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ExWeb series: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate Part 4
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Oct 31, 2004 18: 21 EST
Halloween 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.

In the previous entries, we've introduced the mystery, and criticism of the EverestNews Theory - resting on an unidentified climber in an unrevealed location, lacking clear data and involving some serious climbing stunts, including a shoulder stand on the prow. Today, the two authors offer an alternative theory.

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

An alternative theory

Mainly because of the broken rope around his waist, we believe Mallory and Irvine were together at the time of the accident. They could have separated at some time during the attempt, but then reunited again. Irvine survived the accident that severed the rope and killed Mallory, tried to make it down to Camp VI and died of exhaustion.

Where did the fatal accident occur? – A topographic analysis

The 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research expedition used a high-resolution orthomap of the North Face at a scale of 1:1000 that was produced from images taken during Brad Washburn’s mapping of Everest. The general public can purchase a similar map (5) that shows the North Face at a resolution of 1:10,000. A cropped version of this latter map is shown in Figure 2 (top image), along with the locations of the various camps, artifacts, and routes to and from the Northeast Ridge.

300 ft. (90 m) offset between Mallory and ice axe positions

What becomes immediately apparent is that the fall line from the ice ax site does not line up with the location of Mallory’s body (the fall line is inferred by simply following the contour lines at right angles). There is an approximately 300 ft. (90 m) offset between the two positions that can’t be explained away by claiming that the ax position – taken from the route map given in the 1933 expedition book – is off by that much (6). Also, neither the tilt nor the concave morphology of the slope would account for a sufficiently great deflection of a falling body to resolve the discrepancy.

A long slide down the slopes of the Snow Terrace

Instead of following the contours down from the ice ax site, however, it seems more logical to follow the contours up from Mallory’s resting place. Why? Because of the limited nature of Mallory’s injuries, it seems more plausible to assume a shorter fall from somewhere near the base of the Yellow Band (Fig. 2, light blue ellipse), followed by a long slide down the slopes of the Snow Terrace.

Gloves and little changes in snow cover

Critics have countered this theory by (a) questioning the presence of a sufficient snow cover in the dry year of 1924, and (b) the absence of significant injuries on Mallory’s fingers as expected in an attempted self-arrest. But comparison of pre-war photos with modern-day images show very little changes in the snow cover of the central part of the terrace. As for the second point of the argument, the 1999 research expedition found what appeared to be a glove retainer band around Mallory’s neck, suggesting he’d been wearing gloves initially that were ripped off later in the fall.

Yellow Band variations

But in order for the lower Yellow Band fall theory to be credible, it also needs to be consistent with possible descent routes from the ice ax site - Figure 3 (middle and bottom image).

Even though it seems dangerous to leave a known ascent route, there are several plausible scenarios that could have forced Mallory and Irvine to do so. Firstly, the terrain of the Yellow Band is ill-defined, and climbers have found several routes to cross it.

Norton and Somervell took a low gradual ascending line in 1924, keeping approximately 400 ft. (120 m) below the crest of the Northeast Ridge. Wyn Harris and Wager took a high slanting traverse from their 1933 Camp VI to the 1st Step.

Finally, Shipton and Smythe in 1933, avoiding Mallory’s Ridge route and preferring Norton’s Couloir route instead, took a route slightly lower than Wyn Harris and Wager. Returning alone from his high point, Smythe actually traversed even lower yet.

Seeds of disaster were planted

Jake Norton, who investigated the 1933 routes in 2001 and this spring, commented that the terrain deceptively invites an early descent into the Yellow Band (yellow dots in Fig. 3/middle image), but the same gullies become steep and discontinuous lower down. So the seeds of disaster were planted for Mallory and Irvine, assuming they took this risky return path.

Unfamiliar route/sans fixed ropes/low visibility = possible wrong descent into Yellow Band

The argument put forward by EverestNews that Mallory and Irvine would not have died if they had turned back at the Second Step (because no modern climber did so) fails to consider that the modern climbers cited in support all had the advantage of a known route and fixed ropes. It is not difficult to imagine Mallory and Irvine descending in bad visibility, either during the snow squall or late in the day, and taking the wrong descent into the Yellow Band.

Irvine left behind his ice ax

Or perhaps in their exhausted state they were desperate to lose altitude. Hypoxic, Irvine left behind his ice ax. Or he abandoned it deliberately, in order to downclimb the steep crags unencumbered. (We don’t believe the ax was left on the ascent, as the icy summit slopes would have been in plain view and the necessity of an ax obvious to Mallory and Irvine).

Wipe marks of blood

There is also the intriguing possibility that Mallory suffered an accident prior to the fatal fall: There appear to be wipe marks of blood on one of his jacket sleeves. Was this the result of a shorter initial fall, perhaps at the ax site, precipitating the need for a quick emergency descent? Supporting this idea is the fact that both Mallory’s watch and altimeter were missing their glass faces, while no trace of glass was found in the pocket containing the watch, or the pouch containing his altimeter. Did this fall break the glass cutting Mallory, requiring the removal of the glass shards before continuing the descent?

Origin of fatal fall in steep lower tier of the Yellow Band

As Figure 3 (middle image) shows, such a descent (yellow dots) would lead past the area of Mallory’s deduced fall line (shown with a margin of error) and places the origin of the fatal fall in the steep lower tier of the Yellow Band, to the right (west) of the now common route.

Contrary to recent statements on EverestNews, footage taken of Mallory’s body does show rope injuries, e.g. pushed-up and bruised skin, and what seems to be damage to the lower rib cage. Therefore Mallory must have taken a hard fall onto the rope, presumably over a short steep cliff, before sliding down the adjacent slope below.

Monday: PART 5 – Where is Irvine?


(5) http://www.alpineresearch.ch/alpine/en/shop.html
(6) "Everest 1933: Story or the Mount Everest Expedition 1933", by Hugh Ruttledge, Indian Publishers Distributor; 2002

Images: Top image Figure 2. Middle image details Figure 3. Bottom image Figure 3 in full.

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)

Figure 3: Lower Yellow Band fall scenario

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