The finding of George Mallorys body on the
North face of Mount Everest has been the astonishing end to a quest which has preoccupied
me since I was boy thirty years ago. It may also qualify as the most tardy mountain
search-and-rescue mission ever undertaken: it took nearly seventy-five years between
Mallory and Irvines disappearance into the clouds on 8th June 1924 to our
expeditions discovery of the body on the first of May 1999.
Any climber who has been captivated by the great
legend of George Mallory may well be disappointed that he has been found, and like me they
may be appalled that photographs should be published showing his corpse. But I want to
explain why I feel glad that he has now been given a proper burial. And as this is a
personal, family story, I apologize for any lack of objectivity.
Climbing was in the family. My father started
taking me out into the hills of Arran when I was five, but it must have been a
double-edged pleasure for him. His brother John Hoyland had been killed on Mount Blanc
back in the thirties. Jack Longland described him as "potentially the best
mountaineer of his generation...there was no young English climber since George Mallory of
whom it seemed safe to expect so much..."
John had been expected to go on the next expedition
to Everest, but his death at nineteen had put paid to those hopes. Even I could sense the
loss at thirty years' distance.
My father told me about another climbing hero in
our family, a man who had been very close to the summit of Mount Everest in 1924. He
called him Uncle Hunch, and my father promised that one day I would meet him. He said
hed been a close friend of George Mallory, and there again was that name. Mallory,
the paragon of climbers.
Eventually, when I was twelve years old and he was
eighty-one I met him.
I remember standing on the lawn outside my
uncles house and looking up at the legendary Howard Somervell.
He was an extraordinarily gifted man: a double
first at Cambridge, a talented artist- his pictures of Everest are still on the walls of
the Alpine Club; and an accomplished musician- he transcribed the music he heard in Tibet
into Western notation. And he was President of the Alpine Club during the sixties. He was
working as a surgeon in London when he was invited to join the 1922 Mount Everest
expedition. General Bruce, the leader, described his strength on the mountain:
"Stands by himself..... extraordinary capacity for going day after day." And
Younghusband said that of all the Everest men he met he liked Somervell the best.
At that stage in my life I knew nothing about this,
I was only transfixed by the incredible story he was telling me.
It was Somervells second visit to Everest. On
his first, in 1922, he and George Mallory had become friends. They discussed literature
late into the night as they lay in their tent together, indeed they often read Shakespeare
to one another.
George Leigh Mallory's name will always be
associated with Mount Everest. By profession he was a somewhat unfulfilled school-teacher,
but he was also a romantic, with a romantic's need to immolate himself in some great
cause. He succeeded in this more spectacularly than in anything else in his life.
There was a dreadful accident on Mount Everest in
1922, when a number of Sherpas and Bhotias died in the last attempt on the mountain that
season. Somervell was leading a party of fourteen porters with Mallory and Crawford in
very dangerous soft snow conditions up to the North Col. A crack appeared in the slope
above him and suddenly they were riding down the mountain on the back of an avalanche. As
he was drawn down below the surface Somervell was convinced he was about to die. When it
stopped, however, he was able to dig himself out to find that seven of the porters were
dead- but none of the British climbers. Mallory blamed himself for the disaster, having
pushed on in poor conditions for one last try- a chilling foretaste of what was to happen
two years later.
On his way home, and I suspect still afflicted by
the shock and guilt of surviving this tragedy, Uncle Hunch visited a medical mission in
Travancore. There he decided his life's work lay in India instead of in the prestigious
post he had been offered at University College Hospital in London. This was entirely
consistent with his evangelical Christian faith. He settled down to the hard work of a
jack-of-all-trades surgeon, but agreed that he would accept the offer of a five-month
"holiday" on Everest in 1924, when it was decided to have another attempt on the
This was the expedition which immortalised Mallory,
and which started a quest which has occupied nearly all of my life.
