Andrew Irvine, known as “Sandy” to family and friends, was an engineering student from Merton College, Oxford, who disappeared on Everest with George Mallory in 1924. Despite being just two months into his 23rd year when he went missing, his story has been overshadowed by that of Mallory, who was already a hero in the public’s eyes. However, Irvine’s fate is still shrouded in mystery, and 75 years after the two men were lost, people still wonder about the young man who was inextricably linked to Mallory. In this article, we will delve into the life of Andrew Irvine, his personality, his contributions to the 1924 expedition, and the enduring mystery surrounding his disappearance.
Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, has been the subject of countless human achievements, tragedies, and mysteries. The 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition is one of the most famous events in mountaineering history due to the disappearance of celebrated climbers George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Comyn Irvine. This article will explore the life and achievements of Andrew Irvine, who was a talented engineer, rower, and mountaineer. It will also examine his contribution to the 1924 expedition and his legacy.
Early Life and Education
Andrew Irvine was born on April 8, 1902, in Birkenhead, England, to a family with roots in Wales and Scotland. From a young age, Irvine demonstrated intellectual and athletic prowess. Although his father was a historian, Irvine went on to study engineering at Merton College, University of Oxford. At Oxford, he was a talented rower and a member of the university’s successful crew team. He also joined the mountaineering team, where he probably received his first exposure to technical climbing.
The Merton College Arctic Expedition
Andrew Irvine participated in the Merton College Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen, which exposed him to conditions similar to those on Mount Everest. His performance in the harsh environment of these northern latitudes caught the attention of expedition leader Noel Odell. By that time, Odell was already a renowned climber and would later play a significant role in the 1924 disappearance of Irvine and Mallory on Mount Everest.
Selection for the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition
Noel Odell first suggested Irvine as a candidate for the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition. His recommendation resulted in Irvine’s selection as a member of the climbing team for the third British attempt at the world’s tallest peak. General Charles Bruce, another prominent member of the expedition, affectionately referred to Irvine as “our experiment,” for he had no prior experience in high-altitude mountain climbing. Ultimately, the team may have chosen Irvine for his knowledge and invention of an apparatus to deliver supplemental oxygen. Mallory and other leaders of the 1924 expedition had become convinced that supplemental oxygen was the key to the summit.
Irvine’s Contribution to the 1924 Expedition
Mallory himself seemed to trust the young student, stating that Irvine “could be relied on for anything except perhaps conversation.” During the expedition, Irvine made significant improvements to the oxygen sets, making them more functional, lightweight, and durable. He also took care of the expedition’s cameras, camp beds, stoves, and other equipment. He was well-liked and respected by his older colleagues for his intelligence, friendly nature, and tireless work ethic.
The Final Summit Attempt
In early June, the expedition made two unsuccessful attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The team had one final opportunity before the summer monsoon season’s heavy snowfalls made it too dangerous to climb. The most experienced climber, George Mallory, was chosen for the last attempt, even though he considered himself too old for another attempt.
To the surprise of other team members, Mallory chose the inexperienced Andrew Irvine over the more experienced climber, Noel Odell, for the final push. Irvine’s expertise with the oxygen equipment was likely a major factor in Mallory’s decision, but there is an ongoing debate about the exact reasons for his choice.
Armed with Irvine’s custom oxygen apparatus, the team made swift progress up the ridge. Modern calculations estimate that they may have climbed as much as 850 feet/hour during this time. In the early afternoon of June 8th, teammate and support member Noel Odell spotted the pair climbing over either the first, second, or third step (exactly which of the three remains a mystery) and making fast progress toward the summit.
Noel Odell described the moment when he saw the climbers: “At 12.50, just after I had emerged from a state of jubilation at finding the first definite fossils on Everest, there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.”
Unfortunately, this was the last sighting of Mallory and Irvine alive. Their bodies were not discovered until 1999, and the exact circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery.
Theories on Whether Mallory and Irvine Made it to the Summit
The biggest question surrounding Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance is whether they made it to the summit of Everest. The two men were last seen climbing toward the summit by their teammate Noel Odell, who was descending from his own attempt. Odell claimed that he saw the two men disappear into the clouds, and that he never saw them again. Many mountaineers have speculated on what happened to Mallory and Irvine, but the most convincing testimony comes from Conrad Anker, who led an expedition to recover the bodies of Mallory and Irvine in 1999.
Anker believes that it is possible, but unlikely, that either Mallory or Irvine reached the summit before their deaths. The climbing over the second step, which was later dubbed The Hillary Step, is notoriously difficult. Climbers say it goes free at about 5.9, which is the limit of Mallory’s climbing ability at sea level, without the extreme conditions and lack of oxygen on the summit pyramid of Everest. For the timetables to make sense, the men would have had to move at a very high speed to the summit and back down. Mallory was a strong climber, but Irvine had no high-altitude climbing experience and had relatively little technical rock climbing experience. No traces of the team were ever found on or near the summit.
