Left: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine © RGS/The Sandy Irvine Trust, from "Ghosts of Everest" ; Right: 1924 North Face locations © Pete Poston
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"I'm quite doubtful if I shall be fit enough. But again I wonder if the monsoon will give us a chance. I don't want to get caught, but our three-day scheme from the Chang La will give the monsoon a good chance. We shall be going up again the day after tomorrow. Six days to the top from this camp!"

--from George Mallory's last letter to his wife prior to disappearing on Mt. Everest with his partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine in 1924

"My face is in perfect agony. Have prepared two oxygen apparatus for our start tomorrow morning".

- Sandy Irvine's last diary entry

A New Mallory and Irvine Theory: Was Andrew Irvine the first to summit Mount Everest in 1924?

by Warwick Pryce
© 2013

Did fresh snow fall on Everest's summit rocks on 8 June 1924?

David Breashears and Audrey Saulkeld in their book Last Climb (1) made this issue a major plank in a pessimistic assessment of what Mallory and Irvine were capable of achieving during that day, namely that they couldn't possibly have come anywhere near the summit:

·         (p.224) "Odell and Notion have reported fresh snow on the mountain that day: Norton calls it a powdering, Odell has a considerable quantity covering some of the upper rocks. Either will make the footing treacherous up there. This ridge loses its appeal."

·         (p.227) "... the rolling banks of mist of Odell's have thickened now, bringing snow flurries."

·         (p.232) "The blizzard that struck Odell as he reached Camp VI blew in around 2 o'clock ... Odell may have hoped they were above it but from all the fresh snow he saw there afterwards, that clearly was not so."

·         (p.234) "As they get lower and back . . . the fresh snow will make it hard to tell where any ledge starts and ends."

How accurate are the above statements, and therefore how certain are we entitled to be that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit?

Just before 1pm on 8 June, during Odell's brief glimpse of the summit ridge and the two tiny black specs, he noted "considerable quantities of new snow" up there. Compared to when? His previous glimpse of course . .. and when was that? "Very early on when it was clear." He had started from Camp V at 8am, and soon after, when he reached the northeast ridge, mists rolled westward across the face of the mountain and hid it until the brief clearance about 12.50pm. He had noted "that this mist might be confined chiefly to the lower half of the mountain", and "a certain luminosity . .. might mean comparatively clear conditions about its upper half''. Odell had had no qualms for the progress of M&I. (2)

Are we to believe that in the short window of opportunity when his entire attention was riveted to two black dots moving at the ridge, he would be distracted by the exact state of snow surfaces up there? He couldn't be certain for the rest of his long life which part of the ridge he had been looking at. His viewing position at 12.50pm was closer than earlier on. It was also much higher, enabling him to better see onto sloping surfaces. But most of all, the sun was then high in the sky and shining down on surfaces which much earlier had been in shade. (On 11 June 1938 Tilman and Lloyd would find that the sun didn't strike their Camp VI until 9am). Odell may have thought new snow had fallen near the summit during the morning, (his optimism by itself almost rules out the likelihood), but as discussed, there is no real indication that any fell.

About 2pm as he arrived at Camp VI, the wind grew stronger and "snow flurries" (a flurry is a light fall!) began to whistle past him. He sheltered in the tent for awhile, then wandered out into the driving sleet, returning to VI about 4pm just as the mountain cleared and sunshine bathed the face. His statement that "the freshly fallen snow speedily evaporated" can only refer to what had fallen nearby, for he mentioned a lack of any melting stage in between, which he could only observe close by. Probably, what wasn't turned to vapour was dispersed by the keen wind. In this part of Odell's narrative there is no mention of any new snow near the summit. So much for the idea that he'd just experienced a blizzard which clogged the mountain face with much new snow that higher up the face brought to a halt the progress of M&I. The very fact that straight after the squall ceased, the whole face and upper peaks were in clear sun tells a story-- the squall, logically, most likely, was down around where Odell was, and by moving off, all of the higher parts came rapidly into view. Once again, M&I seem like they were above what Odell had endured. Norton and others at Camp IIl couldn't possibly judge where on the upper slopes any cloud and squalls were.It's a pity no watch was being kept back at Camp I which had a suitable long range view of the mountain.

Casting more light on ... MALLORY AT NIGHT

If it was in darkness that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine slipped to their deaths on 8 June 1924, were they descending to Camp VI that late intentionally or accidentally? It doesn't matter which, according to many whose opinions have been published-- for didn't Mallory leave from VI that morning without his lighting equipment? And, whether either possibility is correct, doesn't that indicate he didn 't notice it missing until he needed to use it as darkness set in?

Instead of jumping so quickly to definite conclusions, writers and commentators should have been fairer to the two climbers by stating no more than what is plainly obvious, namely that the discovery of a lever torch and candle-lantern in the wreckage of the 1924 Camp VI tent by the porters of Jack Longland's climbing team on 29 May 1933 was no proof whatever this lighting gear was Mallory's or Irvine's. Ghosts of Everest p. 178 has the extraordinary statement that both were without their torches and lanterns. Yet only one of each was found in 1933 (3). And, Wikipedia (4) is saying that it was a hand generator electric lamp which was found in 1933, and that Odell had seen it there on 8 June 1924.

Whose torch?

