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What Happened to Mallory & Irvine?

A Critique of "Ghosts of Everest: The Search For Mallory & Irvine," by Jochen Hemmleb, Larry Johnson and Eric Simonson, The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 1999.

(c) 2000 by Tom Holzel(1) (7700 words)Rev 5/20/00

With their splendid book "Ghosts of Everest"(2) ("Ghosts"), the authors have taken up the gauntlet of attempting to determine whether or not Mallory & Irvine reached the summit of Mt. Everest on June 8th, 1924, before perishing on the descent. The authors provide a fascinating and hugely-detailed description of the fatal climb, and of the Simonson expedition which discovered Mallory. The layout, photography, graphical and sheer physical qualities of the book are to the absolute highest standards.

The front half of the book describes the 1999 expedition, a tale that begins like many of this genre. The difference in Ghosts becomes quickly apparent. This is not your bunch of good old boys undertaking a task of simple conquest. Instead, they are only the second expedition since WW-II launched expressly to find the body and camera of the two British climbers, with the intent of finding out how far they got. The authors do their best, as have other researchers (including this one) to put M&I on the summit. Historians--and scientists--are more like trial lawyers than we like to admit. In order to investigate anything complex, it is far more fruitful to assume an answer and try to prove it, than to disguise ones passion under the guise of unrealizable objectivity. Once your claims are out in the open, you hope they will prove sound. But there is no need to worry--there will always be plenty of critics who will try to deflate what they may see as overreaching theories. The authors have placed their stake in the ground regarding their ideas of the exact fate of Mallory & Irvine and here, in this sense of peer review, is a differing opinion.

In order for anyone to put M&I on the summit, three essential aspects of their climb must be proven, or at least shown to be reasonably possible:

1. Mallory & Irvine had to have taken three bottles of oxygen, otherwise they would not have had enough time to reach the top. On this all climbers, pro or con, agree, including the authors. At high attitudes oxygen doubles or triples climbing speed, and on the long route of their summit assault, they would have needed all of the twelve-hours of oxygen three bottles of their system was capable of delivering. While modern climbers have reached the summit without oxygen this, like the four-minute mile, is a recent feat, achieved by highly-trained and physically rare climbers in peak condition, fully hydrated, carrying/wearing the most modern equipment and--most importantly--following a known route that is roped over the difficult sections. (3)
2. They had to be able to attain the summit pyramid, either by climbing the difficult Second Step, or via the Great Couloir and then to the summit during a bitter two-hour long snow squall, and then descent at night without lights or climbing hardware, using only their 100-ft rope (4) in order to reach the site of their fall-Irvine's ice ax.
3. They had to be physically, mentally and materially capable of achieving this tremendously arduous task. According to this scenario, the entire climb would have taken at least 15 hours (~6 AM start, ~5 PM summit, ~9 PM fall)--and likely much longer--by climbers who were horribly under-equipped. Under-equipped not so much in the sense of inadequate preparation (although there was that), but so desperately under-equipped in the terrible paucity of their equipment--inadequate clothing against the frigid wind, chronically dehydrated due to pathetically inadequate stoves, all the while forging an uncharted route with no climbing aids other than rope and ice axes. During their climb they encountered a bitter two-hour snow squall and had to avoid getting lost in spite of having left their compass, flares and lights behind.

Put this way, and based on what the Simonson Expedition learned of the character of the Mallory route, it is difficult for today's Everesters to see how any arrangement of the known facts can be arranged to put the men on top, but the authors have made a heavily researched attempt to do just that. They have done so by applying Jochen Hemmleb's encyclopedic store of knowledge and research about the early Everest climbs, and combined that with the new facts learned from the discovery of Mallory's body. Their technique is to take every possibility, no matter how faint or unlikely that is necessary for the two to have reached the top, and muster evidence to show that that is what could have happened. By cutting and pasting these snippets to fit their chosen scenario, they have painted a beguiling picture of possible success. Wisely, they publicly suggest only that the two may have made it to the top, or that they had every opportunity to have made it to the top. But their true belief is tipped when they assert:

"Is there any evidence to suggest that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit of Everest in 1924? And the answer was : No. What seemed to have escaped the attention of many observers, however, was that there was another equally salient question with an equally unequivocal answer: Is there any evidence to suggest that M&I did not reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924? The answer here too was: No." (5)

Unfortunately, this type of reasoning--claiming as success the inability to disprove a negative--colors much of the authors' evidence. They sincerely believe that anything that would have helped M&I to the summit could have happen--because they could have got to the summit! By this means, The authors have constructed a complicated house of cards that crumbles when the missing and overwhelming reality of the mountain is restored to their blueprint.

How Much Oxygen Did M&I Take on the Assault?

This question about how much oxygen the two climbers carried with them is a crucial one. The authors agree that if M&I departed the last camp (Camp-6 or "C-6") each with less than three cylinders of oxygen, they would not have made it to the top. (6) The two were seen by Odell at 12:50 surmounting one of the three steps. Since the authors believe M&I started off at 5:30AM, in the intervening 7 hours and 20 minutes (to the 12:50 sighting), had they taken two bottles they would have used up nearly all eight-hours worth of oxygen. Yet they had at least three hours farther to go. No one believes the two pre-WW-II climbers could have continued up in their condition at that altitude, in an ensuing snow squall without additional supplemental breathing oxygen.

