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ExWeb series: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate Part 2
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Oct 28, 2004 19: 45 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.

Now, 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. Today part 2, in the 5-part series:

The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s Fate
By Pete Poston and Jochen Hemmleb, for MountEverest.net
PART 2

The EverestNews.com Theory

According to the website EverestNews (4), an unidentified climber claims to have seen an “old body” on or near the Northeast ridge, “above 8400 meters” (27,600 ft.), in a position far removed from where Mallory's body was found, suggesting the pair must have split up at some point. During their search, they located and conclusively identified the body of 1975 Chinese climber Wu Tsong-Yueh. Wu’s body had suffered major injuries from his fall from the ridgeline above, leading EverestNews.com to conclude that Mallory’s injuries are too mild for him to have fallen all the way from the NE Ridge.

According to EverestNews’ theory, Mallory and Irvine on their ascent had followed the crest of the ridge all the way to the prow of the 2nd Step, instead of following the traverse and off-width/ladder route taken today. Here Irvine gave Mallory a shoulder stand and volunteered to stay behind, giving up his extra oxygen and the rope so that Mallory could get back down the 2nd Step on his return.

Mallory reached the summit alone and fell

Now above the 2nd Step with the summit clearly in sight, Mallory struggled through the afternoon snow squall that hit at 2 p.m., eventually running out of oxygen but reaching the summit in the late afternoon or early evening. Concluding that Irvine wouldn’t still be waiting for him, he decided he couldn’t descend the 2nd Step alone even though he is carrying the rope, so Mallory descended the Great Couloir instead. He didn’t follow Norton’s exact route back but followed an even lower line (similar to Messner’s solo route), eventually traversing over to the 8100 m snow terrace. It’s here that Mallory fell, either from exhaustion or being hit by a falling rock. Mallory fell only a few meters, yet died quickly.

Irvine perished from exposure

Meanwhile back at the 2nd Step, Irvine waited until he finally decided that Mallory wasn’t going to return anytime soon. Working his way alone back along the ridge and down the 1st Step, by the time he reached the ax site he was nearly finished and dropped his ice ax. Stumbling back along their ascent route, he fatally sat down to rest but never got up again, perishing from exposure.

A mystery bottle “above 8400 m”

When the EverestNews expedition reached the location where the unidentified climber said he saw an old body in “army-colored” clothing, no body was found. Instead a pre-war oxygen bottle was discovered at the location. The dimensions of the bottle are not the same as the 1924 bottle found in 1999, more closely approximating the shorter, wider bottles used in the 1930s. So EverestNews.com concluded that there could have been two sizes used in 1924 based on a diary entry written by Irvine (more on this in Part 2), or if the bottle was from the 1930s after all, it must have been carried there and left by a later Chinese climber who had found Irvine’s body.

Criticism of the EverestNews.com Theory

1. The oxygen bottle

There are two key questions that must be answered in order for the bottle to be from 1924:

(a) Where exactly was the bottle found? The altitude estimation, “above 8400 m”, is not enough, as it could virtually be applied to the whole length of the Northeast Ridge above the Northeast Shoulder (8421 m). Moreover, altitude estimations on Everest have often turned out to be wrong, even in contemporary literature. Therefore, what is needed is a clear description of the location with spatial relationships to Northeast Ridge landmarks, like the 1st Step etc., in order to determine whether it was moved, and whether the body is near or a considerable distance away from Mallory's suspected fall line.

(b) What size, capacity, and valve assembly does the bottle have? From these three parameters the bottle’s provenance can be determined.

General statements

Of the oxygen bottle found this year, Everestnews has so far published only a single image of a stamp mark on the bottle’s neck, “E.O.C.”. This stands for “Everest Oxygen Cylinder” and identifies the bottle as one from the pre-war British expeditions. Of the British pre-war expeditions, only three took oxygen gear to altitudes beyond 8200 m (Camp VI): 1922, 1924, and 1938.

