Paper written by Thibaut Vanrietvelde
« – But why climbing it?
– Because it is there. »
It has been said that mountains were the home of gods. What bad habit have humans to challenge their own gods? Above all when the home is 29,000 feet high. By 1924 it had become an obsession that Mount Everest might be the accomplishment for 100 year-old mountaineering. And the ultimate challenge to take up. At that time none of the eight-thousanders had been vanquished. It was a dream that few can ever have. Past 23,000 feet the oxygen was so rare that any movement cost nearly four times his equivalent at sea-level. And even a human were to climb higher, he would either go mad or soon die of pulmonary edema. The Himalayas were a very hostile place for humans, and had always reminded them about it. But since early 20th century technology had been pushing back the frontiers of human capacity. Despite the fact that they still had no crampons they were now equipped with ice axe and decisive new oxygen tank. With oxygen tank they were finally likely to climb higher than 26,000 feet. But oxygen tanks were so heavy and bulky that they would be expected to climb the first meters without any. In matter of winter equipment they were poor and exposed if the temperature was to drop fewer than minus -10C. Was a snowstorm to rise and the game was over. In fact the expedition had few chances to summit. Previous 1922 expedition had ended-up in the deaths of seven porters as a result of an avalanche, and had forced Mallory’s way back. Weighing up the pros and cons, it appeared to have more to do with collective suicide than sports achievement. This may be precisely the main reason why they attempted it. In March 1924 Mallory’s expedition was assembled in Yatung and the journey to Mount Everest began. Since Nepal was closed to Europeans the ascent would have to be attempted by Tibet’s northern face. What Mallory ignored was the northern face to be much harder than any other. The procession arrived in late April at the foot of the mountain. This had been a huge expedition of 13 mountaineers and about 150 Sherpas. But now this was a face to face confrontation between gods and humans. Someone was desecrating their shrine and was to pay the higher price for it.
On the way up
It had been a mystical journey so far. They had been blessed by the local Lama on their way to the summit. Then many of the porters refused to go any further based on religious beliefs. This had always been a mystery for local people why did white men want so much to climb their peaks. Life in altitude was hostile, if not impossible. Mountains were holy and forbidden places. There was no a place for humans there. The weather had been changing over the days and they could hardly know whether blessed or unblessed they really were. Many climbers were ill and the expedition was threatened. But by the first of June they had reached 23,000 feet and the first trials to summit could be made. The two first expeditions failed in reaching the summit but managed to erect two extra camps on the way to the summit. The first expedition was lead by Mallory and Bruce but was forced to resign after most of the Sherpas turned back. The second was notorious for setting a new mountaineering record: Norton reached the altitude of 28,130, feet which is even more remarkable since he did not have any extra oxygen. But the way seemed impractical and physically impossible further on. There were great stony barriers standing there. And the oxygen was so rare… Any effort to climb them was made futile. There might be a last chance and that was to the third team to take it.
On early morning of July the 8th George Mallory and friend of him Andrew Irvine left camp VI to go for summit. Mallory had chosen Irvine for his endurance and mechanical skills rather than his mediocre mountaineering experience. Oxygen tanks were still hardly reliable and Irvine’s ability might prove to be crucial. This is what may have happenned on this early morning of 1924. When they left their tents they were leaving great chaos there. Evidences of embarrassment and repetitive work on the tanks were to be found later on. When they both appeared at noon to the horizon the team was severely behind schedule. This would remain the last sign of them. Clouds hazed over the mountains and hid them from seeing. They were in God’s hands now. And Gods toke them for 75 years and then returned.
Did they summit?
After researches failed they were both declared dead the day after. The expedition gave up and the pair was honoured on the way-back to England. But the main mystery remains unsolved. Did they actually reach the summit on this frightful day of June to fail on the way-back? Or had they been previously blocked by insurmountable obstacles? Irvine’s ice axe was found later on in 1934. The main testimony was Odell’s. He stated he saw the pair climbing a rock obstacle called Second step at noon in about 5 minutes. If they effectively did they may have reached the summit as little was standing further on. But Odell’s testimony was questioned several times as he could have confused with First step, a much easier rock climbing. The Second step has always been considered as very challenging and a 5-minute ascent seems unlikely to have happened. Furthermore it is still not stated whether Mallory’s rock climbing skills allowed him a 100-foot ascent, above all at 28,000 feet. Odell changed several times his testimony but later investigations showed that he could hardly have confused First and Second step as from his spot the two rocks looked hardly the same. Most striking was Wang Hung-bao’s testimony in 1975. He asserted another mountaineer he had “found an English dead at 26,570 feet”. The English man seemed to be ancient and had a hole in the cheek. The irony was the Chinese mountaineer to die the day after in an avalanche, carrying with him the secrecy of his discovery.
But Wang’s testimony was enough to launch The Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition in 1999. On May the 1st they spotted a body they expected to be Irvine’s, since he was just below the lost ice-axe. Surprised they were for it was Mallory’s. The body was almost shading light on of the tragedy that set up on that night of June the 8th. Severe rope-jerk injury testified the two were roped up when one of them slipped, sweeping away the other. Mallory’s right leg was broken and his left leg was lying above it to protect it. Most significant was what seemed to appear a self-injured forehead injury. The injury was so severe that he is unlikely to have remained much conscious after he was stricken. From the place Irvine lost his ice-axe they are reportedly to have fallen for 330 feet until they were stopped by further obstacles. Mallory would have expected his ice-axe to slow them down and would have bounced against his forehead – killing him almost instantly.
No traces of Irvine were later found, and more tragically the cameras were never located, which could testify once and for all whether they reached the summit. But two details would argue the pair to have summited. The first was Mallory’s daughter alleging his father to carry with him a photograph of his wife and him to be placed at the top of Everest. Such photography was never found in the body and the good conservations of the remains make unlikely the photograph to have disappeared on its own. Other assessment was his snow goggles to be in his pocket, indicating that they were walking in darkness when they fell. If this was to be true, it would be highly unlikely the pair would still be on their way back if they had not reached the summit. But even if other mountaineers claimed to have seen Irvine’s remains he was neither formally discovered nor studied. Surely he was the one of the two who was wearing the cams when both fell. Evidences of Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 climbing success would alter mountaineering History. That a 30-year old younger, much underequipped and poorly cartographied expedition might have succeed in climbing Mount Everest before Hillary and Norgay effectively did would be stupendous. It would also be the full stop of one of the most famous and passionate controversy and would clarify the conditions of the tragedy that led one of the best mountaineers to disappear. But up to 2011, all three extra expeditions failed in finding Irvine and putting an end to the mystery.
Mallory’s wife never remarried and Mallory’s grandson climbed Everest to honor his unknown grandfather. Mount Everest was officially first climbed in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay in a much easier and then opened to foreigners face of Everest. Northeastern face remained unconquered until 1960, even if there is still controversy about the Northern face conquest. A try to reconstitute Mallory and Irvine’s expedition in 1924 mountaineering conditions proved the ascent to be maybe achievable.