Mallory wrote Odell a note from C-6 in which he stated: "To here on 90 atmospheres for the two days--so we'll probably go on 2 cylinders--but it's a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job." How can the authors seem to ignore this note by claiming the two might have taken three cylinders of oxygen each? (7) It is here where the authors diverge radically from the conventional wisdom.

The straightforward scenario is this: M&I left C-4 at 23,000-ft using oxygen. Noel Odell snapped their photo. It shows Irvine with two oxygen cylinders on his back. In the original photo, Mallory appears to be carrying only one bottle, but on the cover of Ghosts, that photo has apparently been 'cleaned-up" and the sheen of what appears in the original photo to be the rounded top of one cylinder on Mallory's back, has been retouched away so that Mallory appears to be carrying no bottles.

From C-6 the porters carried back a note from Mallory stating that he had used only 3/4 of a full bottle, or 401 liters (out of a bottle containing 535 liters when full) for the 4000 vertical-foot climb from C-4. (8) An oxygen delivery rate of 1.5 liters/min--the lower of the two flow rates they climbers could select, and the rate they used coming up to the North Col (C-4)-- meant that Mallory had used 401 liters divided by 1.5 l/m = 267 minutes, or 4-1/2 hours of oxygen. Climbing 4000 vertical feet in 4-1/2 hours is a climb rate of 900 vertical Ft/min. (9)

The authors do not entertain the possibility of this rapid climbing speed, because it would undermine their theory of how much oxygen Mallory would have calculated the two would need to reach the summit from their high camp. So the authors serially deprecate the possibility of a high climbing speed by stating: "...even at the lowest possible flow rate possible (10), the bottles would have been empty long before they reached Camp VI." And then: "Put differently, at 1.5 liters per minute (the flow rate they used when they climbed from Camp III to Camp IV) the 90 atmospheres they used to Camp VI would have lasted only four and a half hours. It had taken ten hours of climbing to reach Camp VI." The authors leaves out that the "ten hours" was by climbers not using oxygen. And, they neglect to compare M&I's oxygen-assisted climb rate with that of Finch and Bruce's oxygen-assisted climb in 1922 over essentially the same terrain. These two 1922 climbers ascended from C-4 at 23,000-ft to C-5 at 24,500-ft at a rate of 1,000 ft/hr, and from C-5 at 25,500 to 26,500 at 900-ft/hr. (11) Mallory was so conscious of Finch's high climbing speed with oxygen, that he made a point of looking it up on the march to Base Camp in 1924. (12)

It is true that climbing the route from C-4 to C-6 can--and usually does-- take much longer than 4-1/2 hours to climb--depending primarily on whether oxygen is used, but also on the weight of the loads carried, the weather and the depth of the snow-cover and the condition of the climbers. But the fact remains that the only other climbers using oxygen who Mallory could use to gauge his own rate managed to climb substantially the same route at the same speed than Mallory's note seem to indicate they had climbed it. To ignore Finch's very germane experience by pointing out the longer time it took non-oxygen assisted climbers, is disingenuous.

The authors offer another argument that M&I did not make rapid progress from C-4 to C-6. "Mallory and Irvine and their eight porters did not make rapid progress from Camp IV to Camp V; they barely matched Somervell's climbing rate without oxygen a few days earlier." (13) A footnote explains how this is known: "Based on the time when the porters returned to Camp IV" is the entire explanation. In other words, no explanation at all.

"Why were they climbing so slowly? ... The answer is obvious: they were moving slowly precisely because they were not climbing with the benefit of oxygen. ... They were carrying the cylinders and apparatus on their backs, but, just as Norton had stated in his footnote in the expedition report, they 'had decided to use practically no oxygen up to Camp VI."(14)

So take your pick: "not climbing with the benefit of oxygen," "they decided to use practically no oxygen," or Mallory's written note "To here on 90 Atmospheres (3/4 of a full bottle) for the two days."

From Mallory's note we learn he had used 401 liters of oxygen to climb what he believed to have been the 3800 vertical feet from C-4 to C-6. The next day he believed they had a remaining elevation gain of 29,002-26,800= 2200 vertical feet to go. In other words they had about half-again the elevation to climb, with an oxygen supply from a single bottle that would--based on their previous two days climbing speed--be enough to take them to 30,667 ft.-1665 ft higher than the summit. IF the terrain remaining were as easy and well known as that up to C-6, Mallory would have been foolish to take more than a single cylinder of oxygen for the final assault. (15) But route above C-6 is visibly steeper, a trickier traverse (according to Norton's experience a few days earlier which he relayed to Mallory), and although the route was completely visible from their camp, it had never before been traveled

In a note to John Noel, the expedition photographer stationed on the North Col (C-4), Mallory wrote:

"We'll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won't be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going skyline at 8:0 P.M."(16)

The purpose of this note is obvious; Mallory wants to make sure Noel will get historic photographs of their climb. But it also contains an implicit estimation that Mallory expects to continue the rapid ascent speed of the lower part of his assault. Based on a 6 AM start time and extrapolating his 900-ft/hr rate, Mallory could well have calculated on reaching the 28,230 ft. altitude of the Second Step (1400-ft higher than their C-6 ) in 1430-ft/900-ft/hr = 1hr and 35 minutes. Or, with a 6:30 start-time, at 8 AM. Throw in an extra half-hour for terrain difficulties and start a half-hour earlier and, again, it is easy to reckon how Mallory believed they would be able to reach the Second Step by 8 AM.

