Everest has captured the imagination of mountaineers for centuries: at the start of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in summiting the mighty mountain, pushing human endurance to its utmost limits in doing so.
Whilst Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to have summited Everest in May 1953, theories have swirled for decades that perhaps they were beaten, nearly 30 years earlier, by a 1924 expedition led by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.
The pair never returned from their exhibition, and Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999. But many have argued that they managed to summit Everest before they died. Whilst it is extremely unlikely that hard evidence will ever be uncovered to definitively say one way or the other, it remains an interesting question and a window into the ambition and almost super-human efforts of the early mountaineers.
The age of exploration, as it is known, began in the 15th century with voyages from Europe across the world, but it continued in some veins right up until the early 20th century. From the mid-19th century onwards, Britain began to participate in international contests to be the first to reach the North and South Poles, losing in both cases.
However, some hoped to regain national pride by ‘conquering the third pole’ – ascending Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. Unable to access the mountain from Nepal, climbers had to go through Tibet, with special permission from the Dalai Lama.
This proved to add multiple difficulties: not least the tough overland journey and short window in which conditions were acceptable enough for climbers to attempt to summit. Undeterred, Britain was the leader in sending assorted expeditionary parties to Everest to conduct surveys and attempt to climb.
Born into an upper-middle class family, George Mallory developed an interest in mountaineering at a young age after being taken on a school climbing trip climbing to the Alps aged 18. After completing a degree in history at Cambridge, he briefly taught at Charterhouse School before leaving to join the 1921 Everest expedition.
Much of this expedition was about mapping as much as it was climbing: Everest’s North Col was still relatively unexplored. In 1922, a subsequent expedition undertook more serious attempts to reach Everest’s summit. Mallory was one of those who reached a record altitude – 26,980 ft (8,225 m) – without using oxygen, which was looked down upon as artificial aid.
Mallory is perhaps most famous for his response to the question, “why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”, to which he answered, “because it’s there”. Those 3 words sum up the mentality of mountaineers at that time: every mountain was there to be scaled, no matter the physical toll. The age of exploration combined with the machine age led men to believe that with the right attitude, equipment and mentality, they could achieve anything.
The 1924 expedition
After two failed expeditions, the 1924 Everest expedition was billed at third time lucky: those going were determined that they would summit the mountain, having learned valuable lessons and gained experience on their previous attempts.
After two failed summit events (during which a new altitude record was set), George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a third attempt. They were last sighted on Everest’s First or Second Step, around lunchtime on 8 June 1924: unlike previous attempts, they were carrying oxygen cylinders with them. After a squall hit, they were lost sight of, and by 11 June, with no subsequent sightings, the larger party began descending from base camp.
Recovering the bodies
Because of the freezing conditions on Everest, almost everything is preserved extremely well. Bodies do not decompose, and there is a tradition of leaving those who die on the mountain there rather than bringing them down: partly out of practicality, but also as a tribute to the fallen.
Various parties set out following the disappearance, trying to locate Mallory and Irvine’s remains and to determine whether or not they had in fact managed to summit Everest. In 1986, a Chinese climber reported finding the body of a ‘foreign’ mountaineer, but he was killed by an avalanche before he could give more specific details.
Eventually, a dedicated expedition in 1999 set out to try and recover the bodies of Mallory and Irvine. Within hours of beginning the search, they had found a frozen body on the north face of the mountain: it was that of George Mallory. Well-preserved, it still had personal effects on it, including an altimeter, a letter and an unbroken pair of snow goggles.
Irvine’s body, however, remains missing, as does the camera he took with him. Experts believe that there is still a chance that if the camera was found, they might be able to develop photos which would prove that the men either did or did not summit with greater proof.
Did they summit?
The question of whether or not Mallory and Irvine managed to ascend Everest remains hotly debated: many have argued it can’t be described as ‘summiting’ if they only managed to ascend the mountain. Both men were carrying two cylinders of oxygen each, and it seems that they were roped together and slipped: this may not have been the cause of death, but it certainly caused relatively serious injuries.
Two pieces of circumstantial evidence have helped propel the idea that Mallory did in fact reach Everest’s summit: namely, the fact that no photograph of his wife was found on his body. He had vowed he would leave it on the summit when he reached it. Secondly, the unbroken snow goggles found in his pocket suggested that he had made a push for the summit and were descending after the sunset. Given their location, this would suggest that they had at least made a significant attempt on the summit.
However, others have argued that the route to the summit they were taking was extremely difficult: the Second Step on the North Ridge, in particular, would have stretched Mallory’s climbing capabilities to the very limit. ‘Possible, but not probable’ is how many have described Mallory’s chances of summiting based on the evidence at hand.
Ultimately, the answer to questions about Mallory and Irvine’s expedition perished with them on Everest: whilst they may not have gone down in history for the reasons they hoped, their names live on in Everest lore.