Mallory & Irvine: Lost on Everest

On June 8, 1924 British mountain climber George Mallory, along with his young climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, disappeared during their attempt to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Twenty nine years later Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully conquered the summit of Everest and are considered to be the first to have scaled the peak of the world’s tallest mountain.

George Mallory
George Mallory

There is, however, rampant speculation that George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were actually the first to reach the summit, although no conclusive evidence has been discovered to prove it. They carried with them a camera that some believe might hold the proof of their ascent to the top of the world but it has yet to be recovered. This story remains to this day one of mountaineering’s greatest mysteries, still hotly debated amongst mountaineering circles some eighty years later.

An expedition was mounted in 1999 to search for Mallory and Irvine’s remains and to hopefully recover the camera that might solve this mystery. They were unable to locate Irvine’s body but they did locate George Mallory. He was discovered face down at about 27,500 feet on the North Face of Everest. He’d fallen at some point during the descent, severely breaking his right leg in two places, injuring his shoulder, breaking an arm, and suffering what appeared to be a fatal blow to the forehead. A broken length of rope was found tied around his torso and his ribs were fractured and his torso bruised beneath the rope. As he fell it appears the rope caught on something solid before it broke, subsequently sealing his fate. It’s assumed he was roped to Irvine when he fell but it’s virtually impossible to know for sure.

He didn’t fall far though; his body did not show the severe and significant injury that others had who’d fallen long distances on Everest did. Regardless of distance his fall was, nonetheless, fatal. Although Irvine’s remains were not found in 1999 it is believed that someone from a Chinese expedition may have spotted him in 1960 lying on his back between two large rocks. However, even recent attempts to find Irvine’s body and recover any artifacts and/or proof of a summit have been unsuccessful. It’s not impossible that the two fell together; Mallory coming to a stop and Irvine continuing to fall much, much further.

Andrew "Sandy" Irvine
Andrew "Sandy" Irvine

The burning question is, of course, whether or not they reached the summit before they died. They were last seen through a momentary break in the clouds, going for the summit, by a fellow member of their group, Noel Odell. But as the clouds rolled in his vision of them disappeared forever. That was the last time the pair were ever seen alive. Climber/historian Jochen Hemmleb and others believe there is a strong possibility that the pair made it to the top and died during the descent. Still others believe they turned around somewhere below the summit, probably before what’s called the “second step” and died on the descent. There seems to be little question of the fall occurring on the way down and back to camp; rather the debate is how high they got before they died.

When Mallory’s body was found no camera was found near him or on his person. It’s possible, however, that Irvine had the camera and that it’s still somewhere on the North Face of Everest with Irvine’s body. Kodak claims that the freezing temperatures and dry conditions could preserve the film and possibly allow it to be developed, although the images would not be very clear.  Others are not so confident.

“Because it’s there.”

Mallory is said to have quipped this response to a pushy reporter when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. In the years since, that phrase has entered into and well beyond the American vernacular.  It’s been adopted by other climbers almost as a creedo; as a way of saying “if you have to ask then you’ll never understand”.  The unimaginative might see such a sentiment as trivial and foolish; those with a bit more creativity and vision can most definitely understand there’s more beneath the surface.  As if to remove all doubt, Mallory expounded elsewhere on this terse response with much more detail and introspection:

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 behaviour 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.

I’m absolutely taken with this story. After Edmund Hillary died I started reading about Everest and ran across the story of Mallory & Irvine. Soon after I realized that this story transcends mountain climbing and that there are many parallels between the life and death of Mallory & Irvine and the lives and ultimate deaths of us all. I’m fascinated by the mystery, of not knowing exactly what happened on that day, of not knowing if they achieved their goal. I’m hounded by unanwswered questions that may never be answered.

Irvine and Mallory
Irvine and Mallory

The initial allure for most is the mystery of whether or not they made it and if we’ll ever know for sure. Mallory and Irvine literally disappeared into the mist; these real men with real flesh and real bones, with real hopes and dreams, with loved ones who cared about them, disappeared in a scene that could be straight out of a movie. It’s almost cliched, really. I think this further perpetuates and romanticizes the mythical legacy they left behind. Of course no one just disappears. They were correctly assumed to have been killed, but they weren’t swallowed up by some mythical beast or even by the mountain itself. They either fell to their deaths or they died of exposure. The pictures of Mallory’s preserved body are a grim reminder of the reality of what happened.