Breashears & Salkeld in Last Climb allowed for a possibility that the torch and lantern could have been spare 1924 equipment. Members of the 1999 search expedition quoted in Ghosts of Everest were (still are?) certain that the gear was Mallory's and confirmation of his supposed habitual carelessness-- this is the popular view. Conrad Anker (with David Roberts) in The Lost Explorer (5) again and again insisted the torch at VI was Mallory 's, even claiming Odell didn't notice it had been left behind in the tent, and also pushed the line that both Mallory and Irvine were without any lighting.

Any conclusions that Mallory wouldn't have known he was without the imminent night-time aid until that night are not credible. He'd have been into his rucksack several times during the day, for food, his camera (not just for summit shots), clothing and personal items, alerting him to notice if the torch was missing-- and if so, he'd have been sure to turn back while sufficient daylight remained. But, realistically, Irvine getting his gear ready in the same small tent would have jogged Mallory's memory.

Noel Odell's written description of the Camp VI tent on 8 June and 10 June is revealing. On the 8th -- "a mixed assmiment of spare clothes, scraps of food, their two sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders & parts of apparatus" but not an expected note from Mallory. Sheltering inside the tent for a considerable time, Odell, geologist, methodical man, had time to make a thorough audit of the enclosed space. His published account in The Fight for Everest of 1924 made no mention of any torch or lantern. He added some new food provisions and Mallory 's compass.

On the 10th everything was as he left it two days earlier, except that one tent pole had collapsed. After a fruitless search for the climbers, he dragged both sleeping bags out for the T signal to Hazard down at the Col. Uplifting compass and oxygen set of lrvine's design, he closed the tent, leaving the rest of the contents as he had found them, and -- still no mention of the torch and lantern which would be found there in 1933! In two days Odell knew exactly what Camp VI tent contained, especially as he removed the sleeping bags on the 10th. To claim he didn't notice vital gear on the 8th discredits Odell's methodical nature, and ignores his concern and expectation. On the 10th to have then found torch and lantern might seem plausible, but only if he was as careless as Mallory is judged to,have been. His first search undoubtedly was most thoroughn looking for the hoped-for note from Mallory, for on the 8th Odell craved any news in anticipation of a great victory. Also, he did not expect to return to Camp VI again.

Is there not an obvious indication whose lighting gear would be found in May 1933?

On his return to the North Col on 8 June, Odell's really rapid descent by much glissading brought him there by 6.45pm. Why the extraordinary hurry? More to the point, was Odell asked during the long time he'd live (till 1987) if he could offer any reasons why the 1933 Expedition found a torch and lantern in the 1924 Camp VI tent when his written and published record describing the two visits had made no mention? Was he ever asked if he had left some night-time gear in the tent? An evasive reply, an embarrassed response would have provided an answer even if the latter contained no answer at all. His great support to all team members may well include sacrificing his own torch and lantern on 8 June in case M&I had damaged or lost theirs while returning, and making sure they had good lighting at Camp VI. Only a vain fellow would allow himself to be given any credit for such an act, particularly when those being helped died in spite of it. Also, he could have been accused of endangering the safety of others if he had had to be rescued in the dark -­ even though risk was lessened by the rapid descent. After the 1933 find, Odell would have been in a quandary -- speak up, or remain silent and let Mallory be judged as careless. Having no knowledge whether M&I had had to use their lighting, the choice would have been easy.

Should anyone conclude Odell had overlooked night lighting equipment as being unimportant, he added, as an afterthought, that he'd noticed "one or two" distress flares in the tent, which would have proven useless if M&I had had them and were stranded somewhere out on the mountain in the dark needing to be rescued.

There's no evidence at all that the torch and lantern belonged to Mallory or Irvine, but clear indications for the probability they were left there by Odell, the only other occupant or visitor at Camp VI tent on 8 June 1924. Did his porter, Nema carry spare lighting which Odell had failed to unpack at Camp V the previous day when he reluctantly sent Nema down? Perhaps other items also went down accidentally -- vital things that were conspicuous by their absence on the 8th.

One last question remains -- why on the 10th would Odell let this lighting equipment remain in the tent? Well, for the same reason he left the food supplies he'd brought up on the 8th Departing from Camp VI on the 8th he didn't expect to return, but on the 10th he knew there was a real possibility of yet another visit (including a likely overnight stay) if Norton should order it, to search for the bodies of the lost climbers.

Why weren't lights seen by the watchers at the North Col camp?

How true is the equation, no sighting equals no lighting? Did Odell, Hazard and potters simply witness a stark reality -- Mallory and Irvine obviously dead before darkness fell? Edward Norton concluded that because no torch or lantern lights were observed, M&I couldn't have been out in the open in the dark. Does anyone need to point out how ridiculous these conclusions are if they are based solely on the non-sighting of any torches or lanterns? Apparently one does ... for who has ventured to question them so far?

Many separate difficulties would have prevented sightings from down at Camp IV. The terrain itself virtually rules out any sighting -- the view is too flat, with outcrops and depressions that would have hidden M&I from view some of the time. The watchers were concentrating on Camp VI and the area immediately above in hopes of seeing that the climbers had arrived back safely and were signaling their safety and success in Morse code. Mallory's body is well right of Camp VI, outside the prime viewing area. The exact route prior to the fall is unknown.

Weak torchlight would hardly have been detected until full darkness set in. But then another huge problem arose-- the mountain's appearance became an extremely dim/bland/featureless ghostly image in the pitiful amount of moonlight, making it virtually impossible to identify or even see important features through field glasses, and cancelling out the knowledge of where to look. Only odd snowy patches facing the Moon would have remained even barely visible, while extensive bare rocky areas would have disappeared completely. Such a hopeless image would have faded away long before the Moon set soon after 11pm. Only the upper ridge outlines of the mountain's dark bulk would be discernable against the slightly lighter black of the starry sky.