However, their was a fly in the ointment. As this was his only oxygen attempt, Mallory could not have known from experience that open-circuit oxygen systems becomes less effective with greater altitude (which means with the same oxygen flow, you are able to do less work). As he ascended, Mallory undoubtedly discovered that the 1.5l flow rate he had used in his calculations, which gave him six hours per tank--two hours to reach the 2nd Step and four hours to climb the summit pyramid--was now inadequate to maintain his planned climbing speed--and he was forced to switch to the higher 2.2l flow rate. Thus, instead of obtaining six hours from a single cylinder, at the higher flow-rate he would get only 4-1/5 hours of use.(17)


Two bottles would give them a little over eight-hours of climbing--far more than Mallory would have calculated they needed--but that is not why Mallory chose to take two. The reason is one bottle was just not quite enough--especially with Irvine in tow. Thus, by this straight-forward calculation, we see why Mallory was forced, at the last minute, to take the second cylinder--a total of two--in spite of the "bloody load."

Mallory's calculations were entirely reasonable, given what he knew about the ascent at the time--which was very little. What Mallory did not know is how much more difficult the route actually gets, and how much farther it is than it looks. The clear view of their route is visually foreshortened and offers no known objects to enable one to gauge distance accurately. In such a case one always radically underestimates the distance.

But these miscalculations of time and distance are completely understandable, as the modern expeditions who first revisited the north side of the mountain in the 1980's--FIFTY-odd years later made exactly the same miscalculation--with equally disastrous results of climbers benighted who could not return in time, and many falls. Sixteen modern climbers fell to their deaths from the same general site of the ice ax!

Thus, based on Finch's oxygen-assisted climb rate, Mallory and Irvine's own seemingly rapid climb rate based on their stated oxygen usage, and re-extrapolating en route the time the remaining portion of the climb would take, a calculation which was similar to modern estimations, Mallory made what can only be called a conservative choice to take two rather than a single cylinder of oxygen each for their final assault.

How, then, do the authors of "Ghosts's" get around these considerations and especially Mallory's written comment "so we'll probably go on two cylinders"?

The authors base much of this claim on the possibility that M&I had more oxygen available to them than was previously known. This exciting new information is derived from two inventory lists discovered in Mallory's parka.

"It now seems clear that in addition to the cylinders each of the climbers had in their oxygen packs the morning they left Camp IV, there were six others on the provisions inventory. That fact lone had the potential for rewriting the entire story of Mallory & Irvine's final day."(18)

The "inventory" is a note-paper list found on Mallory's body listing six cylinders. A second, presumably later list, numbers five bottle and their pressures. For reasons unstated, The authors consider that this "inventory" would not list all the oxygen, but just some of it, based on the nowhere verified idea that an additional inventory would be carried by the men and therefore not counted. The authors merely assert that "It (the list) was an inventory of SOME of the oxygen cylinders." (19) ( Emphasis added.)

The authors note that the first list of six cylinders, written on notebook paper, could not have been made prior to June 5th, when M&I met Norton & Somervell at C-4, because Mallory has in the inventory, a tent pole that Somervell had taken from C-6 to replace his lost ice ax. (No one wants to leave an ice ax behind!) Thus, it would seem to be the entire inventory of the oxygen bottles available for their climb from C-4. This quantity would give M&I one bottle each for their climb up to C-6, and two bottles each to use from C-6 to the summit. The more hastily written note lists five bottles and their pressures. This is surely a later note, perhaps written at C-5 or C-6, because it is written not on notepad paper but on the Stella envelope. The five-cylinder note showed they had 4 full bottles and one 90% full. (20) Perhaps here, Mallory is not counting his own, already mostly-used-up bottle that he described got him to C-6 and the powerful Irvine did not use any oxygen at all. That would certainly be a case of "use[ing] practically no oxygen up to Camp VI." (21) In any case, based on this inventory list, all that is known for certain is that the quantities they had available to them was five bottles.

It is thus difficult to fathom the authors 's explanation of a "possible" quantity of nine (!) bottles that M&I may have had available at C-6.

"We can readily deduce that the cylinders M&I carried themselves were not from the stock of six Mallory listed in his provisions list because, again, they would not have needed eight porters to carry just two or three spares. Thus, there were at a minimum, six reserved cylinders (in addition to the two or three bottles the two carried from C-4)."(22)

And in another conjecture:

"It is POSSIBLE that from Camp V to Camp VI both M&I carried two cylinders each and their four porters carried the remaining five; this would explain how Mallory knew, as he said in his note to Odell, that two cylinders in the carrying packs (the packs had a carrying capacity of three cylinders) were 'a bloody load for climbing.' (Emphasis added.) (23)

It seems equally "possible" that Mallory remembered the weight of the oxygen systems from his practice use of it "on a hill near Shekar Dzong." "Mallory and Irvine and Somervell were with me," Odell wrote, "climbing on steepish craig, where the bulky apparatus was a great inconvenience," (24)

Perhaps realizing that they had still not adequately demonstrated the likelihood that M&I might each have taken the three cylinders necessary to get to the top, the authors attack the issue from yet another angle.

In his note from Camp VI to Odell at Camp V, Mallory wrote, "...we'll PROBABLY (25) go on two cylinders" (to the summit). Note that Mallory did not write, "...we'll HAVE to go on two cylinders." By using the word "probably" Mallory signaled that he had a choice, and the only way he can have had a choice is if he had had at least six full or nearly full cylinders in addition to the two they used on the way up. (26)

Mallory certainly did have a choice, and this choice at least included them going on zero, one, two or perhaps three cylinders each. But his notes states the choice he made--To "probably go on two cylinders." Trying to squeeze confirmation of an improbable selection of three-each cylinders out of the psycho-linguistics of Mallory's sentence in direct contravention of the expressed sense of it is quite a feat, but it is not historical analysis. It is, however, essential to put the pair on the summit.

