The interminable debate over whether Mallory and Irvine managed to reach the summit of Everest or not continues to perplex even the most seasoned mountaineers. Some argue that their feat cannot be considered as “summiting” if they only managed to ascend the mountain. It is believed that both men were carrying two cylinders of oxygen each and were roped together when they slipped, causing serious injuries.
Two circumstantial pieces of evidence have fueled the belief that Mallory did, in fact, reach Everest’s summit. Firstly, no photograph of his wife was found on his body, and it was his promise to leave it at the summit upon reaching it. Secondly, the unbroken snow goggles found in his pocket indicated that he had made a push for the summit and was descending after sunset. Given their location, this would suggest that they had at least made a significant attempt on the summit.
However, others have argued that the route they were taking was extremely difficult, particularly the Second Step on the North Ridge, which would have stretched Mallory’s climbing abilities to the limit. Based on the available evidence, many have described Mallory’s chances of summiting as “possible, but not probable.”
Ultimately, the answers to these enigmatic questions perished with Mallory and Irvine on Everest. Although they may not have achieved the outcome they desired, their names remain deeply embedded in Everest’s history and continue to baffle even the most knowledgeable climbers.
Everest’s Enduring Mystery: Did Mallory and Irvine Summit Before Hillary and Norgay?
Everest, the world’s highest mountain, has captivated the imagination of mountaineers for centuries. With its daunting peak reaching 29,029 feet, it is a challenge that pushes human endurance to its utmost limits. At the start of the 20th century, there was renewed interest in summiting the mighty mountain and thus began the race to be the first to conquer Everest.
Whilst Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to have summited Everest in May 1953, theories have swirled for decades that perhaps they were beaten, nearly 30 years earlier, by a 1924 expedition led by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.
The Mallory and Irvine Expedition
George Mallory was an experienced mountaineer who had already made two previous attempts to summit Everest in 1921 and 1922. In 1924, he returned to the mountain with his partner, Andrew Irvine, as part of the British Everest Expedition.
Their expedition was the first to use bottled oxygen, which was believed to give climbers an advantage in the thin air at such high altitudes. The two men set out from their final camp on June 8, 1924, and were last seen just a few hundred meters from the summit. They never returned to camp and were declared missing, presumed dead.
The Debate on Whether Mallory and Irvine Summited Everest
The question of whether Mallory and Irvine summited Everest before their disappearance has fascinated mountaineers and historians for decades. There are arguments for and against their success.
Arguments for their success
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence in favor of Mallory and Irvine’s success is a photograph that was discovered on Mallory’s body when it was found in 1999. The photograph was taken by Irvine and shows Mallory climbing the Second Step, a particularly difficult section of the climb just below the summit. If the photograph was taken on the day of their disappearance, it would suggest that they had reached the summit before they died.
Another argument in favor of their success is the fact that Mallory was known to be an exceptional climber. He had attempted Everest twice before and was determined to succeed. Irvine was also a skilled climber and had been chosen for the expedition for his technical expertise.
Arguments against their success
The lack of hard evidence is the biggest argument against Mallory and Irvine’s success. Whilst the photograph is compelling, it does not definitively prove that they summited Everest. There is also no record of them reaching the summit in the expedition’s official logbook, which has led some to believe that they did not make it.
The fact that neither man returned to camp is also concerning. It is possible that they died on the way down from the summit, after having reached it, but it is equally possible that they did not make it to the top at all.
There are no conclusive proofs. Mallory’s snow goggles were discovered in his pocket, indicating that he fell late in the day, which might indicate that they were descending from a much higher altitude. The photograph of his wife that he had promised to place on the peak was nowhere to be found in his pockets. The camera was not discovered on him. Irvine’s corpse was never discovered. Actually, when they discovered Mallory’s body, they were looking for Irvine. Could they make it to the top? Yes. Mallory was an exceptional rock climber. He was credited with achieving exceptional achievements that others did not even consider. Irvine’s missing body and the rope burn on Mallory’s body both point to an accident.
Where? It’s impossible to say. Why was Mallory using Irvine’s axe? Did he leave his axe on the summit of Everest? Did he ascend by himself? There are several questions. Because it will be nearly 30 years before the summit is reached, all evidence will have vanished. But would he disclose that he found the axe on the top? Strangely, he never argued that Mallory could never reach the summit due to the primitive equipment or the difficulty. It will be 100 years after their deadly effort in four years. We shall never know until Irvine’s body is discovered and the camera provides some proof (but what film survives 100 years?).
He was credited with achieving exceptional achievements that others did not even consider. Irvine’s missing body and the rope burn on Mallory’s body both point to an accident.
The Mystery Endures
Despite the many clues left behind by the climbers, the fate of Mallory and Irvine remains a mystery. It is impossible to know exactly what happened, and the various pieces of evidence can be interpreted in different ways. Below are the 7 clues that make this contested milestone an open debate.