The writer's experience in night viewing has shown how frustrating it is when the light level is almost down to nothing. Just to spot faint pinpricks of torchlight requires a tripod or super-steady hands. How could those anxious watchers even hold 'binocs' steady in the wind while trying to sweep slowly over an almost invisible area, jerking every time the freezing metal eyepieces rims touched their eyelids and facial skin: shivering, exhausted, increasingly tired, probably impatient? With them hardly in practice or even skilled at night viewing, how could anyone put any value on the fact they saw nothing?!

Those pathetic candle lanterns couldn't be seen from a modest distance. And, torches would have been aligned wrongly for viewers below -- they'd have been needed to be aimed parallel to the slope. M&I would have shone theirs down onto ground immediately in front, and behind as the leading man turned to help his partner see the way. With only the vastly weaker side-spread of the beam going straight ahead into far darkness, the likelihood of anything being visible from the camp below is practically nil. (We're surely not meant to imagine M&I stopping regularly to wave their torches in victory celebration . . . If they were still going in the dark, they were fighting for their lives).

How useful was moonlight to Mallory and Irvine?

Noel Odell's account of the evening of 7 June 1924 (at Camp V, 25,500 ft) recorded that "the weather seemed most promising" with a clear and spectacular vista of mountain peaks and sky. He didn't consider it important or relevant to mention the Moon, its position in the sky, its phase status, its level of illumination, or even the hour it set. Closing himself in the tent, he would sleep well and wake at 6am on a "not unduly cold clear morning".

Just 1500 ft higher at Camp VI, Mallory and Irvine had an equal or slightly better outlook on that auspicious evening. Of certain relevance would have been Mallory's original plan to start from here for the summit before dawn in bright moonlight on 17th May (full moon was on the 18th). Also, he would have had vivid recollections of a particular night at the North Col camp on 19th May 1922 when the Moon, four days past full, rose late from behind the bulk of Everest and diminished the initial brilliant starry spectacle.

At Camp VI on 7th June the night sky presented sights very different from either previous occasion. From the tent looking west as the sunset glow faded away (John Noel's book, Through Tibet to Everest p.176 (6) recorded that full darkness set in rapidly) a fat crescent Moon was conspicuous halfway between zenith and horizon, with the planet Venus lower and just a smidgen past its brightest. Venus is the 3rd brightest object after Sun and Moon, and when that bright will cast a shadow on a white wall. The Moon on the next night would be a little fatter, higher and setting later. If the weather would stay clear, this would seem very useful outdoor lighting should the descent from the summit extend into the darkness. However, if that was Mallory's calculated guess (he always seemed to be calculating), he was sadly astray, and such miscalculation may well have been a major cause of the disaster.

Not one respected writer realised the disaster the danger Mallory and Irvine would be in if they had to depend on the moonlight on the evening of 8th June. (Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld in The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine p. 228 (7): "It was a clear night with sufficient Moonlight to have permitted a night-time descent". W.H. Murray in The Story of Everest p.105 (8): "Moonlight reflected from the summits of the West Rongbuk Glacier floodlit the face of Everest". Noel Odell wrote that he expected the Moon as it etched the western peaks to give Mallory enough useful light. David Breashears and Audrey Salkeld in Last Climb p. 177: "The evening was clear with a bright Moon". Ghosts of Everest statements p. 175: "the Moon disappeared beneath the horizon early at 11.25pm", and p. 178: "they (M&I) groped down through the Yellow Band in the dark, with neither Moonlight nor their own lanterns or torches to light the way" show a confidence in the Moonlight of 8 June, if only the Moon hadn't set so early. (But saying M&I were both without their lighting is a 2X exaggeration built upon a total assumption!).

The painful truth about Moonlight

Whittakers Almqnac for 1924 (9) gives the accurate details of the Moon's age and phase on 8th June. The new Moon had been on June 2nd, and 1st quarter was still 2 days away (10th). Venus was lower in the sky, having been at the same level (in conjunction with the Moon) 3 days earlier (5th) and retained its great brilliance during the 1st week of June. Jupiter and Saturn, high in the southern sky early-mid evening were no use, and nor was the starlight.

The critical question is, how bright was the moonlight for Mallory and Irvine on the evening of 8th June? The answer is certain to shock many people, as well as illustrate widespread ignorance about the strength and usefulness of the Moon's light from its various phases.

Full Moon seems very bright (even though only 1/450,000th as bright as the Sun), and certainly will illuminate white objects and surfaces, and decreasingly those from white to mid-grey on the graded tone scale. But from mid-grey down its usefulness diminishes rapidly long before arriving at the black end of the scale. The best a full moon can offer is from behind a total, over-all light cloud cover which gathers and scatters the light to provide an impression of an extremely dull day. But such cloud on Everest could envelop mountain and climbers*.