To further buttress this difficult argument, the authors assert: "Only if M&I had a choice of going to the summit with either four or six cylinders does Mallory's 'probably' make any sense." He then repeats this unconvincing argument for emphasis: "But if we take Mallory at his word, he had the option to carry more." In arguing along these lines, an "option," or a "possibility" is apparently as good as fact.

Finally, the authors leave out Mallory's comment, made in a letter to his wife on April 19th. "My plan will be to carry as little [oxygen] as possible, go fast and rush the summit. Finch and Bruce tried carrying too many cylinders." (27) This may explain why Mallory left behind both his flares and his flashlight, traveling as lightly as possible in the belief that his speed would make them unnecessary burdens. And it may explain why he is so disappointed in realizing when he reaches C-6 that he must take a bloody two, rather than a single cylinder.

Mallory's Route

Much has been made of what exactly Mallory meant by his phrase "crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going skyline at 8 AM" in Mallory's note to Capt. John Noel. Most mountaineers have assumed that Mallory meant he expected to surmount the Second Step, because that is the first place along the route where one is obliged to go skyline (i.e., break the skyline by reaching the crest of the ridge). Some have taken the other phrase--"crossing the rock band" to mean that Mallory might attempt to climb "under the pyramid," i.e. to follow the Norton route and avoid the Second Step altogether.

The Second Step is an abrupt rise in the Northeast ridge leading up to the summit. This rise actually comprises a layer or strata of the mountain that begins at the Second step and continues on, nearly encircling the summit pyramid in a distinct, steep band. The only breech--and it is barely one at all--is a faint branching gully near the beginning lip of the Great Couloir, the monstrous gully that plunges from the summit pyramid down almost to the Rongbuk Glacier.

For years, many in the climbing fraternity had argued that this 90-ft high cliff was unclimbable by the standards of the day, and especially without any climbing aids such as pitons, slings, etc. Proponents of Mallory's success were forced to argue, as I did for years, that since Odell saw the two surmounting the Second Step, they must have found a way to climb it that was not noticed by a subsequent strong British team in 1933, that had plenty of time to survey the route, but which decided against it.

Subsequent post WW-II climbs showed that most of the cliff was scalable by 1924 standards except for a very difficult 15-ft crux.

My previous argument that Mallory & Irvine must have been successful in climbing the Second Step was based on the fact that in 1960 unskilled Chinese climbers succeeded in surmounting it (after three hours of trying) by having one climber stand barefooted, on the shoulders of another, his toes free to find purchase in tiny cracks and nubbins. He wrestled his way to the top and so afforded the rest of his team access to the summit pyramid. But he paid for this extraordinary boldness by losing his toes to frostbit. If unskilled Chinese climbers could find a way, I reasoned, so could have the more-skilled and highly motivated Mallory. On the second post-WW-II assault, the very large Chinese expedition of 1975, climbers bolted a 10-ft ladder to the crux of the route. This ladder has been used on this route by every climber since then, and permitted each to scamper up and claim whatever he liked about Mallory & Irvine's chances of having succeeded.

Eric Simonson's 1999 Expedition made it a point to gauge the difficulty of this awkward terrain feature by having a highly skilled Alpinist attempt to duplicate an unaided free climb. Conrad Anker first started a potential route up the right side of the ladder, but this proved too loose and insecure. He returned to follow a wide vertical crack along the left side of the ladder. By jamming his knee into the crack, he was able to find purchase and wrench his way up some 15-feet in short order. From there he needed to cross back over the ladder to gain access to a ledge that opens up to the large plateau above the Second Step. Conrad says this traversing step past an overhang gave him pause in its severity. The tiny ledgelette he might have used as a foothold was blocked by the last rung of the ladder, so Anker stepped on the rung and swung over to the plateau. Several weeks after reconsidering the climb, he judged its severity as 5.10 AO--a standard far above Mallory's. (28) Interestingly, once started, the climb itself took only a minute or two--exactly in keeping with Odell's observation--for which he was ridiculed for so many years.

This difficulty experienced by a climber of far greater technical skill than Mallory suggests strongly that Mallory would not have been able to surmount this formidable obstacle--although it does not absolutely rule it out. However, what is climbed-up must also be climbed-down. And down-climbing a severe face such as the Second Step is even more difficult than climbing up. If Mallory & Irvine had summited, they could not have done so before 4 or 5PM--especially if they continued without oxygen. Descending to the top of the Second Step would have taken at least three hours (but could take much longer), by which time they would have been in darkness or substantial dusk. The only possible way the two could have down-climbed the Second Step would have been to cut off part of their (presumed) 100-ft rope-say 15 feet of it-and used that piece as a sling around some as-yet-to-be discovered rock bollard through which to string the longer portion. They would then abseil (rappel) down and retrieve the longer rope section. At least that's the picture-book theory. Modern climbers gasp at the danger, difficulty, and unlikelihood of anyone cobbling together such an emergency procedure and actually having it work. Anyone who has ever snagged a smooth, modern kernmantel rope knows how difficult it is to pull through makeshift pulleys without catching, and Mallory's rough, hawser-laid rope would be even more difficult.

