George Mallory and Sandy Irvine
The First to Summit Mt. Everest?
The year 2013 marks several anniversaries in Mt. Everest history. May 29th marks the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s climb, which has been universally accepted as the first successful summit of Everest. May 1st was the 50th anniversary of the first American summit by Jim Whittaker, followed by the first successful West Ridge Route summit by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld on May 22nd. Everest has had a long and storied history of triumphs and tragedies for those who have attempted to reach the highest point on Earth. One tragic story in particular has always stood out as both a mystery and a question: Were George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine the first adventurers to reach Everest’s summit?
George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to climb Mt. Everest in 1924 as part of a British led expedition. They were last seen by Noel Odell on June 29th as the clouds broke momentarily above him, giving him an estimate that the pair was less than a thousand feet below the summit and “moving expeditiously.” This was the last that anyone saw the men, until Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999 by an expedition including world renowned climber and mountaineer, Conrad Anker (Anker and Roberts 11-20). That expedition, as well as later work by Anker and others, brought up the lingering question of whether or not Mallory and Irvine were in reality the first to summit Everest, a hypothesis that I tend to agree with.
I first became interested in the Mallory and Irvine story after watching the movie The Wildest Dream in which Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding tried to replicate the events of the 1924 expedition. From the beginning of the documentary, questions arose about whether or not Mallory and Irvine might have achieved the summit of Everest, with several key pieces of evidence being presented. It was already known that they had been momentarily spotted about 800’ below the summit and still ascending, but Anker and the 1999 expedition team found evidence that showed the two were in the process of descending, possibly several hours after Noel Odell had witnessed their progress through the cloud break. According to the historical record, Odell states seeing the men around 12:50 in the afternoon, and the pair were making forward progress (Anker and Roberts). While examining the body in 1999, Anker and that expedition team found several personal items still on Mallory’s body including his sun goggles. This would be a strong indicator that he and Irvine were descending after the sun had set. The location of Mallory’s body was another clue to the sequence of events and timeline, as it was found to the East of the summit also indicating the pair was descending (The Wildest Dream).
As the mystery surrounding Mallory and Irvine deepened, another clue as to the possible summit achievement came to light. In Mallory’s pockets, the researchers found multiple personal effects and letters that were perfectly preserved, but one item he was known to carry was missing: A photograph of his wife Ruth. This one seemingly miniscule item could be the key piece of evidence that proved whether or not Mallory and Irvine had in fact reached the summit. It was well known to the 1924 expedition members that Mallory had promised his wife that he would place her picture on the summit once he reached it, and now this one personal item was nowhere to be found. Mallory’s pockets were full of personal items such as letters, an altimeter, and even receipts, but the picture was never found (The Wildest Dream).
By this point, I was already becoming convinced that Mallory and Irvine very well could have been the first humans to reach 29,029 feet. In his book, Anker actually says he doesn’t believe that the men made it to the summit, and wondered if his discovery “aided in the destruction of a mystery.” In 2007, Anker, along with British climber Leo Houlding, set out to retrace Mallory and Irvine’s steps, and see if it was in fact possible for the men to have reached the summit. They even replicated the equipment the men used and made a specific point of attempting the notorious “Second Step” without the aid of a placed ladder. If any hurdle could keep a man off of the summit, this could very well been it (The Wildest Dream).
For the purposes of 2007 expedition, Anker and Houlding had clothing and equipment accurate to the 1924 expedition recreated for them. This included the style of clothing in authentic period materials, cotton ropes, long wooden handle ice axes, and even hobnail boots. Hobnail boots were essentially just as they sounded, boots with metal nails or spikes driven through the soles to give the boots grip on the icy slopes. High up on Everest, Anker and Houlding tested the clothing and equipment, coming to the conclusion that it would work in such an extreme environment, but only if the climbers kept moving, and the weather didn’t shift to the extremes with the monsoon season approaching (The Wildest Dream).
The remaining hurdle to possibly proving if Mallory and Irvine could have achieved the summit came as they approached the notorious Second Step; a 90 foot high overhanging cliff that separates the summit ridge from the actual summit. A Chinese expedition placed a fixed ladder on the Second Step in 1975, which has remained in place and has been used by almost every climber on the North Col Route since. While solo climbing Everest in 1995, and doing so without oxygen, climber Alison Hargreaves stated that even without the ladder or fixed ropes, “it would have been physically possible” for Mallory and Irvine to have climbed the Second Step in 1924 (Holzel and Salkeld 312-313).
Just as with the 1924 expedition, Anker and Houlding were climbing into the start of the monsoon season, and were nearing the end of the climbing window for the year. As they made their summit push, they reached the Second Step on June 14th, close to the same time in the climbing season and with similar conditions to what Mallory and Irvine would have experienced. The expedition Sherpa’s removed the Chinese ladder as well as the fixed ropes, returning the Second Step to the same condition as it was in 1924. With over 7000 feet of drop-off below them, Anker and Houlding then began a free climb of the Step while roped together, just as Mallory and Irvine would have been. Anker succeeded in free climbing the Second Step after studying the route, with Houlding following behind shortly after. Houlding, who up until this point in life had no experience with high altitude climbing, stated unequivocally that in regards to free climbing the Second Step, “they were definitely capable of doing it” back in 1924 (The Wildest Dream).
Although Anker himself had been skeptical after the 1999 climb that Mallory and Irvine had indeed succeeded in reaching Everest’s summit, he had now proven to himself and others that it may have been possible to reach 29,029 feet given the equipment and techniques that were standard in 1924. Still, several books have been written about the events of 1924 that hold a higher degree of skepticism, but many in the climbing community would like to believe that Mallory and Irvine had indeed been the first. The evidence to support either case is open to interpretation, but I like to believe that the evidence supports the hypothesis that Mallory and Irvine were in fact the first to climb to the heavens. As Tom Holzel wrote in 1999 after the discovery of Mallory’s body, “we are inspired anew by their spirit that is truly invincible.”
As you read this, you may ask the question, “Why?” Why climb in the first place. George Mallory was asked this question after an earlier expedition to Everest in 1922. During a trip to the United States between the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, Mallory went on a speaking tour around the East coast and Midwest. At an event in Philadelphia, he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Mallory simply stated “Because it is there” (Mitchell 152). Mallory’s enduring desire to reach the highest point on Earth lends credence to the possibility that through sheer determination, he along with Sandy Irvine may have in fact been the first people to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. I’d like to think that somewhere on the summit there is a picture of Ruth Mallory, left by her husband George just as he promised.
Anker, Conrad and David Roberts. The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Everest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
Holzel, Tom and Audrey Salkeld. The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999. Print.
Mitchell, Richard G. Mountain Experience: The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.
The Wildest Dream. Dir. Anthony Geffen. Perf. Conrad Anker, et al. 2010. Film.