With a full Moon in a clear sky rated 100%, what would a 1st Quarter (half-circle) give out? Ask just about anyone-- wouldn't half the area give 50% illumination? Logical? It would seem so. But, correct? No, not 50%, nor any figure near it ... in fact, no more than 8.5%! A useful diagram in Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy p.125 (10) shows that a fat crescent with 2 days to go to 1st Quarter, namely the Moon of 8th June 1924 gave only 3% as much as full Moon gives!  (A thin crescent gives 0.5% or less). Did Mallory know this vital information? Why would he—it wasn't and still isn't well known. It seems that on the night of the 8th he and Irvine found out the facts that the only useful illumination that would convey detail on the darkened bare rock surfaces (rendered featureless in the enveloping gloom) that they were compelled to walk on was from their torches and lanterns which were awkward and difficult to hold in addition to rope and ice axe. And, as is known by any competent night photographer, lighting from a source near the eyes is appallingly flat and shadowless. The speed of their descent would have been greatly slowed under those circumstances. Who knows what actually took them -- inability to see the way, or fatigue from the slow grind that led to a moment or two of tragic miscalculation? As said earlier, an initial miscalculation over the available amount of moonlight may have been the prime cause of their coming to grief. If either of them had ventured out on the night of the 7th to check how effective the Moonlight was, the history of the next day might have been different, and more likely to be known.

*Mallory had experienced such a situation on 18th or 19th July 1921 as recorded in Peter Gillman's book Everest p. 21 (11) .He and other climber(s) left in the dark to get to the col between Lingtren and Pumori, arriving at 5am. With Full Moon on the 20th, the near-full disc giving about 50% illumination compared to full was behind extensive cloud which at dawn was covering "almost everything". He mentions the Moon setting before dawn which it would, and more so because a mid-summer full moon is at the southern extremity of the zodiac where the mid-winter sun would be, and therefore setting even early. After it went down, Mallory mentions that until dawn broke, it was light enough under the "not heavy" cloud cover to be on the move without candle lighting, and it can be concluded this had been the situation from when they had set out, as that period of moonlight behind cloud cover would have been even brighter than after it set.

Why was Odell missing some equipment?

Its baffling to realise that during his two journeys above the North Col camp, Noel Odell was apparently without three items; some of which he, a scientific man, naturally would have been expected to carry. Just one of them would have made his record of 8th and 10th June 1924 much more revealing.

He had a camera with which he took the last photo of M&I as they set off from Camp IV. Yet, where was it when he sighted them on the ridge? Even though they'd have been lost in the grain of the film, such a vital snap would have firmly anchored his claim of where he saw them. Without a camera, a hastily drawn sketch would have done the job admirably, but he seemed to be without the basic pen/pencil-and-paper, indicated by no mention of him leaving a note for M&I at Camp VI on the 8th. Strangely, he didn't seem to be bothered to visually firm up his mid-day observation when the mountain cleared about 4pm.

This is not a criticism, but a search for reasons which may be perfectly understandable. Was the camera being carried by Nema, and at Camp V when Odell reluctantly let him go down with the porters who had come down from Camp VI, was overlooked and went back down to IV with Nema? With the bustle of this party getting away late in the day and so many things including Mallory's notes for Odell to think of, such an accident would have been waiting to happen.

On the 9th and 10th the vital item for Odell would have been the field glasses that had been used on night of the 8th. He was now on a search mission. Perhaps the glasses belonged to Hazard or were too heavy to lug up to Camp V and Camp VI, or deemed to be more valuable at the North Col which was the pivotal place between Camp III and Camp VI for passing on signals. (If there was just the one set it was wise not to put them at greater risk). It seems that no snow fell from when the mountain cleared late afternoon on the 8th till after Odell made his final departure from Camp VI on the 10th -- so, the chilling thought is, with field glasses to scan the slopes up at Camp VI, Odell may have spotted a far-off object looking suspiciously like the clothed body of a man, and gone over to investigate. But on the other hand, would the dull clothing have been noticeable on a field of grey-brown rocks? .

Vital observations strangely missing

As Mallory and Irvine headed off from Camp VI for the summit of Everest, it seems that interest down at the lower camps fell away during the day. John Hazard at the North Col could have lain in a tent and watched the upper slopes with his field glasses we know he had. With the upper slopes and ridges clear till mid-morning for Odell above Camp V (till 10am for John Noel at Eagles Nest) and from 4pm for Odell at Camp VI, viewers at Camp IV were in the "box seat", able to see the entire skyline ridge from summit to the Pinnacles. One can only wonder if John Hazard felt disappointed or slighted that messages from Mallory were only for Odell and Noel, causing him to become somewhat disinterested. His "falling out" with Norton over an unauthorized surveying trip after the expedition (which, according to some published accounts offended the Tibetans and shut the Brits out for the next nine years) would have stifled any patticipation in the preparation of the official book, Everest 1924, and that was most regrettable. Yet, did Hazard leave any written record or relate anything to anyone? Has this possible source of information been fully explored?

John Noel's statement in his book Through Tibet to Everest p.262 (12) that clouds hid the summit from 10am is all he said. He thought Mallory had meant to watch for M&I starting up the summit pyramid at 8am(!) and put two "keen-eyed men" on the job at the telescope from daybreak! Did it occur to him that M&I might be visible coming down late in the day when the mountain cleared of cloud? Apparently not. Was the thinking at Camp III (especially of Norton) that by this late they would be sure to be well on their way down to Camp VI? Odell certainly was of that opinion.

On this day, the culmination of three Everest expeditions, the very last opportunity to succeed in what they were all there for, there is hardly a single piece of information apart from what Odell recorded. A conspiracy theorist would say there was a cover-up, but perhaps the events of that day simply numbed the ones who were helpless down below from going back over the hours during which the tragedy happened. Was that the way things were done back then out of deep respect for lost comrades?

Why didn't Odell see M&I again during late afternoon?