The 1924 expedition had been cursed with bad
weather and bad decisions. Somervell achieved great credit for a courageous rescue of four
Sherpas who had been marooned by Hazard on top of the North Col. It was vital that they
were brought down- and he must have had the 1922 disaster in his mind. The frightened men
had to be persuaded to cross a steep slope of ice above a gaping crevasse. Somervell
climbed obliquely across the slope, roped from below by Norton and Mallory. Twenty feet
from the men the rope gave out. Somervell untied, continued unprotected, and grabbed each
man in turn, passing them back to the others. They were all saved, but it probably cost
the British the summit. It exhausted all three climbers and poor Uncle Hunch had the
inside of his throat badly frost-bitten by gasping in the freezing air.
After this they re-grouped, and in a last-ditch
oxygen-free attempt Norton and Somervell reached over 28,000 feet, higher than any man had
been before, but still a thousand feet from the top. On their retreat Somervell suddenly
started suffocating from an obstruction in his throat. The mucous membrane of his
frost-bitten larynx had sloughed, blocking his trachea. He sat down to die, but with a
last attempt to clear the blockage pressed his chest with both hands- and here the old man
pushed his chest hard to demonstrate to his fascinated audience- and coughed up the mucous
membrane. "What a relief! Coughing up a little blood, I once more breathed really
freely- more freely than I had for days."
They returned down the mountain to the North Col
and met Mallory and his young climbing companion Sandy Irvine, also having their last
attempt on Mount Everest, but this time with oxygen. Mallory had forgotten his camera, and
so Somervell handed him his Vest Pocket Kodak. The two parties separated the next morning,
and Somervell never saw his friend Mallory again. They were spotted "going strongly
for the top" by Odell, one of the other climbers, but they never came down again.
And neither did Somervells camera.
These facts have been examined over and over again
in the intervening years, and a hundred theories have been put forward. But the question
that hovers over the whole incident is this. Did they get to the top? And so was Everest
climbed in 1924, nearly thirty years before Hillary and Tensing on the British expedition
Over the years a few clues have emerged from the
heights. An ice axe was found in 1933, possibly marking the site of an accident. An
oxygen-frame was found in a place that suggests that one of the men was very near the top.
And in 1975 a Chinese high-altitude climber, Wang Hang-boa made an amazing find near his
Camp V1. He stumbled across the body of an "English dead" in a sitting position
behind a rock, whose clothes crumbled in the thin cold air when touched, and whose cheek
had a hole in it. He told his story to Ryoten Yoshimoro Hasegawa, a Japanese climber,
using a few words they had in common. He scrawled the figures "8200 meters" in
the snow, and plucked at his clothing and crumbled the imaginary dust between his fingers.
Wang himself was killed on the North Col the day after he had told his astonishing story.
But was Uncle Hunch's camera next to the body?
Mallory might be expected to take a picture of the
highest point reached. Kodak say that a printable image could in theory be obtained,
should the camera ever be retrieved. This photograph could solve the mystery.
Uncle Hunch died in 1975, never knowing about the
Chinese climber's grisly find. But he had passed on the torch as effectively as anyone
could. I just had to climb Everest myself, and I had to try to find his camera.
It was very hard. I am not a mountaineer of his
calibre. But in the course of many climbing trips to the Himalayas and three expeditions
to Everest I slowly built up my experience. I was working for the BBC by then and learned
how to work on climbing films as this seemed to be the only way I could get leave for the
three months needed for big mountains. It had the incidental benefit of paying for me to
indulge in my hobby, indeed Ive worked on all three of my Everest trips. In 1990 I
managed to get to about where my uncle sat down to die on the North Ridge, at
approximately 25,500 feet. That year I was working on a film with cameraman David
Breashears about Mallory and Irvine for BBC 2 featuring the actor Brian Blessed, who
performed heroically in getting himself to that height. What was deeply frustrating was
the fact that we were only hours from the terrace where I hoped to look for the camera.
Then the next time I went to Everest I was climbing from the south, Nepali side. And at
last I succeeded in getting to the top.
One thing struck me on this trip -the Hillary Step
just reinforced my admiration for Sir Eds bravery- what a climb! And even if we ever
find out that the mountain was climbed in 1924, it takes nothing away from his achievement
Once above the Hillary step I just kept teetering
along that narrow icy summit ridge between Nepal and Tibet, between life and death. The
sun was intensely bright and the sky was that deep blue-black of very high altitudes. All
around were the icy fins of the world's highest mountains. And somewhere along that ridge
I experienced one of those existential moments that is the reason you gamble your life.