1. The Discovery of Irvine’s Ice Axe
In 1933, a group of climbers discovered the ice axe belonging to Andrew Irvine. The axe was found sitting on a rock below the first step, a location that would have been on the climbers’ descent route. It seems unlikely that Irvine would have left the axe intentionally, so it is possible that he dropped it during a fall on the way down. However, there is some speculation that he may have left it behind on purpose during the ascent, as he was inexperienced and may not have realized its importance.
2. The Oxygen Bottle and Its Significance
Another significant discovery was an oxygen bottle found near the first step. It is uncertain exactly where the bottle was found, as there is speculation that it may have been moved before its position was noted. However, it is clear that the bottle was dropped on the way up, indicating that the climbers had used up the first bottle at that point. This discovery is important as it suggests that the climbers were attempting to use supplemental oxygen, which was a relatively new technology at the time.
3. Mallory’s Body and Its Puzzling Injuries
George Mallory’s body was discovered about 1,000 feet below the ice axe location and 300 feet horizontal. It is highly unlikely that he fell from the vicinity of the ice axe, as his injuries would have been much more severe. He had a broken rope around his waist, suggesting that both climbers had fallen and the rope tying them together had snapped. He also had a severe puncture injury to his forehead, which likely occurred when his ice axe bounced up off a rock while he was in the self-arrest position during a fall.
Mallory’s body came to rest in a self-arrest position with his feet downhill and facing into the slope. His ice axe was not found, which suggests that he may have lost it during a fall. The items found on his body provide few clues, although his goggles were in his pocket, indicating that he may have fallen in low light conditions. His wristwatch was also broken, but it is unclear how or where this happened.
4. Odell’s Sighting
Odell was a member of the party who hiked to Camp 6, the high camp, to help them when they returned the next day. He was looking for them around 12:50 p.m. at camp 6, but his view of the trail was obscured by clouds. Suddenly, the clouds parted, and Odell had a clear view, claiming to see two climbers. In his own words, here it is.
At 12.50 p.m., just as I was emerging from ecstasy over discovering 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 revealed.
My attention was drawn to a tiny black spot silhouetted on a little snow-crest behind a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot appeared and traveled up the snow to join the previous one on the summit. The first then approached the enormous rock-step and quickly emerged at the top, followed by the second. Then the entire interesting image faded, shrouded once again in haze.
It appears to me that he saw the climbers, however some speculated that he only saw rocks and imagined the rest while in a semi-hypoxic state. But where had they gone? Odell himself was undecided between the first and second steps. Many people believe that the description corresponds to the third step. Finally, no one can provide an answer.
As you look along the ridge to the summit from Odell’s vantage point, the features are difficult to identify. Odell had no clue he was making their final remark alive. And he had no prior experience identifying features from that altitude and vantage point. It can be strange maneuvering a high mountain face relying purely on observations obtained from below. Based on observations far lower down, nothing appears to be quite comparable. Odell would most likely struggle to name the traits as he observed them. Only later, when his observation became critical, did he struggle to identify what he observed.
However, his recollections, like so much eyewitness testimony, are not a reliable observation of exact features because he was not attempting to figure that out while looking. However, if they were at the first or second step at 12:50 p.m., any summit attempt would be doomed.
Also, no one knows what route they took, and no one had ever been on the ridge route, which is where Odell said they were. Previous efforts had taken place below the crest, into the Great Couloir.
5. Wang Hungbao’s Sighting: A Matter of Interpretation
In 1975, Wang Hungbao, a Chinese climber, reportedly stumbled upon “a foreign mountaineer” at around 26,570 ft, a location below the ice axe discovered with Mallory’s body. However, the accuracy and interpretation of Wang’s account remain uncertain. He did not identify the climber by name, and his location was imprecise. Wang died in an avalanche shortly after his report, and no one could follow up on his claim. Although many believe that Wang saw Irvine, no physical evidence has supported this theory.
6. The Afternoon Snowstorm: A Fatal Blow?
Odell also reported that a snowstorm hit later that afternoon, which could have made any summit bid impossible. The weather at high altitudes on Mount Everest is notoriously unpredictable, and sudden storms can be deadly. The storm’s exact severity is unknown, but it is speculated that it was part of a low-pressure system that could have reduced the available oxygen.
7. The Exhaustion of Oxygen Cannisters: The Most Likely Culprit?
The use of supplemental oxygen was a relatively new practice in 1924, and its effectiveness and limitations were not well understood. Recent analyses suggest that Mallory and Irvine would have exhausted their oxygen supply well below the summit, even if they had carried the recommended three cannisters each. Given Mallory’s preference for carrying less weight, it is unlikely that they had more than two cannisters each. This limitation would have made a successful summit bid highly improbable, given the oxygen-dependent nature of high-altitude climbing.
The mystery of Mallory and Irvine’s fate on Mount Everest remains unsolved, and many questions continue to baffle climbers and historians. Despite the tantalizing accounts of sightings and heroic efforts of search parties over the years, the most likely explanation for their disappearance is that they were forced to turn back due to exhaustion and other factors, and perished somewhere on the mountain. However, the fascination with their story lives on, and many climbers still aspire to follow in their footsteps, as they pursue the ultimate challenge of climbing Mount Everest.