Going up or down, Mt. Everest pioneer

Interview/George Mallory

After only two hours of searching for George Mallory's frozen body at 27,000 feet not far from the summit of Mt. Everest, the search team found it.

Seventy-five years had passed since famed climbers Mallory and Andrew Irvine had been lost either approaching Everest's summit or coming back down from reaching the top of the world. Speculation over their success or failure has raged for years in the mountaineering world.

On May 1, 1999, six climbers from the Mallory & Irvine Search Expedition looked down in awe at the injured body of the Englishman, now an eerie alabaster white and lying face down in rocks with shredded clothing still attached to him.

Would there be clues here to confirm Mallory's successful summit and therefore edge Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 Everest climb from the record books as the first?

Led by veteran American climber, Eric Simonson, the Mallory & Irvine Search Expedition reported to the world the next day via the Web site that Mallory had been found.

The intriguing story of Mallory's 1924 expedition, and the 1999 expedition is told in a recent book, "Ghosts of Everest" (Mountaineering Books), in riveting detail by William Northdurft who had full access to Mr. Simonson, Jochen Hemmleb, and Larry Johnson, the principal organizers of the expedition.

Simonson, who has climbed Everest seven times and reached the top in 1991, says that despite new clues, personal items, and notes found in a pouch around Mallory's neck and in his pockets, "we still don't know if he made it, but with this new evidence, it increases the possibility that they could have made it."

After Mallory's body was discovered, and examined, he was buried under rocks on the slope by expedition members and given a Church of England committal service.

The following excerpts are from a recent interview with Simonson.

In 1924, what kind of clothing did Mallory and his expedition wear?

It's quite amazing; they wore all natural fibers, wool and cotton, and tweed jackets over a couple of sweaters. Some had sheepskin or wrapped leggings. These were very tough guys.

Mallory's body had multiple layers, two thin longjohns, the sweater layer, a shirt, then the wind-proof layer, but this added up to about three quarters of an inch. And they wore nailed boots.... They didn't have that much clothing on, which is a significant clue because it means they didn't spend the night out or bivouac [near the top].

What appears to be the circumstances of Mallory's fall?

Before the two men disappeared, it's safe to say they were high up the mountain, and started down in the late afternoon and had trouble getting down. There was a snowstorm for a couple of hours, adding to their trouble. When the sun goes down, it starts getting colder. Mallory takes his goggles off [found in his pocket] and by then the weather becomes bitterly cold, and he's probably getting hypothermic and his brain is befuddled. We know there was a small moon that night, but it was down by midnight and soon it was pitch black. Presumably, they fell from the Yellow Band area [a 700-foot horizontal bed of striated golden limestone beneath the northeast ridge] sometime in the evening.

But all this remains speculation?

Yes. To descend from high up on the summit pyramid and to get down to the First Step [one of three huge, inclined, rocky areas leading to the summit] would have taken four or five hours, so there is no way they could have gotten to the summit later than 3 in the afternoon. We know that Noel Odell [also on the 1924 expedition] saw Mallory and Irvine at about 12:50, at the top of one of the three steps, but we don't know which step. Obviously, there has been a huge debate over where he saw them.

What are some of the other clues or things you discovered?

The notes we found in Mallory's pocket lists six oxygen cylinders and their pressures. This suggests they had more oxygen than we thought, thus more time to spend up high on their summit day. Three bottles would have lasted 12 hours, which means they could have gotten to the top. But you have to keep in mind that [in figuring their descent] you have to get them to the point where they fall. They can't arrive at the summit at 5 in the afternoon because there is no way they can descend the Second and First Step in the dark. And they didn't have their flashlights, which were found in 1933 in a tent at the camp six site. And we didn't find oxygen bottles along the steps.

What happened to the small Kodak camera Mallory was carrying?

We don't know, but Kodak tells us that if it could be found the film in it could be developed, which might prove he had been to the summit. Nor did we find Mallory's wife's photo he was supposed to carry with him to the summit.

And what happened to Irvine?

In 1975 a Chinese climber, Wang Hongbao, apparently found a body of an "English" sitting up, but didn't tell anyone until 1979. The next day he was killed in an avalanche. There is a good chance Irvine is there.

How do you regard Sir Edmund Hillary's successful Everest climb in 1953?

You have to give him all the credit in the world. I would never take anything away from his accomplishment. He has always been a huge hero of mine, and I would hope he would not be offended in any way by this.

Will you return in another expedition?

I'm really tickled we are a small part of Everest's history. We have talked about going back and may well try in 2001; one more crack at looking. If we found the camera or the oxygen bottles, this would put more evidence on the table.... I was delighted with our team because we really got along so well. I thought I was a pretty savvy guide going into this because I had organized a lot of expeditions. But when you go out and raise the kind of money we did, you end up selling your soul to get the dough, so I look back on this as a huge learning experience.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.