Veteran climber and Everest summiter Eric Simonson leads a team of high altitude mountaineers up Mount Everest's North Ridge in a search of evidence of English climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared in 1924 just 900 feet below the summit.
As leader of this spring's Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, Simonson will head up a team not just of climbers, but also historians, filmmakers and even glaciologists, who will endeavor to determine once and for all the fate of the two English climbers who vanished 75 years ago.
For Simonson, the work he will conduct on Mount Everest this year is not so much a search for artifacts, but rather a "history lesson."
"The achievement of climbers such as George Mallory and Andrew Irvine," Simonson told this reporter, "is not fully appreciated. To get within a few hundred feet of the summit in 1924, wearing tweed clothing and using extremely heavy and primitive oxygen gear, was incredible. Our expedition to Everest this year will conduct important historical research, but in a way it pays homage to those guys, and to all the Everest climbers who have gone before us."
Joining Simonson on the ascent of Everest's North Ridge will be Dave Hahn, Conrad Anker, Andy Politz, Tap Richards, Graham Hoyland, and Jake Norton. Also on the team are Everest historians Jochen Hemmleb and Larry Johnson, glaciologist Dan Mann and geophysicist Bernard Rabus. Hemmleb, a climber himself, will, from the lower camps, help direct the efforts of the climbing team as they look for evidence of the missing climbers or their camera. Rabus and Mann will study the Rongbuk Glacier related to global long-term climate change.
But high on the mountain is where the historical work will take place. It's on the upper Northeast Ridge, on the route's notorious "steps," where the climbers will face their greatest obstacles. And it is somewhere among those steps where the two bold English climbers disappeared in 1924.
Some evidence has already been recovered that hints to the fate of the two men. In 1933, an ice axe, identified as belonging to one of the missing climbers, was found near the first step. And in 1975, a Chinese climber found a body he described as "old English dead," but the climber who made the discovery died before he could describe its exact location.
The members of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition expect to combine the best existing information, a thorough search, and even high tech equipment to uncover more evidence of the missing climbers. This strong team may very well put to rest the persistent mystery of Andrew Irvine and George Mallory.
DISCOVERING GEORGE MALLORY'S BODY AFTER 75 YEARS
by: David Hahn, North Face Climbing Team at 27,000 ' on Mount Everest
We began a straight traverse to the west in order to crest an indistinct ridge crucial to the 1975 camp placement. It seemed only minutes before Jake had picked up one of the distinctive blue oxygen bottles that Jochen had told us the Chinese used in that year. With so little snow cover, we now felt buoyed by optimism. How could we not find Irvine? Andy, Jake, Tap and Conrad took off for the huge bowl shaped basin on the other side of the Chinese Rib. I was amazed at the speed with which they fanned out since I was still picking my steps carefully on the steep, loose slopes. The only thing worse than the loose, small rocks were the big flat, downsloping ones or the black ice they were often residing upon.
I found myself looking down toward the Central Rongbuk 7000' below at times when I knew I was supposed to be looking for clues on the ledges around me. I chose to stick with the Chinese Rib and was doing my best at the same time to keep track of my partners. In no time at all, they were spread well out across the North Face. Andy, at one point, hollered into his radio that Conrad was looking way too far in the wrong direction. My eyes found Andy then and I thought the same thing for him. The sobering news of finding modern bodies began to fill the radio. On the upper North Face, there can only be the bodies from 1924 and then from 1975 and after. Most fatalities, by far, have come in the past 10 years, and I had convinced myself that most of those had come as exhausted climbers simply sat down to die.
I had chosen to believe that falls were rare. But the calls came in, muffled, through my down suit and oxygen "helmet." I could hear of several finds that made me look up at the towering yellow band above. It was clear I'd miscalculated. People did apparently fall from the Northeast Ridge crest and from the nearly eight hundred foot Yellow Band below it. But I didn't alter my own search plan at all. I guess I had decided so firmly that Sandy Irvine had sat down, perhaps after watching the older and more experienced Mallory fall away down the Kangshung, that I was convinced that I would find him in peaceful repose somewhere on the lesser angled Rib. I kept telling myself that the distance from Camp VI could not be far if the Chinese had found him without trying.
Looking west, I could see that Tap and I were beginning to come close to one another. Beyond him, Andy was visible chasing some steep snow gullies up into the Yellow Band. I saw Jake then starting to move fast down the hill toward Conrad, who seemed miles away. There was a lot of radio traffic that I realized I hadn't paid much attention to for some minutes. I yelled to Tap to ask what was up and he said that Conrad had found "something" and that he wanted us all there. Our radio traffic had to be guarded since other expeditions and half of Nepal could easily hear us from our high broadcasting station. We wanted to control the dispersal of any information we were laboring so hard to gather. It meant that I couldn't get on the horn and say 'Conrad, why should I come way the heck over there and risk my neck on all those steep slopes?' And he couldn't tell me that he found an "old English dead," but I knew he had.
It meant the beginning of a frustrating "radio silence" for Jochen and our BBC/PBS NOVA film crew at Base Camp and for Eric at ABC. Back on the hill though, it was the trigger for a unique afternoon. Tap got Andy's attention then and they raced on down toward Conrad. I went a little slower, trying to get a little video of the scene and trying not to fall and go whizzing past my sure-footed partners.
In my mind, we'd been searching for 20 minutes. Tops. Later I was told it was between one-and-a-half and two hours. Time is apparently an oxygen-sensitive commodity. Still, it seemed amazing that we'd found Sandy Irvine in so little time and with so little relative struggle. Nevertheless, there was absolutely no question, as I approached my partners, that they were looking at a man who'd been clinging to Mount Everest for 75 years. His clothing was missing from much of his body, and his skin was bleached white to a surprising extent. I felt I was viewing a Greek or Roman marble statue. The others pointed immediately to the perfectly preserved hob-nail boot on one of his feet and to the boot top fracture of his tibia and fibula above that.