At 4pm at the end of his visit to Camp VI on 8 June 1924, Everest's entire north face cleared of cloud, and remained clear for the rest of the day and night. Odell recorded that he scanned the upper parts for any sign of M&I without success. He had already been out hollering, yodeling, andwhistling in hope they might have returned and be nearing Camp VI. It seems he wasn't giving much attention to the summit pyramid.

His narrative is most illuminating:

"Leaving Camp VI therefore about 4.30, I made my way down by the extreme crest of the North Ridge, halting now and again to glance up and scan the upper rocks for some signs ofthe party, who should by now, it seems to me, be well on their downward tracks. But I looked in vain: I could, at that great distance and against such a broken background, little hope to pick them out, except by some good chance they should be crossing one of the infrequent patches of snow, as happened that morning, or be silhouetted in the crest of the North-east Arete, if they should be making their way back by that of their ascent, as seemed most likely."

He was looking at rocky areas in the middle of the face far below the summit, thinking they should be well down on their return. The NE ridge would be back along past the First Step where he knew they had ascended from before he saw them at 12.50pm, and that's well to the left of the summit pyramid. Had he studied the summit intensely, it is possible he may have seen them, or one of them (if either one had gone up to the top alone). What a pity he didn't have the field glasses with him, but even then would he have trained them on the final peak? Obviously his expectation was for M&I to stop climbing at a reasonable hour and return safely to Camp VI, as Norton and Somervell had done, thus only setting a new height record.

For M&I to be at the Second or Third Steps (or some place in between) at 12.50pm meant they would be in full view mid-late afternoon if they had gone up to the summit. A single dot moving too slowly for any movement to be noticeable wouldn't have the impact of two such dots, and lengthy looking would be required to see any change of position which would only have been obvious if a mental note had been made of the previous position it/they had been observed at. The summit pyramid ridge, especially towards the top was much further away than the two steps, so M&I appearing as tiny dots would be much smaller than at the earlier sighting.

What time did Mallory and Irvine leave from Camp VI?

This, the most important single timing factor that M&I had to get right in order to reach Everest's summit is a total mystery. Ghosts of Everest authors made a guess-- 5.00-5.30am, and upon that based their conclusions, which of course are astray if that estimation is well out. We do know for certain that Noel Odell, one camp below, after a long beneficial sleep and without oxygen, set off at 8am for Camp VI.

The lack of a note for Odell to read when he got to Camp VI points to two opposing reasons a very early start, in the dark -- perhaps it was too difficult to see to write, or a too-late start which Mallory was ashamed to reveal.

The option of starting in darkness could seem unwise to Odell (with no bright moonlight that Mallory's original date of 17th May could have provided). Would he have wanted to alarm Odell? Better to say nothing. Naturally too, M&I would be carrying all their lighting gear, so if we stop assuming that Mallory left torch and lantem at Camp VI (there's no proof at all, and indications point elsewhere) a pre-dawn departure makes sense. The second option has M&I sleeping in, valuable time draining away on this, their really big day and any hopes of summiting dashed. They'd only be able to set a new height record.

Several authors have suggested Mallory's determination and obsession only really kicked in late in the day as he got close to the summit. Supposedly there and then, they over-ruled his commonsense and condemned him and Irvine to their fateful end. Hold on now --why haven't such writers tried a little harder to understand what was in the mind of this man? When M&I got to Camp VI on 7 June, were they not in the exact same situation that three similar men (then yet to be born) would find themselves in, 36 years on in the future? Here on that tiny, uncomfortable launch-pad, having done all the training and preparation they could muster, and backed to the hilt by others of the 1924 team, and only there because ofthe efforts of previous teams of 1921 and 1922 --what they were focusing on was the moment they would "launch" to head for top of the world's highest peak. (Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were much more like technicians, locked inside their canister and suits of Earth's atmosphere, always having physical safety barriers between them and the awesome surroundings they were venturing into. How different are mountaineers who experience the thrilling sensations of being out in the open in skin contact with their equally magnificent environment!).

Only though Odell's published words do we know how it felt on the night of 7th June high up on Everest's summit slopes. At Camp V that evening "the weather seemed most promising". The final note written at Camp VI by Mallory during the day said "Perfect weather for the job!" Things were looking good, really good. Irvine would have been totally absorbed in getting the oxygen supplies fully ready. As the day progressed, ended, and night set in, Mallory's spirits would be bolstered as he stared at the massive object towering defiantly into the sky. At last! This is it!

Mallory's note very clearly told where they hoped to be by 8am (to everyone 8pm is a 'typo' error anyone·can make, read over and not notice, and only a separate proofreader would spot)-­"Crossing the rock band under the pyramid" where Norton and Somervell had been on the 4th or "the skyline".(John Noel, photographer misinterpreted the latter as being the final pyramid). To be at either place at the same time shows Mallory meant the skyline at the place he would arrive at, namely, below the 1st Step (to the left of it for the viewers below). Vital discussions with Norton at the North Col on night of the 4th and during the 5th told him Norton/Somervell had started at 6.45am for Norton to attain his estimated 28,000ft high at 1pm. Mallory would see he must be away from Camp VI very much earlier. A 5.30am start is only three quarters of an hour earlier, hardly extra time at all for unforeseen difficulties in what he was nearly all virgin territory. During the attempt of Norton and Somervell, he must have been privately hoping they wouldn't summit, so that the great task would fall to him. Now, it was his! Declining to reveal/share his breathing technique, and having a photo of his wife and a letter from her to place on the summit confirm he had a burning ambition to be the one to carry off the prize -- he wasn' tjust hoping the team would succeed. One doesn't have to put any thoughts in Mallory's head -- they'd all be there. To fail to grasp what would have already seized him, almost free of the shackles that had frustrated him, ready for the final sprint to personal victory ... (as the Aussies say, un-bee-loovable!).