David Breashears makes the strong practical argument that the approach to the Second Step-that is, the 300 yard stretch from the base of the First Step to the Second--has never been realistically factored into the calculations.

The few photographs extent were generally taken with the standard 35mm focal length (moderately wide-angle) lenses of point-and-shot pocket cameras. These distort the perspective of the landscape with the result of making slopes seem deceptively less steep. Lisle Clark's NOVA film of the 1999 Expedition has some excellent video footage that shows what climbers have unhappily discovered: the "natural" approach to the Second Step from just below the NE ridge is a terrifyingly steep traverse. Climbing it without fixed ropes is extremely dangerous for skilled modern climbers, and would have been more so for Mallory and Irvine.

Breashears suggests that Mallory, finally recognizing the daunting difficulty of the Second Step up close, would have been forced to reject it in favor of continuing a traverse into the Great Couloir. This would mean Odell saw the pair ascending the First Step, a vantage point which Mallory might have surmounted in order to scope out the route ahead. This is what the Chinese did in 1975 and French in 1981. It is a likelihood increased by Mallory's known penchant for sticking to the ridge whenever possible. That view could well have caused Mallory immediately to write-off any attempt on the Second Step. He would then fall-back to Norton's route, realizing that Norton had admitted being beaten, not by any terrain difficulties as Mallory now was, but by simple exhaustion. The ace up Mallory's sleeve was their use of oxygen. With Norton (a climber of only moderate experience) having come so close to the summit pyramid, Mallory might well have decided that Norton's attempt proved the route, and was blocked only by the absence of the one resource Mallory had--oxygen. In that case, Mallory's note to Noel asking him to be on the lookout for them "crossing the rock band under the pyramid" meant he was already weighing the possibility of switching routes--his stated plan of attacking the Second Step now tempered by learning of Norton's near-success via the Couloir. This was an option that would have been continuously reinforced by the view of the two routes as they ascended the length of the North Ridge. It took only one glance from the First Step for Mallory to realize the extreme difficulty of the Second Step approach, and climb off the First Step to continue his traverse into the Great Couloir. This theory neatly explains the "crossing the rock band" phrase that has puzzled mountaineers for years.

However, having made this possible choice would have thrust them into a different type of danger once the 2PM snow squall struck, and would guarantee that they would have turned around as soon as it appeared. A climber with few handholds and depending entirely on the subtleties of edging his boots along on tiny rock nubbins which the Norton Route entails, falls quickly into desperate straits once these become covered with snow. In this case, the two would have exhausted and dropped-off their awkward oxygen systems and turned around immediately. (29) Retracing their steps along the same long ledge used by the climbers of the 1933 expedition--and by nearly all modern NE ridge climbers-- they paused on a broad ledge to begin another tricky traverse. Mallory led the delicate task, picking a path while Irvine, standing by on safe, flat ground, set down his ice ax in order to pay-out the rope with both hands. Mallory slipped and Irvine seized the rope--in vain. (30)

The ice ax marking the site of their roped slip indicates they had successfully retraced some 500 yards of their route. This would have taken, say, two hours, the duration of the squall. They might have fallen at about the same time Odell, huddled in C-6 waiting out the storm, left the tiny tent and began his own descent.

Mallory & Irvine's Fall

Basing his location of the Chinese C-5b (which the authors calls C-6A) in which Wang was stationed, on photographs of the 1975 Chinese assault, the authors seemed to believe that Irvine's body could be found very near, and slightly below the modern C-6, which lies at 8320m. This is where his web-site-posted coordinates place the body, and where the climbers were directed to search.

Mallory's fall, the authors believe, had nothing to do with the ice ax. (31) This supposition is based on the lack of severity of Mallory's injuries compared to the twisted shape of the 16 other bodies found littering the 8200m snow terrace. "Mallory fell to his death from a spot well down the face of the Yellow Band, tantalizingly close to Camp VI and safety; his injuries are too mild, his body too unmarred, for there to be any other explanation. That Irvine fell, too and was injured, though not as profoundly as Mallory, is suggested by the fact that the body found by Wang Hongbao, clearly Irvine's and not Mallory's, was within perhaps a half-hour from the 1924 Camp C-IV." (32)

This above description suggests that the high altitude climbers of the Simonson Expedition were deliberately not looking for body described by Wang (because they had been instructed to look much higher than the 1924 C-6), or else the authors are mistaken where the Chinese C-5b lies. What they had apparently done was favor some photo analysis which located a higher Chinese dump between C-5 and C-6 (there were probably many), which they assumed was Wang's bivouac site. They then built a scenario that is pitted against the far more concrete evidence of Wang's elevation statement of "8100m" intersecting the other hard datum--the site of the ice ax. And, indeed, it is at the intersection of these two axis that Mallory was found--a location suggest 29 years ago. (33)

One result of the authors' fall hypothesis is to leave open the provocative possibility of still finding Irvine at the original location they suggested. Yet, this hypothesis obliges one to ignore the glaring presence of the other major hard evidence--the location of Irvine's ice ax found much higher on the NE Ridge than The authors' suggested fall line. "Forget the ice ax," the authors state. "Find the camp (C-5b) and you'll find Irvine." (34) To account for the ice ax not marking the site of a fall, the authors suggest that the inexperienced Irvine would voluntarily abandon it on the ascent because of the rocky nature of the ensuing terrain. (35) This brush-off of a primary clue in order to enhance their own theory is difficult to swallow. Mountaineers consider their ice ax a major climbing aid and survival tool. It provides an instant belay point for roped climbers in the event of a fall. Mallory saved three of his comrades and himself in just such a roped slip in 1922. Without crampons one is obliged to cut steps in ice and hard snow with the ax. It seems inconceivable he would permit Irvine to abandon it. And while the immediate terrain was rocky and snow-free, they could clearly see the great mantle of snow and ice of the final pyramid they would have to climb. Finally, it can hardly be a coincidence that the site of ice ax marks exactly the vertical fall-line of Mallory's body.