The intenseness of the now, the sharp savour of living wholly in the present
moment, no past, no worries. The chop of the ice axe, the crunch of the crampons, the hiss
of breath- this is the very stuff of life. Eventually I saw a couple of figures just above
me, a couple of steps.......and I was there.
I can't remember much. Now it all seems some sort
of vivid dream; bright sunlight, a tearing wind, a long flag of ice particles flying
downwind of us. A vast drop of two miles into Tibet. We could see across a hundred miles
of tightly-packed peaks, and we could see the curvature of the earth. Contorted faces
shouting soundlessly, lips blue with oxygen starvation. Doctors prove with blood samples
that climbers are actually in the process of dying up there on the summit, but I would say
that is where I started to live.
I finally climbed the mountain in 1993, becoming
the fifteenth Briton (I think) to stand on that supreme summit. Little larger than a
dining-room table, it seemed a strange reason for so many deaths. I passed five corpses in
the snow on the way up, dead from cold, exhaustion and avalanches. One was being eaten by
dogs at the foot of the ice-fall. And a Spanish climber I passed on the way down slipped
and was killed in a 3000 feet fall. Physically, mentally and spiritually it was certainly
the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and for a long time afterwards it left a strange
rage and emptiness which I don't want to speculate about. But at the very least it cleared
up a bit of family business.
It had taken me exactly twenty-two years, eight
months to do it, from the meeting between a twelve year old boy and an eighty-one year old
But I vaguely remember looking down on the terrace
from above and thinking that I might have climbed this mountain, but I still had to find
that blasted camera. That was the next job.
It took a while, but in 1998 the BBC eventually
took a very expensive gamble on the project and commissioned a film for BBC 2. The
pressures of budgets meant that my executive producer Peter Firstbrook had to look to
America for co-production money from NOVA/WGBH, and that meant a commitment to an American
expedition so that there would be American characters in the resulting film.
When I spoke to Russell Brice about this project he
mentioned that a young German researcher, Jochen Hemmleb had been to see him on a similar
quest. Like me, Jochen had been inspired by Audrey Salkelds seminal book on this
topic, The mystery of Mallory and Irvine. Jochen had used geological techniques to
establish the location of the 1975 Chinese Camp V1 from photographs, and knew exactly
where to look. He had become an expert on the whole subject, and so it made sense to
combine forces. I went over and met him in Stuttgart, and we decided to try to go in
Jochen went over to the States and got Eric
Simonson of Ex8000 interested in the project. Hes an experienced Everest climber,
having summitted in 1991, and now runs trips on the mountain. BBC Worldwide put up some
risk capital for a possible book- a big risk, because we could have come back
empty-handed. Peter Firstbrook would be the author.
As you can see, it is immensely complicated to
organize the funding of a big film, and when you factor in Mount Everest and participants
from all over the world it becomes a huge undertaking. Very soon I felt that the whole
thing had got away from Jochen and me, the instigators, and that we now had little control
over events. I just hoped that Irvine and Mallorys reputations would emerge
Anyone following our progress on the two web-sites
would know what happened this Spring. After a very good start, with none of the usual
respiratory or gastric infections that bedevil travel in Tibet we all arrived at Base Camp
early, on March 29th, to see Everest in the driest condition any one of us has seen. This
was a very good sign for a search party.
We were an extremely strong team, with several of
the twelve Sherpas having summitted at least once previously, and four of the Westerners.
I found it a very congenial group of people, too. As usual on these expeditions you make
friends for life. Things went well at first, with some beautiful filming by Ned Johnston
using a yak-portable crane up in the Pinnacles. But then it all went wrong for me.
Approaching camp three at 22,000 feet I became aware of a spreading numbness in my face
and in my foot. I was having a T.I.A- a transient aeschemic attack. This is a temporary
spasm of a blood vessel in the brain, cutting off oxygen to part of it. I still had
symptoms in the morning, so I had a heart to heart with Eric, the climbing leader. He told
me hed had a similar but worse episode years before on Everest which left him
completely without sensation down his left side for a couple of years. By continuing up
the mountain I risked a full cerebral haemorrhage, and Eric made it clear that I could not
expect rescue from high on the North Face.