They made me notice the climbing rope about the body, braided and white, almost more like decoration than a vital tool for staying alive in the vertical world. No one had touched the man, as yet, and already the answers to age-old questions were flooding our senses. He had died from a fall. Trauma was present, but not overwhelming, so it most likely had not been a fall from the Northeast Ridge Crest where the legendary ice axe had been found in 1933. That would be too much for a body. Yes, this man had fallen in the rocks, and he then must have slid some distance down snow slopes, but he'd lived through it all. He'd arrested his fall with outstretched arms, and grasping hands and he'd composed himself to die, crossing his broken leg over the other to get some last relief.
Looking at his layered, thin clothing (perhaps as many as seven or nine layers of cotton and wool and tweed, adding up only to a small fraction of the six inches of down and pile and Gore-Tex covering me as I looked on in wonder) it was obvious that the end had come quickly after, for a man in shock at 27,000'. The rope meant that there had been no splitting up of these most famous of climbing partners. They'd been torn apart by the mountain, not by the need of one to summit without the burden of the other. The man was at peace.
Conrad commented that he'd felt uncomfortable approaching the contorted and anguished modern figures on the mountainside. Tap echoed this, they hadn't gone near those poor souls. This body was somehow different though. After a few minutes of pictures and stunned silence, we brought ourselves around to our work. Packs and oxygen got set aside as we began to search for some identifying features and relics. I doubt that any of us this far along in our climbing and mountain careers harbored the illusion that searching the body of a dead man would be easy, but we were all a little surprised at the difficulty of our task.
The head and arms of the prone, uphill oriented climber were frozen solidly into the mound of small rock that had collected over the years against the body. There would be no rolling him over. Just reaching under him required hours of patient chopping with our ice-axes and pocket knives. In cutting away some clothing, Jake came upon a manufacturer's label that we all bent over to see. Beneath that label was a neatly stitched one that said "G. Mallory." We stopped all work and looked in one another's faces... but our first utterances were along the lines of 'Why would Andrew Irvine be wearing George Mallory's shirt?' Then it finally hit us, we had not found Irvine. We had not rediscovered Wang Hong Bao's "Old English Dead." We were in the presence of George Leigh Mallory himself. THE man of the mountain, THE needle in the haystack. Mallory was the man whose boldness and drive we'd grown up in awe of... and now we were touching him. We each then noticed the muscular arms of the climber, still, after all these years, George Mallory cut an impressive figure.
There were some more labels, each one reinforcing like hammer blows the importance of what we were doing. I think our general inclination, in the face of our difficult position and our subject's desperate grasp on the mountain, was to go home with the information we'd obtained. Leave for some other day a more thorough excavation and search. But we also knew that so far up Everest, that other day might not materialize and that there was some need to only disturb George Mallory this once in an effort to validate what may have been his final and greatest mountain summit. We weren't finding a camera, the supposed quick route to that validation. It was going to be important to know for certain that it was gone, not merely under him and inaccessible. So we continued our work. There was no ice-axe. There was no oxygen rig (most likely he'd used it up and pitched the empty framework and bottles). But there were some remarkable things that turned up, starting with an altimeter good to 30,000' (broken in the fall, apparently) and culminating in a perfectly preserved letter from his wife, worn on his chest, close to his heart.
That rocked us back on our heels once again, seeing his name on the envelope and half the world's postmarks surrounding it. When Jake turned up the goggles in a chest pocket, we were nearly at our oxygen starved thinking limits. That implied that the light was getting scarce or absent when the accident occurred. Which could easily be taken as a sign that Mallory and Irvine were descending. If they were coming down in the dark... perhaps they'd gambled all the way to the top of the mountain. But that was beginning to stretch the evidence at hand. Looking up, they had not fallen from near the crux of the modern route, the Second Step. This fall had happened somewhere between the First Step and the lower exit of the gully that modern climbers use above Camp VI to get through the Yellow Band.
If we were stretching our imaginations too far, we were also starting to stretch our safe time constraints for the day. After gathering some larger rocks for a burial (not an easy task in this place where the large rocks go by at 60mph) Andy read the committal ceremony from the church back in Bristol (in the UK) and we got our packs on again.
As the others walked away, I took a final calm look at the setting. I marveled that Conrad had found this needle in the haystack, but then I began to see the logic he'd spoken of when I first arrived on the scene. He'd kept his eye on the big picture, trying to understand how snow and gravity and people work. I'd been pretty well focused on my preconceptions and 20 minute walk small picture. It seemed fitting to me then that one of the boldest of modern climbers had found the boldest of historical climbers.
Our day was, by no means, over then. We could call the boss down at ABC to tell him we were headed back to safety. But we couldn't tell Eric who we'd found. In Base Camp as too, they knew through the telescope and Conrad's cryptic demands for a meeting that we'd had success, but they all thought it was Andrew Irvine we'd seen. This inability to shout everything to the world might have been frustrating, except that we desperately needed to concentrate on our own steps and choices of rope and on the steadily rebuilding wind.
By the time we stumbled into Camp V again, it was blowing fully 40mph and there was only an hour of daylight left. We crawled into our tents, fired the stoves and sat back in wonder at the world, every now and then reminding each other of some particular of an amazing day. Before passing out that evening, we realized that we were now a thousand times more hungry for knowledge than we had been just that morning. Every answer we'd found to climbing's great mystery had hatched further questions. We knew we would need to search again to find Andrew Irvine to know some of his story and greatness.