Hillary vs. Mallory: The First to Everest
Today we're going to up in altitude, back into history, and down in temperature, to the days when the most daring adventurers wore wool, cotton and leather instead of advanced lightweight synthetic materials. They had heavy wood handled ice axes instead of aluminum. Their canvas and nylon sleeping bags and tents weighed at least three times what today's climbers use. They packed calories with heavy metal tins of fish and fruit instead of dense energy bars and electrolyte shots. Their only support was sparsely manned expeditions, rather than today's crowds of competing porters and contractors and rope layers. Their chances of survival were far slimmer, yet even in the punishing days of the mid 20th century, men managed to compete to be the first to summit the world's tallest point: Mt. Everest.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit the mountain and live to tell the tale, which they did in 1953. But they certainly weren't the first to try; Tenzing had, in fact, made it the previous year to a point only 240m short of the summit with a Swiss expedition. A competing claim exists from about 30 years earlier, when climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared while on the final leg of their climb. Their claim is a thin one; it's based only on the fact that they disappeared and thus aren't proven to have failed. But today we're going to examine what evidence there is, and see if we can arrive at a "best guess" at who was first.
Let's look at some foundational information about the mountain. Everest is, in broad strokes, a three-sided pyramid. Its north and east faces are in Tibet, and its southwest face is in Nepal. The boundary between the two countries follows the ridge lines over the summit, so only that northeastern ridge is entirely in one country, Tibet. Tibet and Nepal were both originally closed to outsiders, so nobody had ever been able to try and climb the mountain. But in 1921, Tibet was persuaded to allow access, giving mountaineers access to the north face, the east face, and the northeastern ridge between them. Thus, this ridge, today called the north ridge route, became the route used by the early mountaineers, including Mallory and Irvine. Its grand finale is a series of technical walls that must be climbed, called the First Step, Second Step, and Third Step. The Second Step is the hardest of the three. In 1950, coincident with China's assertion of its claim over Tibet, access to foreigners was closed, and the north route was no longer available.
So when Hillary and Tenzing's 1953 expedition succeeded, it was via the southeast ridge route. Having secured permission from Nepal, climbers start from the base camp west of the mountain in Nepal, ascend to that southern ridge dividing Nepal from Tibet, and head northwest to the summit, straddling the border all the way. This route remains the most popular today, and is significantly easier. Its most famous obstacle near the summit is the Hillary Step; besides that, it's mostly no more than a strenuous hike.
So, since Hillary and Mallory took different routes to the summit, we can't directly compare them. Hillary made it up the southeast ridge route, no problem; and will only be dethroned if evidence ever surfaces that Mallory made it up the north route thirty years before. The only way we can ever solve the mystery is to look for clues along the north route.
Everest's eastern face is essentially a vertical wall of snow, so the approach is from the ridge to the north. Mallory's expedition, and most since then, established Camp IV and Camp V at relatively comfortable flats along this ridge. But above Camp V, it's very serious business. This ridge merges into Everest's northeast wall, so it requires real mountaineering. At that intersection is where they established Camp VI, hardly a camp at all, little more than a niche at the base of what lies above. And that's the Yellow Band, a few hundred meters of yellowish rock that must be climbed or traversed to reach the northeastern ridge. Mallory and Irvine were the third pair of climbers from their expedition to attempt a summit assault from Camp VI, the others having had to return unsuccessful. They started in the early morning hours of June 8, sending their porters down to Camp V with a note describing their plan.
Noel Odell was the climber who received that note, and later that morning, he ascended a bit from Camp V to see if he could spot the two, and he did. He saw them climb one of the three steps, which he believed was the Second Step. But from what he could see it took them only about five minutes, and the Second Step is much too difficult for such a quick ascent, so Odell wasn't certain. Of greater concern was the time at which he saw them, about 1:50 in the afternoon. This was far too late for them to reach the summit that day if they were on their way up; and far too early for them to be on their way back down if they had already been to the summit.
Odell proceeded to Camp VI, hoping to meet them, but they never showed. He shouted and scanned, but saw no sign. A night spent on the mountain was unprecedentedly deadly. Odell noted that they had left their headlamps behind in the tent, so they must have left no sooner than about 4:30am, at which point it's light enough to move around. Camp VI was too small for three men, so Odell made a risky late-afternoon descent, hoping that Mallory and Irvine would make it back on their own. Odell made it all the way down to Camp IV. A team was gathered and brought supplies back up to Camp V the next day, and the day after that, Odell went alone to Camp VI. Mallory and Irvine had never showed. This was the point at which further searching was pointless. Hope was given up. Mallory and Irvine were certainly either dead or hopelessly missing.