So I made a decision that will haunt me for the
rest of my life. I turned my back on Everest and walked the twelve miles down the glacier
back to Base Camp. I got in a jeep to Kathmandu and returned to England to watch events
unfold on the Internet and the satellite phone. And oddly enough there were times when I
felt I knew more about what was happening on the upper mountain than my film colleagues at
base camp, as there was radio silence at times from ABC but their daily Internet bulletins
When I heard that in the course of the first search
Conrad Anker had found the body of George Mallory I was absolutely stunned. We had always
assumed the body described by Wang was that of Sandy Irvine, and indeed that was the first
reaction of the climbers on the spot. When I flew back to Kathmandu to pick up the film
gear at the end of the expedition we all met up in the Rum Doodle bar, and I got the story
at first hand from the man who found him.
Conrad Anker is one of the worlds boldest
climbers- and a lovely guy- and it was entirely appropriate that he should be the one who
found George Mallory. He told me how he and Andy Politz, Dave Hahn, Jake Norton and Tap
Richards had left Camp V, at 25,700', at 0500 hrs on the first of May to go up to Camp VI.
They got there at 1000 hrs. and split up to look around the area where the 1975 Chinese
Camp had been. He spotted a couple of modern bodies and then in the course of removing his
crampons to climb up some rock suddenly saw a patch of white, a patch that seemed even
whiter than the surrounding snow.
It was a body, bleached to an extraordinary degree
by 75 years of sun. He radioed his companions with the cryptic request for "a
mandatory group meeting" and they began the lengthy process of identifying the body.
Dave Hahn broke in here and said that it looked
like a white marble Greek statue. I remembered Lytton Stracheys gushing description
of George Mallorys body as a sculpture by Praxiteles, and thought that it had come
only too true.
It looked as though he had died from a fall. There
was some trauma, but the body hadnt been beaten to bits so he probably hadnt
fallen all the way from the North East ridge crest where the ice axe had been discovered
in 1933. It was obvious that the birds had found him. There was a perfectly preserved
hob-nail boot on his right foot and a boot top fracture of his tibia and fibula above
that. There was also a piece of white cotton rope around his waist which had snapped, and
I was stunned when I saw the piece the team had brought back down with them. It was about
ten millimetres in diameter, and frankly you wouldnt tie your dressing-gown with it.
The rope was tied with a bowline, and had caused severe crushing and bruising to the ribs
consistent with a free fall to the left of perhaps 30 feet. There was a severe head
injury above one eye. He was lying face down, and had arrested his fall with outstretched
hands after sliding some distance down the snow slopes. Strangely, the hands appeared to
be darker than the rest of the body, perhaps suggesting some frostbite before death- or
was it the remains of a tan? All the witnesses felt that he had survived the fall, and
composed himself to die, crossing his unbroken leg over the other to get some last relief.
They werent sure whether to disturb the body,
but wanted to see if he had succeeded in reaching the summit and so they started looking
for a camera. At this stage they were still assuming this was Irvine, as the hair appeared
to be blonde. In cutting away some clothing, Jake came upon a label that said "G.
Mallory." They all looked at each other and said 'Why would Andrew Irvine be wearing
George Mallory's shirt?' Then it finally dawned on their oxygen-starved brains that they
hadnt found Irvine. They hadnt found Wang Hang-boas English dead. They
were in the presence of George Leigh Mallory himself.
There were a number of artifacts removed from the
body (which might prevent souvenir-hunters disturbing him later); some goggles found in
his breast-pocket, an altimeter calibrated up to 30,000 feet, some letters, a penknife,
some scissors, a couple of monogrammed handkerchiefs with his G.L.M. initials on them and
a watch. The latter is, I think, of crucial significance. There were no hands on it when I
saw it in Kathmandu, but there were rust stains on the face. I immediately thought that it
looked as though they read "ten past four"- but I cant be sure. Careful
forensic examination might establish whether it ran down of its own accord, or
stopped at the time of the accident. If the latter, a close look at the drive spindles
might reveal what time the hands were pointing to. We have here nothing less than a
clockwork flight recorder.