So did they make it to the top? Did they step where no human being had ever set foot before? Did they gaze at the breathtaking view of the world sprawled out before them? Did they congratulate each other in the thin, freezing air before they attempted their final and fatal descent? There is much more to the mystery than I can include here and it has been examined and re-examined countless times. The so-called Second Step-a large rock wall on the North Face-was seen as the major roadblock to the top. Were Mallory and Irvine both fit and skilled enough to climb the Second Step? Did they try to go around it? Did they run out of oxygen? How many bottles did they take? Did they leave late that morning? Did they push on recklessly because Mallory felt this was his last shot at the history books? Were they too spent, too exhausted to push their bodies to the top? If they made it did Irvine take a picture? Where is the camera? Can the film actually be developed? Did one of them make it while the other perished on the way? Where is Sandy Irvine’s body now? How did he die? Did he fall or die of exposure? Did he fall with Mallory or did he watch his partner disappear down the mountain? Did he fall and bring down his senior partner? So many unanswered questions and so much mystery. And mystery is alluring to us all, really.

Mallory & Irvine's Last Photo
Mallory & Irvine's Last Photo

The conditions they climbed in were rough. Everest is very, very cold and very, very unforgiving in its blind indifference. It could be used as a metaphor for the universe actually. The pair were wearing layers upon layers of natural fiber clothing, a fraction of what today’s climbers have available to them. The lack of oxygen in the air makes it more difficult for the body to heat itself making it even colder than usual. They wore hobnail boots (leather boots with nails in the soles) and climbed with rope that would be considered unacceptable by today’s standards. Many believe they were just too ill-equipped to succeed. They were attempting something that was maybe just ahead of their time; pioneers, true, but doomed pioneers without the tools they needed to do the job. Their oxygen containers were bulky, heavy, experimental. The odds were stacked against them yet they forged ahead regardless. There is little doubt the pioneers in these expeditions were tough enough and brave enough for the job.

No one really knows how Mallory fell. The approximate point has been identified but no one was there to see and no one lived to tell the tale. His goggles were inside his coat pocket when he fell so it’s been assumed he was descending at night and had removed them in order to see. It’s also possible that he removed them during the snow squall he and Irvine were caught in during their summit attempt. It’s believed that Mallory might have slipped on rocks made slippery by the newly deposited snowfall. If Irvine was roped to him it might have been he who fell, taking Mallory with him. Irvine was, after all, younger and less experienced. Mallory was considered one of the finest climbers of the time. Most assumed he just couldn’t fall, it wasn’t possible. Yet he did fall, for reasons unknown, and that fall marked the end of his quest and the end of his life.

Everest, in a sense, is almost like a time capsule. When Conrad Anker found Mallory he and his team opened that time capsule. When Mallory fell time stopped; for him it would always be 1924. Everest would always be his dream, he would always have three children and a wife who he would see soon, and he would soon tell the tale of final victory or defeat on Everest. His body was remarkably well-preserved, including his personal effects. He was still dressed in the tattered remains of 1924 climbing gear, still in one of his hobnail boots, the other foot wearing a tattered wool sock. A fur-lined motorcycle helmet covered his head. Seventy-five years of incessant wind had shredded most of his exposed clothing. On him were some of the things he carried on his last climb: an altimeter, a wristwatch, beef lozenges, goggles, letters from his wife and family. The paper was still preserved after all those years in the dry, frozen environment. In that one spot on the side of the mountain it will in many ways always be 1924.

Mallory and Irvine in 1924 headed to Everest on the SS California
Mallory and Irvine in 1924 headed to Everest on the SS California

I wonder often about the details of the fall. Was he on his way down from the top, elated with success, or had he cut the attempt short and headed back down disappointed? No disrespect to Hillary and Norgay but I’d like to think the former although I’m more likely to believe the latter. When he fell did he have time to even think? I wonder what went through his head. How long did he fall? Did he feel the impact that broke his leg? What about the rope? Did the rope catch, just for a second, allowing a false sense of salvation before snapping and sending him plummeting downward? Mallory was discovered facing north, toward the top of the mountain, arms outstretched, possibly in a self-arrest attempt. He was discovered with a small hole in his head, bone protruding, with dried blood still surrounding the wound, still there 75 years later. Did he get control of his fall enough to attempt a self-arrest, only to be killed by the blow to the forehead? Did his ice axe kick back and cause the wound or did he hit a rock? Did everything go black when the head trauma was incurred or did he survive long enough to contemplate his fate? If conscious did he think of his wife and children? Was he afraid or was he at peace with his fate, knowing he’d taken a gamble and lost? Knowing that one doesn’t win every time they play the game?