Odell recorded that he kept warm and enjoyed a fair amount of sleep during the night (without the assistance of artificial oxygen). Obviously the night temperature was pleasantly bearable (not like the next night when wind and cold increased and he "remained chilled and unable to sleep even inside two sleeping bags."). Up at 6am on the 8th, the early morning was "clear and not unduly cold." There's no reason to doubt that the same conditions prevailed up at Camp VI. Later that day, Odell would see enough to suspect that M&I had used oxygen during the night -- for helping them get sleepy? Or, an even more tantalizing thought -- to have it available the moment they woke in order to get them going! There's the question of early morning preparation, particularly putting boots on -- Odell found this held him up considerably that morning along with preparing breakfast, but he did call those exact tasks "little obligations". Anything to save important time would have occupied Mallory's calculating mind. (Taking boots into the sleeping bag at night to prevent them freezing was one trick these chaps tried). They were there at last, with just one throw of the dice remaining, and yet we've been fed an image of a forgetful, absent-minded fellow, hardly motivated out of his normal state of mind, wandernig off at some ordinary hour of the morning on the greatest adventure of his life without even seeing whether he had everything he needed for every eventuality he could think of. Wouldn't Irvine, there in the same tent, going over what he needed, prod Mallory 's memory? The methodical array of items in Mallory's pockets in 1999 tells the true story -- pity his rucksack was missing, thus preventing us having the complete inventory.

Several writers assured us that Mallory was well known for his early starts. Some of his starts in 1921 were as early as 2am. His note to John Noel said "We'll probably start early tomorrow (8th and might seem unfocussed, uncertain, even undecided). Why? It simply demonstrates the modest, cautious nature of a thoroughly dedicated professional, driven on by the mindset of being fully aware it would only happen if everything (including mustering every ounce of detetmination) was in place to make it happen. Anyone in his position would have some thought not to "tempt Fate". "It won't be too early to start looking out for us... at 80am" could seem boastful, but Mallory wasn't saying they would be there by that time, just be ready to see them from that time on, (unsaid but inferred: "and if we aren't on time, be patient"). .

How early could M&I have departed from VI? The many indications discussed above point straight at a very early start, but only from Odell's sighting can we work it out. Where were M&I when seen by Odell? Nearly everyone has an opinion. Andy Politz was certain by standing in line with where Odell had stood, that M&I were at the Third Step at 12.50pm -- about where Mallory wanted to be, much higher than Norton's record set at the same time four days earlier. Odell said the spot was "a rock step", condemning the sighting to be at either the First or Second Steps in all discussions, opinions, conclusions for decades, for the Third Step had no name or recognition as a feature until very recently. Had he said "a knob at the base of the summit pyramid", questions would hardly have arisen. However -- if he was familiar with those two steps, and aware of the knob which had no name, then the place where he saw M&I looks to have been the Second Step. In Andy Politz's photo (in Ghosts of Everest p.16 and p.116) the Second Step certainly looks more like a step than any other feature on the ridge. . . so, how early did they leave from Camp VI? Ghosts of Everest says first light was 4am, and sunrise 5.15am.

Supposing M&I set out just as the sky was beginning to lighten, thus showing the mountain 's dark outline and ridges in clear profile, they would have been in darkness for only a short time, probably not even an hour. From Camp VI to the skyline may have taken about three and a half hours: a 4am departure, at the ridge by 7.30am. Ghosts of Everest calculations reckoned on about five hours from there to the Third Step. From say, 7.45am (after a stop and a change to a new oxygen bottle) 5 hours comes to 12.45 -- the very time Odell saw them. To only be at the Second Step would have had them away from Camp VI after 4.30am,unless of course they'd had trouble on the way. Of the options suggested in Ghosts of Everest. Chapter 8, scenario 4 has them at the Third Step at 12.50pm, on the summit about 3.30pm and back to the First Step by sunset at about 7pm. To have both summited and gotten down through the Yellow Band to where they fell, means only the last part would have been in total darkness, or near enough to it, and with the Moon giving such a weak light as to be useless (which M&I seem to have miscalculated on), the die was cast.

Everyone seems to think that the use of oxygen was to start breathing it at a steady rate and continue until it was all depleted. These fellows would have worked out ways to lengthen the time they would have it available, especially at the most important time, the sprint to the summit. On-off use on the more level sections above the First Step would have been one method, especially as they would have had the warmth of the Sun to assist them. Perhaps they set out with Mallory carrying two cylinders, and Irvine carrying three. Did Irvine even strap on the Umma cooker from Camp VI which Odell didn't mention as being there? Perhaps at the Second Step, while Mallory worked at ways to get up, Irvine was busy thawing out snow to keep their intake of liquids going. What a day this must have been, only possible from a very early start. How sad that it had to end in tragedy for them and a mystery for everyone else.

Imagine the headline: “Mallory didn’t conquer Everest – Irvine did”

Has anyone ever given serious thought to that possibility? Could it have happened that way? Did the stronger and possibly fitter man -- and 15 years younger-- continue to the top when Mallory reached the limit of his capabilities somewhere above the Second Step? Taking with him the camera, Mallory's ice axe, a light load of one new oxygen cylinder, and Ruth Mallory's letter and photograph -- did Irvine gain the prize by himself while his senior partner rested in the sun and shelter of a rocky outcrop on the ridge? On returning and rejoining Mallory, did he hand the camera back only to be told, "No, you keep it in your sack. You got there" (implying but not saying something they both knew, namely that if disaster should befall them, and their bodies found, the camera being with Irvine would point to him having summited).

