transpired or what exactly happened in the moments leading up to his death.
Although Mallory’s body has been found, Irvine’s never has. All we have are cryptic sightings and clues. One sighting was made in 1975 by a Chinese climber named Wang Hong-bao, who claimed to have come across what he described as an “Old English Dead” wearing old-fashioned clothing and lying on a rock as if sleeping and with a hole in his cheek at 8,100m during the Chinese Everest Expedition. Unfortunately, Wang died shortly after in an avalanche before any more information could be obtained. It was likely not the body of Mallory as the description does not fit that of Mallory’s, and so it has been speculated that he had in fact seen the body of Irvine. The body of Irvine has been allegedly seen by other Chinese climbers as well, with a sighting by an expedition leader Xu Jing in 1960 and another by a member of the 1960 Chinese expedition, Wang Fu-chou. A Chhiring Dorje Sherpa also claimed to have seen the body of a white man in “army colored clothing” while working as a porter on the Japanese 1995 Nihon University Expedition. Dorje would go on to make plans to launch an expedition to retrieve the body, but it was cancelled when the proper funding didn’t materialize. Yet, despite these clues Irvine’s body remains missing, its whereabouts unknown although there are no shortage of explorers seemingly every year claiming to have discovered its location. Unfortunately, considering the daunting terrain, the large amount of ice and snow cover, and the weather conditions, it is almost a miracle that they ever even found Mallory’s body, so Irvine’s may very well be lost forever.
Besides the matter of what exactly happened to Mallory and Irvine, the case offers other mysteries, with one of the most enduring and puzzling being whether they had managed to reach the summit of Everest nearly 30 years before Edmund Hillary. It’s a subject which has stirred up a great amount of debate and for which there is frustratingly little evidence available to help us come to any sort of concrete answer. The terrain is treacherous and difficult, especially the “Second Step” before the summit, a daunting climb even with modern equipment and Malloy and Irvine had would have been crudely equipped by today’s standards, lacking many of the fixed ropes, anchors and other gadgets modern climbers have at their disposal. They also would have been dressed in gabardine, wool, cotton and silk fastened with fly buttons rather than the high-tech materials zipped up tight used in later years, casting doubt on whether the clothes of the era would have been adequate to protect them from the frigid, deep freeze temperatures high up on the mountain. Nevertheless, it has been surmised that the gear they had was probably adequate for reaching the summit of Everest, and textile studies at British universities have shown that their rudimentary protective clothing would have been actually surprisingly effective in the freezing conditions. All of this makes it seem that it was at least feasible that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the peak. But did they?
The discovery of Mallory’s body did little to cast much illumination on this particular puzzle as it is uncertain whether he had been on his way up to the summit at the time of his mishap or if he had been on his way down after already reaching it. However, there are a few clues that actually tend to point towards the possibility that he had indeed reached his goal. One is the fact that his snow goggles were found in his pocket, which seems to suggest he was heading down the face at night since they would have been necessary in the blinding white of the daytime snow. A night time or early evening descent would seem to suggest that he was on his way down from reaching the summit at a late time, which coincides with their unexpectedly late departure. It is thought that if they had not reached the summit then it would be unlikely Mallory would still be at that high location at such a late hour, although it could also mean that he was coming down after he had simply given up trying and failing. Another clue is a missing photograph. Mallory’s possessions were just as well preserved as his corpse and there was a photograph of his wife conspicuously missing. This is important, as it was well-known that Mallory always carried a photo of his wife with him and had intended to place it at the summit if he ever reached it. The absence of the photograph could mean that he reached the peak and he placed it there as intended, or it could mean that it was simply dropped or dislodged from his pocket during his fall. Tantalizing clues, yet ultimately inconclusive.