Similarly, would it be possible to establish from
the altimeter what was the maximum height reached? It sounds implausible, but microscopic
examination of the meter movement might reveal something.
Im very glad to report that after they had
removed all the artifacts the climbers read a short Christian committal prayer that the
BBC had prepared for them. They then buried the body, safe, I hope, from the birds and the
Later in the expedition came a very creditable
rescue of a Ukrainian climber by our climbers, and then a successful summit bid when
Conrad Anker, accompanied by Dave Hahn, climbed the second step without using the Chinese
ladder. This he did partly to complete a clean climb of the North Ridge, but also to see
if it was possible for Mallory and Irvine to surmount this obstacle. Then two of Mallory
and Irvines oxygen cylinders was found by Jake and Tap behind a boulder beyond the
First Step, confirming a previous sighting by leader Eric Simonson. Thus ended an eventful
What can we conclude from all of this? We can
speculate that Mallory and Irvine were descending, possibly in the dark, when the fall
occurred. This is suggested by the direction of the rope injuries and by the fact that the
goggles were in his pocket. It was reported that Mallory was still carrying three or four
coils in his right hand and it looks as though the rope snapped after taking the weight of
a free fall- there was a clean break. This suggests that either it was deliberately hooked
over a rock horn, or that it snagged. In this case, we are left with Sandy Irvine alive
high up the North Face, possibly in the dark, alone. What would he do? Would he circle
around beneath the fall-line, looking for Mallory? Could it be that he sat down behind a
rock and waited for a dawn that would never arrive for him?
It sounds to me as if the body discovered by Wang
was indeed that of Sandy Irvine, and that Somervells camera may be on him. After
taking a picture of George Mallory? And why would he do that? Because they were on the
This whole experience has left us with more
questions than it answered. At the very beginning of it all I knew that we couldnt
prove that they didnt summit, only that they did. Therefore I hoped that we
wouldnt damage the legend of George Mallory that has been so important to me all my
life. Even though we have now found his body, for me he still stands for the quality I
most admire in our species: the triumph of the human spirit over apparent impossibility,
and the triumph of the human spirit over the inevitability of death.
"Lost on Everest", the BBC/NOVA
film of this expedition will be broadcast in November 1999
Daily News: 8/19/99 Report
Everest 99 Spring South Side: A Q&A with Bernard Voyer will be coming to EverestNews.com in the next few
weeks as Autumn Everest 99 begins. Bernard is a very interesting climber. He has spent 20
years on polar expeditions. All of these expeditions were ski and sled (pulka)
expeditions. He crossed Baffin Island four times. He did Ellesmere Island in 92; in 96 was
the first Canadian to reach the magnetic North Pole. In 94 he guided a group to the
geographique North Pole via Siberia. In 95 he was the first Canadian to cross Greenland
and on 1/12/96 along with Thierry Petry, they became the 9th and 10th in the world to
reach the South Pole unassisted. Bernard reached the Summit of Everest this
Spring as many of you know. We think you will find his comments interesting. He is not
working on the 7 summits. Somehow we keep getting this confused.
Also 1 or 2 Q&A's with members of the OTT Spring 99 Everest expedition are still planned.
Autumn Everest 99 North Side: Finally an expedition
from the North Side announces ! In what appears to be a thin Autumn on Everest for
Expeditions, our friends at Barrabes has the News: http://www.barrabes.com/publicidad/evnewshome.asp
On Mallory: Coming soon to EverestNews.com, Graham Hoyland.
Czech/Japanese Lhotse Story Spring 1999: Included on the
EverestNews.com 8000 meter
expeditions in Nepal page is information on Lhotse expeditions. EverestNews.com
previously reported Czech and Japanese Summits from Spring 1999. EverestNews.com did not
receive news of any summits from Henry Todd's expedition. "Others" told us they
did not attempt the Summit. We have not had a chance to talk with Henry yet. Interesting
Notes: It appears both the Czech team (with several summits) and the Japanese attempted
Lhotse from (Everest high camps) without the use of fixed ropes above that point. These
Czechs climbers are very strong.
Yes, K2News.com, a sign of things to come ! We hope by K2
2000, to have a K2 site built listing all the facts about K2 including a complete list of
who have reached the summit of K2 and many other facts.