Because of the final position in which Mallory's body was found--arms outstretched as if digging into the snow to stop himself--the authors believe he suffered his fatal blow to the head, and was yet able to maintain his self-arrest position. "...he hits a tilted slab, flies up, and, when gravity takes over again, hits the slope hard, his forehead smashing into a viciously sharp shard of rock. Slowing, he now slides off another ledge and finally stops. His fingers still claw the slope." (36)

And what of Irvine? "He (Mallory) can no longer hear Irvine, who, also injured but alive, is calling him in the darkness. After a while, Irvine stops calling and begins, instinctively, to drag himself eastward toward Camp VI, which is some 400 yards away. He doesn't make it." (37)

The authors ' claim that Wang discovered the English dead a bit west and below the Chinese C-6 is prima facia impossible. Japanese Climbing Leader Ryoten Hasagawa watched as Wang etched into the snow with his ice ax the characters "8100m." Wang spent the day in the Chinese C-5b bivouac at about 8100m. (Holzel interviewed Wang's tentmate, and this issue has never been in doubt.) (38) To believe otherwise requires one to believe that a porter would descend some 100m to 160m off-route and then climb back up (without oxygen)all in a presumed hour or so--on a rest day! (39) How Wang could have made a discovery of a body at 8160m from a camp sited so high, to say nothing of doing so in such a short time, is not explained. Nor do the authors even address Wang's clear explanation of the height at which he found the body. The authors see, to have concatenated their incorrect altitude of the Wang's tent site into a series of false assumptions. There is no body of Irvine higher on the slope because Wang found Mallory (see below) and Wang never got higher than the C-5b bivouac at 8100m. Nor can any theories of climbers crawling about calling out each other's names, descending by a different (lower) route and ignoring the ice ax, etc., which the authors' positioning of the as-yet-to-be-found other English dead requires, have any basis in reality.

What is the simplest explanation of what happened? We must keep in mind what escaped me in my earlier analysis, (and with which the Old Guard correctly hammered me)--Mallory's genuine overt concern for Irvine's welfare. Roping up over the slabs without any other protection puts each climber in twice the danger as not roping up at all, as either one falling will pull the other down with him. The only reason for the two to be roped (in what today is called a "psychological belay") was for Mallory to provide some sense of security to Irvine. Terrified climbers in over their heads leak confidence at an alarming rate and often freeze-up. A psychological belay does provide some measure of assurance to reduce the fear of exposure and enable a badly shaken climber to continue. Realizing as they turned back that he had put Irvine's life into grave danger, Mallory then knowingly risked his own life to give him the encouragement necessary to get out.

As they were returning by the same route they climbed up--one they knew, as opposed to retrospectively better return routes they didn't know--one of them slipped. This is quite likely to have been Mallory, whose fall caused Irvine to drop his ax on the flat path he was on in order to grasp the rope with both hands. (40) But to no avail. Irvine was jerked off his feet by the rope and they two bounced down the bare rock slabs, perhaps occasionally slowing down as they slammed into rock outcroppings, but always quickly accelerating again. It is inconceivable that after the first few bounces on bare rock, that either of them were any longer capable of committing any useful action to save themselves. (This is not the studied self-arrest of a slip on a smooth snow slope.) At some point Mallory suffered a deep, "golf ball to plumb-sized" puncture wound above his left eye with "barn-door" skull fragment extrusion. (41) This is a classic description of a very severe head injury.

According to Dr. Lee Schwamm, a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, severe puncture wounds of the type Mallory suffered to the forehead result in instant unconsciousness and usually instant death. Since this injury is more likely to have been sustained on the upper, rocky part of the fall, Mallory cannot have been conscious to attempt a bare-handed self-arrest after the blow. Lack of damage to his fingertips confirm this. Although it is sometimes possible for a person to regain consciousness briefly with a head injury of this severity, he is not able to do anything "due to severe traumatic brain injury and likely brain hemorrhage." The atypical outstretched arms and generally pacific position of his body immediately suggested to Dr. Schwamm that the body had been moved.

It is known that bodies falling (i.e. bouncing)a great distance come apart. That Mallory 's body was intact and--unlike the other corpses--lying in a pacific posture, is used as an argument that he cannot have fallen the long distance from the ice ax to his resting place without having significantly controlled his slide. Or, indeed, that he fell from a much lower starting point (thus ignoring the ice ax as a sign of anything). However, all of the other 16 bodies in this elephant burial ground also seemed intact, although lying in the typical contorted positions. Claiming that because Mallory was not more severely injured as evidence that he survived his fall by means of a long self-arrest, and then came to a stop, crossed his legs and called out to Irvine, is baseless. (But it does allow great freedom in confabulating a heroic Scott-like return-struggle scenario). Mallory & Irvine tumbled over steep (45o) rocky terrain for about 100 m vertically (or 140m over the slope surface).