Immediately arises the question, would Mallory have allowed Irvine to go on up alone when he couldn't? This is a tricky one. Perhaps they had struggled on for some distance before Mallory gave up. With just the snowy ridge to the summit at their feet, what a shame not to finish the job, with say, only an hour, or hour-and-a-half (they think) needed to get to the top. Irvine feels he can do it, and finally makes the suggestion after Mallory decides to quit: "If you stay in the sun and shelter from the wind behind those last rocks, I'll go up and return as quickly as I can. I'll take just my last full oxygen cylinder, so it'll be a very light load".

Mallory is physically spent, and distraught that he can't go on. Even if they wait for awhile, he knows they've already lost too much time stopping-starting, staggering on, just to get to this point. He still has some oxygen left, but it isn't helping him to regain any stamina. He's the leader. It's his decision, but he doesn't know what to do. The snow slope ahead seems very normal. But it is steep, and long. He leans back agains the overhanging rock step. He has no stomach for the effort required to go up. And yet . .. how close they are! The weather is perfect. The cloud plateau below is breaking up. If they go down now, they might make it back before nightfall. If they're not back before dark, that Moon up there will help them see the way. It won't set till about 11pm. What to do ...

Irvine beaks the impasse. "Look, we're wasting time. How about I go as far as the crest and see what's beyond. Are you absolutely certain you can't go up? Alright, I'm on my own. I think I can get there. I'll look back occasionally and wave an arm.. If you're happy for me to keep going, wave one arm in reply. If you want me to return, wave both arms. If l get to the crest and it looks alright to go on, I'll wave one arm again, and if you agree, be sure to give me a clear one-arm wave in reply or two arms if you don't agree. Now, promise me if l don't appear in reasonable time you'll go down without me".

Mallory is totally confused. What should he do? Pressed again by Irvine to promise to go down as requested, he reluctantly, begrudgingly half-agrees. Irvine needs no further encouragement. Already he is loaded iightly and walking slowly backwards. He stops, comes back, asks for the camera. He shakes the hand of Mallory, who with tears in his eyes asks him to take up the letter and photo of Ruth. Irvine sets off and Mallory sits on his rucksack and thinks about having some nourishment. He watches Irvine who is making good progress. Again and again they exchange one-arm waves. Then he stands up and wonders if he can make a supreme effort and catch up to Irvine. But no, he feels all weak in the knees again.

At the crest Irvine discovers there is yet another long snowy slope. He's going well. Having come this far -- he wants to make the very top. He can see Mallory away down below, but he isn't doing any arm waving. It seems that he's nodded off. What to do? Irvine yells out at the top of his voice, even though his throat is very dry. Still no answer. Decisions... keep going.

Having summited, Irvine placed objects in a hole in the snow, takes a few photos of the incredible views, and then heads back down: elated, but with a sense of panic beginning to well up. It has taken longer than either of them thought it would. Reaching the crest, he sees Mallory is still down there, and waves furiously to him. But Mallory is still not answering. Irvine heads down, waving again and again. Suddenly he notices Mallory standing up, waving both arms. He stops, waves back and treads steadily onward. Soon they are hand shaking again, and Mallory seems a little better. Time is very short, and they are off with the barest minimum of loads. They need to climb down that incredible broken North Face as quickly as possible. The Sun is very low, but they have their torches, and the Moon should be a great help in the dark

Did it happen the other way around, as nearly all who've imagined the final ascent might have been a solo one have suggested? This writer doesn 't think that way now. To leave Irvine alone so high on the mountain so late in the day would have been a clear case of irresponsibility. What if Mallory had fallen off the summit? His duty was to guide them both back safely, and that would have been hammering away in his thoughts. If Irvine was at the end of his endurance, Mallory would not have continued the risk to a 'bloody-minded' conclusion. Initially though, he may have set off up the long slope, but eventually, still well short of the summit with far more time gone by than he previously imagined it would take, stark rational doubts would have stopped him in his tracks. He knew there would be no gallantry in gaining the top if it led to catastrophic results, especially with the passing of so much extra time causing Irvine to conclude that Mallory had come to grief, and so had gone down before he could get back to him. He'd have realized Irvine was in mortal danger with no experienced senior companion to be roped to. This would have been unthinkable! Stopping so close to the top would have been extremely disappointing -­heartbreaking, no doubt. However, they would both still have a good chance of getting down
and with honour still intact.

Did tobacco smoking hinder or benefit Mallory and Irvine?

Andrew Irvine smoked a pipe, as is shown in a photo of him during the 1924 Everest Expedition, and George Mallory was (or had been) a smoker of both cigarettes and pipe -- a published photo of him with daughter, Claire in 1917 shows a cigarette in his hand, and photos of the 1921 and 1922 expeditions had him holding the pipe. How on Earth could these fellows hope to get to Everest's summit in the rarified air up around 29,000 ft with tobacco tar coating their extremely delicate and highly important lung tissues?

Searching the Internet fails to bring any conclusive answers about smoking at high altitude. In fact there's even an item that says some climbers reported beneficial effects-- cigarettes/pipes helped them to breath apparently. Those early Everest climbers suffered from dry sore throats, with one, Howard Somervell having that major coughing fit on the return from the penultimate summit attempt of 1924. But even today there seem to be no clear recommendations. The small, elusive, fiercely independent climbing fraternity is hardly the population sector where studies would be conducted by outside health and pressure groups. Mountaineers are quick to say they are fitter and healthier than non-mountaineers, and why should they be subjected to the same attention which is lavished or imposed (depending on the viewpoint) upon the general public.