The Flawed Discussion
John Mallory, George Mallory’s son, has stated that the whole discussion surrounding his father’s disappearance may be fundamentally flawed. He believes that the only way to achieve a summit is to come back alive, and that the job is only half done if you don’t make it back down. Mallory’s son’s perspective brings up a valid point that shouldn’t be overlooked. It is impossible to determine if they made it to the summit if they didn’t come back down to confirm it.
Possible Andrew Irvine Sightings
Over the years, there have been several reports of possible sightings of Andrew Irvine on Everest. In 1965, a member of the 1960 Chinese expedition, Wang Fu-chou, gave a speech at the USSR Geographical Society in Leningrad. During his talk, he made a shocking statement that his team had come across the body of a European person at an altitude of around 8,600 meters. When asked how he knew the person was European, he replied that the person was wearing braces. This could have been a reference to the suspenders that were part of Andrew Irvine’s climbing gear.
Xu Jing, the deputy leader of the 1960 Chinese expedition, mentioned that while he was descending from the First Step, he noticed a deceased climber lying face up with his feet pointing uphill. The body had lodged in a crevice or slot in the rock. Prior to 1960, no one besides Mallory and Irvine had gone missing on the north side of Everest. Mallory’s body was found at a lower altitude, making it highly likely that Xu had found Andrew Irvine. However, the sighting was brief and Xu was struggling during the descent. While he remembered seeing the body, he couldn’t recall its exact location.
The Discovery of the “Dead Englishman”
Japanese climber Ryoten Hasegawa had a conversation with a Chinese climber named Wang Hong-bao in 1979. Wang claimed to have found the body of a “dead Englishman” during the 1975 Chinese Everest Expedition. Wang described the body as lying on its side at the base of a rock, as if asleep. He identified the man as British based on his old-fashioned clothing, which was rotting and disintegrating when touched. Wang also pointed out an injury to the man’s cheek, indicating that he had suffered a fatal fall.
Wang’s story was tragic, but it also raised some intriguing questions. Who was the “dead Englishman,” and what was he doing on Everest? Could he have been one of the many climbers attempting to summit the mountain before Mallory and Irvine’s ill-fated expedition in 1924?
The Lost Camera and the 1975 Chinese Expedition
Mallory and Irvine carried a vintage Kodak camera on their fateful climb. Many enthusiasts have pointed to the “lost camera” as the answer to the greatest mystery in the history of mountaineering. According to reports, there is a possibility that a 1975 Chinese expedition found the camera and buried Andrew Irvine’s body under rocks.
The theory goes that the climbers returned to China with the camera, and one of two things happened. The first theory is that the images were successfully developed, revealing that Mallory and Irvine had, in fact, reached the summit. This would have disrupted the Chinese claim to the first ascent of Everest in 1960 by the North Col route. To avoid losing this coveted title, the Chinese government chose to cover up the evidence.
The second theory posits that the Chinese botched the development of the film and hid the evidence to avoid international embarrassment. In either case, the lost camera has become a symbol of the enduring mystery surrounding the fate of Mallory and Irvine.
Theories and Speculations
The mystery surrounding the lost camera and the “dead Englishman” has led to countless theories and speculations. Some believe that Mallory and Irvine did, in fact, reach the summit and that the Chinese government covered up the evidence. Others suggest that the two climbers fell short of the summit and that the “dead Englishman” was another unfortunate soul who perished on the mountain.
There have been several attempts to locate the lost camera, including a 1999 expedition led by American climber Eric Simonson. Simonson used cutting-edge technology to search the mountain’s slopes, but the camera remains elusive.
The Mystery of Irvine’s Death
The mystery surrounding Irvine’s death has captivated mountaineers and historians for decades. Many theories have been put forward to explain what happened to him and Mallory on that fateful day.
One theory suggests that Irvine and Mallory successfully reached the summit but died on their descent due to exhaustion, hypothermia, or a fall. Another theory suggests that they fell to their death while attempting to climb the Second Step, a steep rock formation on the mountain.
In recent years, several expeditions have been organized to search for the remains of Irvine and Mallory. In 1999, an expedition led by Eric Simonson discovered Mallory’s body at an altitude of 8,155 meters. However, Irvine’s body has never been found, leaving the mystery of his death unresolved.
Despite the mystery surrounding his death, Irvine’s legacy has lived on in the world of mountaineering. He was a skilled climber and a pioneer in the use of new technologies in mountaineering. His determination and passion for adventure continue to inspire mountaineers and adventure enthusiasts around the world.
In 2019, a team of climbers attempted to find Irvine’s body on Mount Everest. Although they were unsuccessful in their search, their expedition brought renewed attention to Irvine’s legacy and the mystery surrounding his death.