Part of EverestNews.com Autumn 99 Coverage will include
Chris Warner, owner of Earth Treks at www.earthtreksclimbing.com,
and Brad Johnson, climber and famous photographer as they attempt Cho Oyu and Shishapangma
by difficult routes in lightweight two man style with only
BC/ABC support from Sherpa climbers.
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BRAD
Brad Johnson, a native of Colorado, has
been traveling and climbing mountains for over 35 years. Raised in a climbing family Brad
was introduced to the sport of climbing on the many rock faces above Boulder at the age of
7. By age 9 he had climbed some easy peaks in Switzerland, Italy as well as Mt.
Kilimanjaro. Led his father up the North Face of the Grand Teton and climbed the
Matterhorn with both his parents at age 17. Made a very early ascent of the Diamond Face
on Longs Peaks at 18, climbed Mt. Kenya a year later and helped pioneer a new route on the
North Face of Mt. Foraker (sister peak to Denali, Alaska) when he turned 20. Within the
next few years Brad went on to climb the 9,000ft. Cassin Ridge on Denalis South
Face, then the North faces of the Matterhorn, Grand Charmoz and Triolett mountains in
Europe, He returned to Alaska to make a 6 day solo ascent of Denali and set a speed record
for climbing both the North and South Summits of Denali from the 14,000ft. camp round trip
in under 10 hrs.
The Andes of Peru caught Brads attention in 1982 and since then he has spent 14
seasons climbing and guiding there. In all he has climbed 24 peaks between 17,000ft. and
22,000ft. high via 30 different routes. These climbs were the stepping stones to his
Himalayan expeditions which included two trips to Mt. Makalu (the worlds 5th highest
peak). On both expeditions Brad made bold attempts to reach Makalus 27,826ft. summit
alone and without oxygen, only to be stopped at 26,600ft. by avalanche conditions and high
winds. His third Himalayan expedition was to the North Ridge of K2 in China.
During all of his trips Brad has made a big effort to capture on film the beauty and
excitement of the mountains and local culture. To help finance these adventures
Brads primary work is a freelance photographer and he guides treks and climbs
through out Nepal, Peru and other destinations of the world. When at home he sells stories
and photos to such magazines as Rock & Ice, Climbing, Powder, Outside, Mens
Health and Back Packer, as well as giving slide shows about his adventures.
Brad is currently working on writing a "Classic Climbs Guide" to the
Cordillera Blanca mountains of Peru.
Everest News will be bring you reports from Everest this Autumn from the EXPEDICIΣN CASTELLANO LEONESA AL EVEREST 1999 Expediciσn Samuel
As these climbers attempt to tackle Everest in the Autumn
possibly by themselves.
News from the Muirs:Jon, Greg
Pritchard and I are just about to leave for a traverse of Lake Gairdner (Australia's 3rd
biggest salt lake) and Island Lagoon, another salt lake with volcano islands on it...
Island hopping of a different style! Only work in the foreseeable future as far as
mountains go, but exciting stuff coming up next year! Talk to you when we are back in
early September, take care, Brigitte
Daily News: 8/12/99 Report
Tornado Hits Outdoor Trade show in Salt Lake
As the trade show was being set up last yesterday, a Tornado
hit the area where the tents were being set up. Please follow the Major News for detailed
reports. Numerous injuries has been reported including one death. Ten of thousand of
people were expected to attend this week. The show is currently "delayed", if
you have not left yet. Call.
Numerous friends of EverestNews.com were planning on
attending the show including several Everest climbers, people like Larry Johnson, Jochen,
and many others. Our prayers will be with them.
As we finish Spring 99 and go into Autumn
1999, with coverage of Everest, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma,
EverestNews.com found some words we received from climbers on Everest Spring 99:
What one climber said about the storm this year on Everest.
"I was doing laundry at 3pm and the sun was shining, 15
minutes later the sun was gone behind a cloud bank fifteen minutes later, one climber
never came down that day...."
Another quote, this one from the North Side
"Because of the old and frayed fixed ropes, we had to
stay at least 50 meters--often more--apart, to avoid putting too much stress on the ropes.
Therefore it is not like you are climbing side by side... you are alone above the first