They then crashed into the 30o slope of the so-called 8200m snow terrace (which begins at 8300m at the same elevation as the modern C-6). This less-steep slope is usually snow-covered and would result in more sliding and less severe bouncing. However, in 1924, it, too, was nearly bare of snow. Thus there was practically no snow on which a self-arrest could have been attempted. Mallory was discovered at the very bottom of this "terrace" at 8160m.

Mallory & Irvine remained tied together until their combined force snapped the rope, because Mallory's waist exhibited the characteristic mottling of a severe rope pull injury. This suggests they did not separate until the latter part of the fall, when enough speed had been gained to snap the rope and injure both their waists. Even if the rope snapped during the early part of the fall, their bodies would have tumbled, like many of the others, against the Chinese Rib (42), which would again have tended to keep them together rather than allowing them to separate by random bounces. But, because Irvine was 20 lbs. heavier than Mallory,(43) when the rope snagged he would tend to keep on going, whereas Mallory would be slowed, perhaps even stopped. These physical laws suggest that it might have been the rope breaking that stopped Mallory's fall, while the heavier Irvine kept on going. If the rope did not break until right near the end of the Snow Terrace where the slope turns into a cliff, Irvine's ensuing fall could well be the full 6000-ft to the base of the North Face (44). A body falling that distance would surely not remain intact. The VPK camera, though, being small and light, could conceivably have survived. Since artifacts tend to be ejected to the surface, a search for the camera should be conducted on the Rongbuk Glacier at the base of the North Face.

Who Did Wang find?

The four significant elements of Wang's report to Japanese Climbing Leader Hasegawa were that he: 1) found an "English dead," 2) at 8100m, 3) who had a hole in his cheek, and 4) when touched, his clothes "danced in the wind." But, when Simonson's climbers found the body, Mallory's head was firmly buried face-down in frozen scree. It is hard to imagine how Wang could have seen the Mallory's buried face, which gave rise to the obvious idea that it must therefore have been Irvine he found--and who is still up there to be found. Yet careful consideration suggests otherwise. The key is Dr. Schwamm's spontaneous suggestion that, based on its pacific position in that situation, the body might have been moved. "I don't have the expertise to say that he was turned over," Dr Schwamm writes,(45) "But if he was found in a posture unlikely to occur as a result of his free-fall, that he would not have had the cognitive and motor capability to assume this posture on his own after sustaining such a brain injury. Limb movements toward the center of the body can be either purposeful or due to primitive reflexes; movements away from the body [the outstretched arms] are always purposeful. Therefore he could not have assumed this posture as a reflexive movement induced by his brain injury." Since the severity of his injury indicates Mallory must have been dead or unconscious before coming to a halt, Dr. Schwamm's comments suggest that Mallory could not possibly have maneuvered himself into the "self-arrest" position he was found.

In that case, when Wang found Mallory, he must have been lying in a different, more typically contorted position, perhaps on his side or his back. When Wang began to cover the body lightly with snow and rocks, he felt awkward about piling rocks on Mallory's face (or he turned him face-down to flatten him out). This is a common reaction. Thus, he rolled Mallory over. If you roll a limp person over, their legs cross (try it).(46) This explains the anomalous crossing of Mallory's good foot on top of his severely broken one--which had been previously explained away as "protecting it"! No one who has broken a limb ever places a heavy weight on top of it! (And protecting it from what?) Furthermore, Wang must have seen the hole in Mallory's forehead which he tried to describe as the obvious cause of death, but which was misunderstood by Hasagawa as a hole in his cheek. Close enough. Finally, Mallory's entire backside was found stripped of clothing which had been shredded by the wind, just as Wang described. In 24 years of lying in his new position--which had nothing to do with his fall (and thus the outstretched arms do not indicate a desperate attempt to self-arrest)--Mallory's head and arms sank slowly into the scree.

The maddening thing is that in spite of all the new information so ably depicted in “Ghosts," the most the experts can say is that, if before the discovery it was only unlikely Mallory & Irvine made it to the top, now it seems unlikely in the extreme. Only the discovery of 1924 artifacts well above the Second Step could revive this slim possibility. Since the first oxygen bottle was purposefully wedged in a rock clef to be found as a marker of their progress, it seems more than likely that the two would have stashed their large oxygen carrying frame at the point these were abandoned--if such a lodgment were available. On the route Breashears suggests, there may have been no such outcropping. But given how desperately under-equipped they were, unless the oxygen apparatus' are found on the summit ridge itself, the chances of their having reached the summit seem very low indeed.

Before the discovery of the body and its confirmation that the two climbers were roped (and thus did not split up to give Mallory a better solo chance), one could surmise a 25% to 50% chance that at least one of them made it. Mallory gave himself only a 50 to 1 chance against success. With the discovery of the body and the confirmation that the two remained roped, and with the first objective calibration of the technical difficulty of the Second Step terrain determined, one is obliged by a clear and straightforward assessment of these hard facts to conclude, most reluctantly, that their chances for success were no better than 1000 to 1 against. Such a pity.