In my imagination I see him, falling, striking rocks and sustaining injuries that would take his life, sliding down the face of an indifferent Everest, coming to rest face down where he would die and sleep forever. I see the scene in my mind, his body lying there in the cold night air, wrapped in clothing that was now pointless. No light and no sound but the howling wind. Neither he or his partner would ever return to their homes; their home for the rest of eternity would be Everest. The seasons pass; the snow falls, continually covering his body. Tiny rocks trickle down the mountain from time to time, coming to rest on the frozen body of a man these objects are completely indifferent to. Small pieces of a bigger, indifferent Everest. Maybe Everest on a micro scale.

Everest

Soon it’s 1925, 1926, and 1927; the years pass without him. The world moves on, decade by decade, people changing themselves and the world around them, while Mallory lies broken on the North Face, frozen to the mountain that cared no more whether he lived or died than whether he made it to the top or not. Homocidally indifferent, if you will. The decades pass; the 1930s and the American depression. The 1940s: World War II and the atomic age. The 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, when I was born. A man on the moon, the spirit of that endeavor something which Mallory and Irvine could easily identify with. New inventions like color televisions and computers. During all this Mallory remains frozen to the mountain, the relentless wind tearing the clothing from his body, the mountain birds hollowing out his body. His wife dies, his children grow up and have children of their own. His grandson even climbs Everest himself, using the same route his grandfather pioneered in 1924.

An interesting aspect to this humanizing of the historical Mallory figure is his desire and drive to make it to the top. 1924 was his third attempt; he was getting too old for spending months away from home, too old for mountaineering at this level. He’d traveled the country giving lectures and had been on two time-consuming and dangerous trips to Everest. He’d almost been killed on a previous expedition as it was. He couldn’t afford a fourth trip; it was now or never. I find it interesting that he left his wife and children for these endeavors; maybe the calling from his country fueled his fire. He was a son of Britain, after all. The greatest empire and all that. Maybe domestic life was boring for him, despite his love for his family. Maybe the call of the mountain was like a drug; maybe the euphoria he experienced getting to the top was something nothing else on Earth could assuage. Times were different in 1924; gender roles were more defined. Maybe he felt it was duty to himself and his country. Maybe it was something he thought worth dying for. Maybe he was just selfish. It’s all conjecture really, because the only person who really can testify to it with any real accuracy is lying where he fell on the north face of Everest, frozen to the mountain he so badly felt the need to conquer, now covered in stones.

Mallory climbing
Mallory climbing

And what of a legacy? Amazingly for Mallory and Irvine’s failed attempt at reaching the summit and coming down alive to tell the tale, they’re revered in the mountaineering world. Mallory and Irvine seem to persist at nearly the same level of accomplishment as Hillary and Norgay. Their contribution to the art of mountaineering and their sheer bravery made them icons forever. Ill-equipped as they were they had the best they could get their hands on and they made up for what they didn’t have in equipment in guts and determination. No one had been as high on Everest as them and it wasn’t until Hillary and Norgay’s success that it was known for sure that humans could even climb such a mountain. The 1924 Everest wasn’t the same Everest as it is today; sure the rocks are the same but the spirit of the original mountaineers is gone. Now paying customers with virtually no climbing experience can fork out the cash and climb to the top on fixed lines and beaten paths. Mallory and Irvine had no maps, no guides, no fixed lines, and no guarantee that the mountain could even be climbed. Truly unchartered territory.

And what of Irvine’s legacy? Irvine was a pup by most standards, twenty two years old and just getting started. It seems Irvine will always play the sidekick in this tale, relegated to a position just behind his more experienced and elder climbing partner. But Mallory was the famous one and Irvine was the less experienced partner, so there was some coattail riding going on. I’ve read that Irvine wanted the summit badly and he felt that Mallory was his ticket to the top. Mallory was one of the best, so what better way to get to the top? It was a symbiotic relationship; Mallory provided Irvine the experience and ability to get to the top whereas Irvine provided Mallory with a strong, young partner who could help carry the load. Irvine had made numerous improvements to the oxygen apparatus they were using and Mallory viewed these devices as essential to making it to the top. It’s no wonder Mallory chose Irvine to accompany him to the top. Although Irvine’s legacy doesn’t receive quite the same billing as Mallory’s they’re forever linked in this final act. Rarely does one see Mallory’s name mentioned without Irvine’s; they’re inextricably intertwined. His legacy will forever be tied to Everest and to Mallory, as a man with big dreams and a life cut short in pursuit of those dreams.