No further data about the bottle is provided, only estimation about the size (“similar to the two 1938 bottles known to exist … does not appear to be as fat and is probably shorter”), and the reader is left instead to general statements concerning the information available about the pre-war oxygen bottles:

“No one has any “key” to the markings on the early English bottles. No one even seems to be certain who made these bottles. … To say that there is very little information readily available about these early English oxygen bottles is an understatement! “

Royal Geographical Society Archive has a clear record

When it comes to the mystery of Mallory and Irvine, there is a clear record as to what kind of oxygen gear was used in 1924. One document in particular, a 30-page manual “Mount Everest Expedition, 1924. Oxygen Breathing Apparatus”, lodged in the Royal Geographical Society Archive in London, provides virtually every piece of information with regard to the 1924 oxygen bottles (manufacturer, size, diameter, valve assembly, and stamp and paint markings).

No second sizes

Nowhere in this document, which has to be regarded as standard source of information about the 1924 oxygen gear, is a second bottle size mentioned. Neither is it mentioned in Noel Odell’s chapter on oxygen in the official 1924 expedition account, The Fight for Everest (pp. 329-337). Possible clues to the contrary, cited by Everest news, are most likely based on misinterpretation: The diary entry by Sandy Irvine, “2, ½ oxygen cylinders … They made two fine gongs of different tones”, does by no means indicate two different cylinder sizes were used.

Same instrument plays different tunes

First of all, Irvine was clearly speaking about charged cylinders; otherwise he would not have been able to demonstrate the “devil effect” of kindling a spark with oxygen. His strange notation, “2, ½ oxygen cylinders” therefore is most likely to be taken for meaning “2, half (-full) oxygen cylinders”.

The effect of two different tones can be achieved with cylinders of the same size by letting oxygen out of one, thus creating two cylinders with different amounts of oxygen in them.

A considerable amount of data readily available

Equally, there is also a considerable amount of data readily available about the oxygen gear used in 1922 and 1938. Examples include articles by J.P. Unna (“The Oxygen Equipment of the 1922 Everest Expedition”, Alpine Journal, 34, 1922, 235-50), C.B. Warren (“The Medical and Physiological Aspects of the Mount Everest Expeditions”, Geographical Journal, 1937, 126-47), and P. Lloyd (“Oxygen on Mount Everest, 1938”, Alpine Journal, 51, 85-90), which are referenced in the current literature on Everest research.

Identification is relatively straightforward

Furthermore, the different oxygen bottles used in 1922, 1924, and 1938 each have a unique size, shape, and construction (in particular the valve assembly), which rules out any confusion between two types. Identification is thus relatively straightforward.

To illustrate this with a hypothetical example: If the cylinder’s capacity was, say, 500 Liters, and its valve assembly featured a nut attaching the valve to the cylinder, this would unequivocally point to a 1938 bottle of the type used above Camp VI (see article by P. Lloyd). In marked contrast the bottles used in 1924 had the valve welded to the cylinder and featured a capacity of 535 Liters.

Climbers using a bottle without regulators and mask unlikely

It is still unknown where exactly the EverestNews bottle was found, but they published an image (dispatch of August 27), which, when compared with contemporary photographs (see Tilman, H.W. “Mount Everest, 1938”, Himalayan Journal, 1939), shows that their team went in the area between the 1938 Camp VI (c. 8310 m) and the highpoint reached with oxygen in 1938, c. 8340-8350 m.

As for the theory that the bottle was carried up higher by other climbers, it needs to be considered that the pre-war bottles and oxygen apparatuses were incompatible to oxygen gear of later expeditions, and using a bottle without regulators and mask would at best be of only very temporary benefit. Raymond Greene used a 1922 oxygen bottle without regulators and mask during a rest on the North Ridge in 1933 – but not for climbing over longer stretches of terrain.

NEXT: PART 3 - Criticism of the EverestNews.com Theory Continued

References

(4) http://www.everestnews2004.com/malloryandirvine2004/stories2004/ourtheory.htm

Image of old Russian oxygen bottle on Everest, ExplorersWeb files.







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