York, Maine
12/31/99



1. Author with Audrey Salkeld of "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine," Pimlico/Random House, UK, 1999; The Mountaineers, U.S., 2000 Also available in German, Italian and Japanese.
2 Much of the book was ably "ghosted" by Bill Nothdurft of Seattle.
3 One notable exception to this was Messner's incredible solo oxygenless climb via a new route, approximately the continuation of the 1922 Finch/Bruce attempt. But Messner is a physical superman with extremely high technical climbing skills and with far more Himalayan climbing experience than Mallory.
4 100-ft was a common length of rope in those days. Mallory was found with a 20 to 30-ft section of rope around his waist, the balance of it is presumably around Irvine's waist.
5 Ghost p. 160-161.
6 " The principle reason the students of the Mallory and Irvine mystery have used to support the claim that they could not have succeeded in reaching the summit is that two cylinders would not have gotten them there. That is unquestionably true." Ghost. Page 169.
7 The authors dodge defending their various "suggestions" by claiming they never say the climbers did take three cylinders, or that they did climb the Second Step--just that they "might have"--in which case they "could have" summited, etc. Given opportunities prior to publication of this essay to answer this critique, they refused, ("too busy "). But once published they have not been to busy to complain bitterly to others about "distortions," without actually naming any of them.
8 Nothing is known about how much oxygen Irvine used for this part of the climb, if any.
9 C-4 is at 23,000 ft and C-6 is given as being at 26,800-ft, but the latter measurement has come under fire. Based on descriptions of the terrain, it seems likely that the site was actually at about 27,000-ft. I will use that height for calculations of climb rates and time, while reverting to 26,800 when Mallory makes his own calculations about how far he has to go.
10 "the lowest flow-rate possible" is over-emphasis; there were two rates possible, 1.5/l/m and 2.2 l/m
11 Assault, p 254-256.
12 (Can't find quote early in Fight.)
13 Ghost p 165.
14 Ghost p165.
15 The climbers believed that "boost" obtained from breathing oxygen on the descent did not make up for its awkward carry. But all their very limited experience with oxygen was below the "death zone"(which begins at 27,000 ft), and probably also reflected the disrepute with which its use was held morally.
16 Mallory meant 8:0 A.M.
17 See Holzel's oxygen climb rate chart in "Climb High," by Charles Houston, first edition. Also published in Mountain Magazine, #17, 1971.
18 Ghosts p 164.
19 Ghosts p162.
20 The cylinders were consider "full" with 535 liters of oxygen when showing 120 "atmospheres" (1 atm=14.7psi of pressure) or 1764 psi. Since pressure is directly proportional to absolute temperature, if the cylinders measured 120 Atm at, say +10o C, they would show 110 atm at minus 13.6o C. In other words, it is likely that M&I had four full cylinders, and one 90% full. If they were indeed full, the temperature at the time they measured them at C-5 or C-6 was therefore about 8oF. This physical law may have been unknown to the climbers, and contributed to their great consternation at the "leakage" of their apparatus, when in fact the pressure (but not the quantity of oxygen) was dropping due to the reduced temperature.
21 This would eliminate my conjecture on their climbing speed from C-4 to C-6.
22 Ghosts, p165.
23 Ghosts, p 166.
24 Fight, p. 332.
25 Mallory did not underline "probably."
26 Ghosts, p 168.
27 Fight, page 223.
28 Climbs to the level of 5.10 were not achieved until the 1960s [ck this]. Based on the climbs Mallory is known to have made in the Alps, one may judge (opinion!) his skill level at 5.8, with possible single 5.9 moves.
29 From that location the oxygen systems would bounce into the Great Couloir and, coming apart in the process, possibly reach the base of the mountain. Another reason to search the head of the Rongbuk Glacier for further clues.
30 Irvine would not have been trained enough or alert enough to perform an instantaneous ice ax belay.
31 Ghosts, page 177. "And, as Jochen Hemmleb had suspected all along, his fall was unrelated to the ice ax..."
32 Ghosts, p177.
33 A prediction made by Holzel in 1979, and codified on a map sent to the 1999 Expedition prior to the discovery.
34 Ghosts, p 112. The "(C-5b)" is my interjection.
35 Ghosts, p110. "'It is far more likely that it [the ice ax] was put down deliberately than that it slide to its position in an accident' Hemmleb points out. Noel Odell had said virtually the same thing sixty-five years earlier:..."
36 Ghosts, p 178.
37 Ghosts, p 179
38 Summit Magazine, Sep-Oct, 1987. (Ck date)
39 Time flow on Everest is always suspect. Zhang, Wang's tentmate, was in his sleeping bag when Wang went for his stroll. Thus the lapsed time of Wang's stroll could as easily have been an hour. But descending and reclimbing even 100m straight up and down is not something undertaken lightly at that altitude-certainly not on a rest day--and would have taken at least 3-4 hours.
40 And explains why Irvine's ice ax was found at a spot from which a fall would not be expected to have occurred.
41 Description to author by eyewitness Thom Pollard.
42 A diagonal rill from the modern C-6 that has funneled numerous bodies toward the center of the 8200m snow terrace.
43 Mallory weighed 159 lbs. Juli Summers reports that, at six feet even, Irvine weighed 178 lbs.
44 However, (there always seems to be a 'however') any abrupt rock outcropping can stop a falling body instantly. So Irvine could still be somewhere on the 8200m snow terrace. But it is unlikely.
45 Email from Dr Schwamm to Tom Holzel, 12/3/99.
46 Rigor mortus-an extreme stiffening of a body in the early hours of death-disappears after a while. Mallory's body was "flexibly stiff," that is, the joints could move slightly. In a new, rolled-over position, with 24 years of freezing and thawing, his hands and head would have slowly merged with the ground.


Lust for more Mallory & Irvine info? Get the Book: "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine," by Tom Holzel & Audrey Salkeld, Pimlico/Random House (UK), The Mountaineers (USA). Auch auf deutsch: "In der Todeszone," Goldmann.
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