And that was where the first chapter of the story ended. Odell's mid-afternoon sighting was the last known time and place that Mallory and Irvine were alive. Of whether they ever made it to the summit, nothing could be guessed. There was only one hope to solve the mystery conclusively: to find the Kodak camera the men had carried, and see if they took any summit pictures. Even a century later, it should be possible to develop the film. Hillary and Tenzing had searched the summit to look for signs of any previous visitors, and found nothing.
So let's see what clues were found by climbers on the north ridge route who followed the doomed 1924 expedition. The next climb allowed by Tibet was nine years later in 1933, when Irvine's ice axe was found by a British climber in the Yellow Band. The axe was identified as Irvine's by the unique carvings he made in its wood handle. Its position was roughly recorded as about 20m below the ridge and 250m below the First Step. No climber would have walked away on that slope without his ice axe, so they concluded that it must have been the site of a fall or other accident. Perhaps Irvine had dropped it and it fell to there, but he certainly would have retrieved it if he'd been able. Nobody has re-found the ice axe since to verify its location, so we can't say much for sure about it. But Odell had seen the men farther up the mountain.
Correction: The ice axe was actually collected and retrieved by the 1933 expedition, and is now on display at the Shrewsbury School Archive where Irvine had attended. BD
In 1960, a Chinese expedition made the first verified climb of the Second Step, a 30-meter wall requiring real technical climbing skills, and four of the five who tried failed to climb it. They succeeded only by the climbing technique called courte-échelle, where men literally climb on top of each other like a circus act. Mallory was a very good climber, but Irvine was not. It's possible they could have done the same thing; but with only two of them, getting back down would have been a lot trickier.
On their way back down, one of the 1960 Chinese climbers was picking his own route back down through the Yellow Band when he reported finding a body — although his report was not well known until he gave it to the men who eventually found Mallory's body 40 years later. He said the man was in a sitting position in the lee of a rock, as if trying to shield himself from the elements.
Anticipating the dangers of the Second Step, a 1975 Chinese team brought ladders which they permanently fixed to the face, and which are still used today. One of their climbers was a man named Wang Hongbao, who also accompanied a 1979 joint Chinese-Japanese attempt. Wang died in an avalanche on that second expedition, but just before he did so, he told how on the 1975 trip, he had found the body of an "English dead" during what he described as a 20-minute stroll from Camp VI. He said it was lying face up with a hole in the cheek, and in generally poor condition. Unfortunately, no more detailed location information could be gleaned from him, since he died the next day.
It was 1999 when an expedition specifically organized to find Mallory and Irvine did succeed in finding Mallory's body. It had suffered severe injuries consistent with tumbling down the mountain, most notably an abdominal injury as if a fall had been arrested by a rope tied round his waist. Mallory was lying face down. His remains where searched, but no camera was found, nor was the letter he'd written to his wife and promised to place at the summit.
Apart from one member of the 1960 Chinese team, there should have been no other dead bodies on the northeast face of Everest by 1975. But three were reported, all in different poses: Mallory, who was found; and the bodies reported by the 1960 and 1975 Chinese teams. Mallory was found about 230m below the spot where Irvine's ice axe was found, and about 300m from Camp VI from where Wang took his 20 minute stroll. So we're not really sure which, if either, of the two other reported bodies are reliable; and in any case, we don't have good locations for them. If Irvine is found, and if the camera is on him, we'll probably know for sure.
But when we add up the evidence, it seems too unlikely that they could have made it. Mallory and Irvine's axe were found much farther down the ridge from the summit than either of the spots where they might have been when Odell saw them. After Odell lost sight of them, they had to have been heading downhill. It's simply not plausible to think they could have made it past the Second Step unassisted and five hours late, then summited, then — in the dark — made it all the way back to the Second Step, successfully downclimbed it, made it down the First Step, made it another 250m, and then had their fall. In all probability, the difficulty of the Second Step stopped them, they may have spent a few hours looking for an alternate way around it, and then had their fall on their way back to safety at Camp VI before dark.
Andrew Irvine was 22 years old, a clever mechanical engineer, and was known by his nickname Sandy. George Mallory was the old man at 37, who wrote eloquently of the challenge of exploration. He may not have left us as the first to climb Everest, but he did leave us with the simplest and most elegant quote of why we should: "Because it is there."
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