Tobacco smoking was thought to be one of the normal practices of good living. Presumably most or all of the early Everest expedition members indulged, to varying degrees. It wouldn't be till King George VI died of lung problems in 1952 that the Royal Family began to set the example that smoking was considered harmful, and only recently has it become known that passive smoking is to be considered just as harmful as the real thing

One can only wonder if the likes of Mallory and Irvine received some protective assistance from smoking. Did a layer of tar deposit prevent damage to lung tissue from extremely cold air perhaps? How rarified air affects the smoker's lungs compared with the non-smoker's doesn't seem to be known, nor if the inhalation of supplemental oxygen is assisted or hindered. The answers to such questions could indicate whether Mallory and Irvine had a better chance of success near the top of Everest than what has been attributed to them.

Should a non-mountaineer comment on what a skilled mountaineer wrote?

When Joe Public says something of substance about mountaineering, it is likely to be dismissed without being evaluated. "Sitting room scenarios from lazy individuals who've never even been on a mountain" is the ultimate put-down. But ... haven't skilled mountaineers published their accounts of their experiences, and their knowledgeable views and conclusions for the public to read -- and by which to have the public pay for the privilege? If any writings can be shown to contain errors, miscalculations or omissions in areas that are not the private preserve of the mountaineer, anyone who can comment, should comment. As well, where a mountaineer's conclusions and opinions are based on demonstrable or probable faulty deduction or misunderstandings over what another mountaineer wrote, a 'closed society of mountaineers' does not have sole rights to pose relevant questions and offer 'suggestions in pursuit of actual or likely truth. If any individuals are due the full assistance of widespread fair evaluation of all that has been written about them, they would have to be George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

Warwick Pryce
Lower Hutt
New Zealand


  1. "Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory", David Breashears and Audrey Saulkeld

  2. "The Fight for Everest 1924", E.F. Norton

  3. "Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine", Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, Eric R. Simonson, William E. Nothdurft

  4. Wikipedia, "1924 British Mount Everest Expedition" (accessed April 20th, 2013)

  5. "The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory On Mount Everest", Conrad Anker and David Roberts

  6. "The Story Of Everest", John B. L. Noel

  7. "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine", Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld

  8. "The Story of Everest", W.H. Murray

  9. "Whitaker's Almanack, 1924", Whitakers

  10. "Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy", Lucien / De Vaucouleurs, G. Rudaux

  11. "Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy", Peter Gillman, Leni Gillman, Audrey Salkeld

  12. "Through Tibet to Everest", J.B.L. Noel


Articles and Editorials

Harvey V. Lankford, MD, has written a paper documenting the origin of the term "Glacier Lassitude" as a diagnosis for the debilitating effect of altitude as experienced by members of the early British Everest expeditions.

My new theory about Mallory and Irvine's last climb, where I believe Odell's sighting was erroneous, and have them taking the Couloir route instead.

Part 1: the ascent
Part 2: the descent

Warwick Pryce is a new researcher who has arrived on the scene, and he has a new theory about how Andrew Irvine could have been the first person to stand on the top of the world.

Wim Kohsiek has a new interpretation of what Mallory's altimeter can tell us based on scientific applications of meterology.

Mallory and Irvine researcher Wim Kohsiek has two new thought-provoking articles about Mallory's watch and Irvine's location:

Mallory's Watch - Does it Really Point to 12:50 PM?

1924 Oxygen by Richard McQuet and Pete Poston

Why the Camera and Film are not Doomed to Destruction!

The Politics of Mallory and Irvine

Why Andrew Irvine Will Not be Found in a Sleeping Bag! Part 1 and Part 2 on ExplorersWeb

Chomolungma Nirvana: The Routes of Mount Everest

Rust Marks on Mallory's Altimeter

Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate Google Earth Tour - my own ideas in 3-D with audio!

Little Known Free-Solo Ascent of the Second Step in 2001 by Theo Fritsche - I should never have written this - Anker and Houlding deserve credit for the first free ascent

Criticisms of the 2004 EverestNews.com search for Irvine --

The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate (with J. Hemmleb): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Mallory and Irvine - Comments on the 'real Second Step' route: Part 1 and Part 2

Conrad Anker's comments on the unlikeliness of a direct route up the prow of the 2nd Step

Articles about my heroes Walter Bonatti and Chris Bonington --

Spilling the Beans - Lino Lacedelli's Book "Price of Conquest: Confessions from the First Ascent of K2" Part 1 and Part 2

The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 final - interview

About Me

Celebrating my 50th birthday on pitch 3 of Prodigal Son, Zion National Park, Utah

In my free time, I love to photograph and hike the spectacular redrock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau - please visit my Colorado Plateau Homepage.

And for most of my life I've been fascinated with the history, people, and culture of the Himalayas and Karakoram - browse my Mount Everest Trek (1996), Overland Journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa (2000), and K2 Base Camp Trek (2007) webpages.

As for my employment, I work for Western Oregon University where I have been a Professor of Chemistry for the last 20 years. My research interests are in applications of Laser Raman Spectroscopy to such diverse fields as Nanotechnology, Analytical Chemistry, and even a bit of Achaeology through the study of rock art pigments found in the Colorado Plateau. You can access my academic webpage here.