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ExWeb series: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate
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Oct 27, 2004 21: 26 EST
Halloween just around the corner is the perfect time for an ExplorersWeb Mystery week. In the Polar section, we've just run a 3-part series on British explorer Tom Avery's North Pole bid to solve the so-called ‘greatest polar mystery of all time' - a Peary/Cook riddle that has been stirring the Arctic community for almost 100 years.

Today, time has come for the mountaineering riddle of Mount Everest - The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s Fate. In this 5 part ExWeb series, Pete Poston and Jochen Hemmleb offer an interesting insight in the battle to find the true fate of the two climbers.

The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s Fate
By Pete Poston and Jochen Hemmleb, for MountEverest.net

I love the upward ways
To the sun-tipped crest of the mountains
High over the billowy world;
Where the wind sings hymns of praise,
And the snows break into fountains,
And life is a flag unfurled.
-Harriet Monroe



In 1924 British climber Noel Odell, while searching for his lost comrades George Mallory and Andrew ”Sandy” Irvine, would have hardly described the upper slopes of Mount Everest as a place where the wind sings hymns of praise, or that life was like a flag unfurled. In one of the most poignant passages in mountaineering literature Odell wrote (1):

“This upper part of Everest must be indeed the remotest and least hospitable spot on earth, but at no time more emphatically and impressively so than when a darkened atmosphere hides its features and a gale races over its cruel face. And how and when more cruel could it ever seem than when balking one’s every step to find one’s friends?”

Odell of course failed in his search, repelled by the difficult weather conditions and the immensity of the North Face.

1999/2001 new information

The two Mallory and Irvine Research Expeditions that went to the mountain in 1999 and 2001 to search for traces of the pair were much more successful in finding evidence of these brave pioneers.

Despite the steep terrain, loose rock outcrops, jet stream winds, and the lack of oxygen, these expeditions unearthed an enormous amount of new information regarding Mallory and Irvine’s historic climb (2, 3).

EverestNews: Unidentified climber in unrevealed location

Then, in the spring of 2004, the website EverestNews.com launched a search based on the claims of an unidentified climber that he had found Irvine’s body in an unrevealed location. It is the purpose of this article to summarize the known facts of the mystery, review the recently proposed EverestNews.com theory, and present our own updated theory of the mystery.

The Hard Facts

We now know the location of Mallory’s body, and we know exactly where their last camp was after its remains were discovered in 2001 by Jake Norton and Brent Okita at 26,700 ft. (8140 m) on the North Ridge.

A mitten

The few remnants of this camp recovered by Norton and Okita are shown in Figure 1, along with an old mitten found where the modern route through the Yellow Band tops out on the Northeast Ridge.

If this mitten - which is made of non-synthetic cloth and of similar construction to mittens used by porters in 1924 - was left behind by Mallory and Irvine, then we have our first “breadcrumb” that tracks their movements that morning (see also Figure 2, green line).

An ice ax

The second breadcrumb is Irvine’s ice ax, discovered approximately 250 yards (230 m) east of the 1st Step by the 1933 British Everest Expedition. The ax was found on technically easy ground, about 60 ft. (20 m) below the crest of the Northeast Ridge at 27,725 ft (8450 m).

Whether or not the ice ax marked the scene of an accident has been the subject of much debate, since it seems unlikely that anyone would deliberately leave such an important piece of equipment behind. On the flip side of the argument, Mallory’s body is relatively uninjured when compared with the body of other unfortunates such as Chinese climber Wu Tsong-Yue, who fell from a point near the ice ax location.

An oxygen bottle

Lastly, during his successful summit attempt in 1991, Eric Simonson discovered an old oxygen bottle close to the First Step (initially he thought he saw two bottles). The bottle was eventually recovered during the 1999 research expedition and conclusively identified as being from 1924, so we have our third breadcrumb that traces Mallory and Irvine’s route on that fateful day.

4-6 hours

In addition, since the bottle was originally nearly full (according to an inventory list found on Mallory), we can estimate the time it took them to reach this location. Using the flow rates the oxygen apparatus was capable of delivering (1.5 or 2.2 L/min), and an elevation gain of 1100 ft. between their Camp VI and the bottle location, the bottle would have lasted between four and almost six hours assuming: (a) no leaks as a result of Irvine’s conversion of the oxygen sets, and (b) continuous operation.

Mallory tied to Irvine in a fall

The last hard pieces of evidence we have about Mallory and Irvine is his body and the artifacts found on him. It’s obvious from his injuries that Mallory died in a fall, and the twisted, broken rope that was wrapped around his body indicated that he was tied to Irvine at the time of the fatal accident. What’s not known is whether or not Irvine was also killed in the fall, or if he survived the fall only to perish from exposure.

Soft evidence

Other than these “hard” facts, there’s really very little that we know positively about the fate of the two climbers. We have Odell’s eyewitness testimony that the pair climbed a rock step somewhere on the upper Northeast Ridge at 12:50 PM that day, but we consider this as “soft” evidence since he was never sure throughout his lifetime exactly where he saw them (the issue is discussed in detail in Detectives on Everest, pp. 120-123, and on www.alpine-history.com ).

Tomorrow: PART 2 - Criticism of the EverestNews.com Theory

Figure 1 – Relics from the 1924 Camp 6 including tent poles, scraps of tent fabric, a few tins, one of Col. Norton’s socks, and an aluminum spoon. On the far right is the mitten found on the NE Ridge in 2001 (photo taken at the Detectives on Everest Exhibition, Tacoma, WA, USA)

Figure 2: 1:10,000 resolution orthomap of the North Face showing key artifacts and locations (the blank area on the bottom-left is actually the bottom of the orthomap which has been rotated for clarity)


(1) "The Fight for Everest 1924", by E. F.Norton, Pilgrims Publishing, updated. 2004
(2) "Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine", by Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, Eric R. Simonson, William E. Nothdurft , Mountaineers Books, 1999
(3) "Detectives on Everest: The 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition", by Jochen Hemmleb, Eric Simonson, Dave Hahn, Mountaineers Books, 2001

Image: Prayer flags over the Rongbuk Monastery (Photo Copyright Pete Poston)

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