Other theories take a more negative route, saying that there is meteorological evidence that a sudden, fierce storm had descended upon Everest on that fateful day or that at the very least a sudden fatal drop in barometric pressure had hit, either of which which would have made it impossible for the pair to have conquered the mountain. The evidence, which is held at the Royal Geographical Society, found that at the time of Mallory and Irvine’s summit attempt there had been a barometric pressure drop of 18mbar, or in layman’s terms, a catastrophic, fatal drop. Such a steep drop in pressure would have robbed the team of already scarce oxygen, and would have subjected them to a profound hypoxic state despite their oxygen equipment. In other words, if this data is true they would have been done for. It has been argued that this deadly weather, plus the fact that Mallory and Irvine were heading into undiscovered country and were uncertain of which route to even take, would have conspired to doom their attempts.
Others take the circumstantial evidence from Mallory’s body, Mallory’s expertise and experience, and their close approach to the summit as suggesting they did indeed make it. For his part, Noel Odell, the last to have seen the two alive on that fateful day, was confident that they had made it. He wrote in the 1924 book The Fight for Everest:
The question remains, ‘Has Mount Everest been climbed?’ It must be left unanswered, for there is no direct evidence. But bearing in mind all the circumstances I have set out…. considering their position when last seen, I think myself there is a strong probability that Mallory and Irvine succeeded.
Yet for all of the theorizing, no one can really be sure. Perhaps the best chance we ever have of finding out if they had indeed been the first to reach the summit is if either of the two metal Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) cameras the pair were known to have been carrying at the time are found. If Mallory and Irvine had indeed reached the summit, they would have most certainly photographed the historical event with their cameras, yet neither one of them has ever been found. No camera was found on Mallory’s body, meaning that he either dropped it somewhere or that Irvine was in possession of both. One reason that finding Irvine’s body has been seen as so important is that if he had even one of the missing cameras on his person it could offer final proof of whether they had reached their goal, or at least offer more insight to what happened on their ill-fated expedition. It is unclear whether the film within the cameras would still be any good, but Kodak film experts have stated that if the cameras had remained in good condition, then the sturdy black and white film of the day could have remained in a deep freeze and could still feasibly produce printable images. Finding either of the missing cameras has been seen as sort of a holy grail towards finding the answers to the conundrum of the Mallory Irvine Expedition and would solve the puzzle once and for all. Then again, if the camera’s structural integrity has been compromised, it will likely only lead to more frustration.
The disappearance of Mallory and Irvine and the question of whether they were the first to mount Everest nearly three decades before Edmund Hillary has become a perplexing historical mystery and daring adventure story rolled up into one, and has attained an almost mythical status. Enduring curiosity as to the fate of the expedition has inspired deep fascination and made sure the race continues to rage on for expeditions to delve into this relatively unexplored no man’s land to find answers. Unfortunately, many of these expeditions seem concerned primarily with how much money they could make off of the discovery, the bidding war for images of Mallory’s body no doubt putting dollar signs in their eyes, and it is this crass commercialization of the whole endeavor that has convinced many that it is perhaps better if Irvine’s body is never found. In particular, Irvine’s relatives and family have expressly made clear their opinion that the expeditions are distasteful and offensive, with most of them wanting him left in peace. There seems to be no question that the discovery of Irvine’s body will be the catalyst for extensive legal battles facing those who find it.
What happened to these two intrepid explorers who dared to face down the mysterious massive bulk of Everest in a time when no one else had? Did they reach the seemingly unreachable summit first in 1924? Until more concrete evidence is found it is unlikely we will ever know for sure. They weren’t the last souls to be claimed by the mountain, with around 150 climbers meeting their doom upon its craggy face since, and there will undoubtedly be more. And that is perhaps the most enthralling mystery of all; that even well into modern times the majestic, imposing and vast Everest can still cast such a powerful, all-consuming allure that draws so many to seek its perilous summit and perhaps even their own deaths to be among the nearly 600 brave souls who have reached the top. One can only wonder how many more lives the mountain will claim, how many more mysteries it will accrue, before we ever find the answers to the one I have discussed here.