There are still efforts being made to find Sandy Irvine and the elusive camera. I think that for a lot of people just knowing what happened to Irvine would be as important as finding the camera. At the time of this writing a couple efforts were made as recent as 2004 but were unsuccessful. After almost eighty-five years interest in what happened to this intrepid pair has remained high, high enough for people to spend thousands of dollars in the quest to solve the mystery. I’d wager it’s only a matter of time before Irvine is found and the issue is put to bed forever. If he doesn’t have the camera, if no images exist from the summit, or if the film can’t be developed, then we’ll never know if they were successful. But, if he has the camera and the conditions are right, history could be rewritten. No matter what, there’s no way to definitively prove they did not reach the summit, so without proof of success the mystery is sure to live on for many more generations.

Here are a few links with more information about George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. I find this story fascinating so I wanted to share my thoughts on it as well as some links to more information.

Jake Norton at the Summit of Everest
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5 Replies to “Mallory & Irvine: Lost on Everest”

  1. Hi Brian,
    Came across your great article on Mallory & Irvine the other day, and revisited it today after your comment on my blog. Thanks for visiting, and thanks also for putting together a great entry on the story of Mallory & Irvine. As you know, it has been a big part of my life from my early days reading about Everest and dreaming of one day climbing that daunting North/Northeast Ridge Route to finally getting there in 1999 not so much to climb, but to do something that to me was far more important and fascinating – to search for evidence of Mallory & Irvine. I’ve been able to play a part in the two subsequent significant searches, 2001 & 2004. You’ve done a great job here in putting the story and the mystery in context and making it approachable to those who have never heard of George Mallory or Andrew Irvine, and perhaps not even of Everest. Kudos!

    Thanks again, and, if you’re interested, please take a look at my Mallory & Irvine posts on my blog at http://mountainworld.typepad.com/mountainworld/mallory_irvine/index.html.

    All the best,

    Jake Norton
    MountainWorld Productions

  2. @Jake Norton

    Thanks for your comments (and your e-mail). I’m glad you liked the post; I hope that I did the story and all the people involved justice. Hopefully Sandy will be found soon and I’ll be updating this post; camera or not that should provide some closure.

    Take care,
    Brian

  3. Hello Brian,

    Thanks for your fine article about M & I. I’ve been fascinated by their story most of my life. In the mid-1950’s, I saw a TV docu-drama about their 1924 Everest attempt on a history program called You Are There. In October 1960, while in a 10th grade English literature class, I and the other kids were required to read a story in our textbook entitled “Mallory and Irvine: The Climb to Eternity.” It featured excellent writing and a fine summary of the action. When I’d finished reading it, I sat there in class absolutely stunned. I read the story a 2nd time that night, after I’d finished my homework. That was 50 years ago. I’m now 65 years of age, and I still love reading books about Mt. Everest, and especially the tragic mystery of M & I.

    I’m very glad that there are others who share my fascination with this subject. Even though they died in their attempt on Everest, Mallory and Irvine will coninue to inspire people as long as courage is honored.

    Yours,

    Dan Peed

    1. Thanks for the comments Dan. I always enjoy hearing from people who share my interest in the Mallory and Irvine disappearance. I first heard about it maybe three years ago and have been fascinated since. I thought my interest would wane after a few months but that hasn’t happened. I’ve read just about every article on the Internet about the disappearance; I’ve also read “Ghosts of Everest” and “Last Climb”. About a week or so ago I saw “The Wildest Dream” in the theater. I’d recommend all those if you haven’t read or seen them yet.

      I’m still holding out hope that someone will find Sandy Irvine soon. Unfortunately it’s expensive and dangerous work. Even if they don’t find the camera at least we’d know what happened to him. Those guys were tough as nails and they deserve their story told…to the end.

      Again, I appreciate you taking the time to leave a note. One thing you might find interesting is that this page is my second most popular page…so there are actually quite a few people still interested.

      Take it easy,
      Brian

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