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 DEATH ON EVEREST by Graham Hoyland

The finding of George Mallory’s body on the North face of Mount Everest by our expedition has been the astonishing end to a quest which has preoccupied me since I was boy thirty years ago.

My first climb on the mountain was in 1990 while making a film with Everest veteran David Breashears. After that expedition I started writing a novel about my dream of finding the camera that would prove that Mallory and Irvine climbed the mountain first, nearly thirty years before Hillary and Tenzing.

Mallory was given a Vest-Pocket Kodak camera by my great-uncle Howard Somervell, who had returned to the North Col after his own very nearly successful attempt on the summit a few days previously. Mallory would 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 of who climbed Everest first.

I continued writing this novel after my successful climb of Everest in 1993, when I became the fifteenth Briton to stand on the summit. I also had finished some family business, as the mountain has haunted my family for seventy-five years. In this novel I have brought back to life another climbing uncle, John Doncaster Hoyland, who was killed on Mont Blanc while training for Everest in the 1930’s.

I finished the novel early this year[1999], just before I left to go on the expedition that found Mallory’s body on May 1st 1999. I wanted it finished because with such a high death-rate on Everest there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to come back to it. As a result none of the people I met on that trip are represented in the novel, and none of the events.

What this novel attempts to do is explain why people like me are drawn back to the fatal magnet of Mount Everest year after year. You can read it either as a simple adventure story with a surprising outcome, or as a book about practical existentialism. I believe that when you confront death face to face you experience life more intensely. This book is my credo.


 by Graham Hoyland

The right of Graham Hoyland to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright  Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

All characters and events portrayed in this work are entirely fictional.


The North Col of Mount Everest is a cruel and beautiful place. It is in the shape of a saddle, swooping down from the North Peak, narrowing to a couple of feet, and then accelerating up into the sky to blend with the vast black pyramid of Everest itself. 

Many men climb up here and take their first close look at the mountain that is going to kill them soon. 

The wind is swirling up from the Rongbuk glacier today, eddies of snow rise up and fall again on a small orange tent crouched on the brink of a thousand-foot drop.

There are distant voices and the thud of metal on ice. There is a flash, and an ice axe buries itself in the corniced edge of the snow. With a lot of grunting and panting a human figure heaves itself up over the brink and kneels there for a moment, breathing heavily. Then with a convulsive grunt he digs around in the snow and unearths a loop of rope. He clips in, and calls down to his companion. A few distant words float up from below.

"Andy? How's it look?"

"Tent's fine. Everything's still here. And the summit's clear."

A second figure clambers up. He wipes the loose snow from his goggles, and lifts his head.

"Hey, look at that plume. Hell of a wind up there."

The other man gazes up with him in silence for a moment. Then he speaks  "Well, we go up tomorrow, wind or no wind."

Andy was pushing his old Porsche much too hard through the Gloucestershire bends, but he wanted to get there as soon as possible. Jack had seemed shocked by the news that he'd given him on the phone half an hour earlier, much more shocked than he'd expected. It was, after all, exactly sixty years ago. A sixty year old corpse, far away on the highest mountain on earth. 

The tires slid on the exit of one of the rain-soaked corners and his heart raced. It would be better to arrive in one piece, especially today. He slowed slightly and wrestled with the heater controls, which failed to dispel the mist on the screen.

The car bumped up the drive and eased through the stone archway. It entered the grounds of Langtang, Uncle Jack's house. Even in the gentle English drizzle the old Cotswold stone glowed honey-gold. This is where it all began for me, Andy thought.

As he pulled up on the gravel he saw his Aunt Celia at the window. She waved, and then pointed towards the garden. 

The fields across the valley were glistening with rain, but the evening sun was beginning to prevail when he saw him standing down in the garden. An old man now, thickset in his blue sailing smock and boots. A mud-caked fork was rammed into the flower bed beside him. He turned at the sound of Andy's approach.

"Hello, Andrew. So the Chinese found Mallory's body."

"Yes, they've finally admitted it. I got the letter this morning. I felt I ought to drive over."

"I had to come out into the garden. It's been quite a shock."

He paused for a moment, and looked up at his nephew.

"I was dreadfully cut up by Mallory's death, Andrew. I had always thought of him as my friend......... He was the only one of the people on that trip I could really talk to. We read Hamlet together, did you know that? Hamlet on Mount Everest."

"Viktor's very keen on Shakespeare. Perhaps we'll read Hamlet on Everest when we get there."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. You're still going, then?"

"Oh, come on, Jack! This just confirms it! I've already bought the permit, but now I know exactly where to look for him. Our expedition will follow just the same route as you took in 1924."

Jack studied him for a moment.

"Andrew, we haven't ever discussed this properly, have we? What exactly are you hoping to find up there?"

Andy looked at him oddly.

"Well, I thought we had discussed it about a hundred times. I want to find Mallory's body to try to find out whether he made it to the summit first. Thirty years before anyone else. Everyone agrees that this is the biggest mystery in mountaineering, Jack. And he deserved it, it was his mountain. He reconnoitred it, and he went out there three times to try to climb it."

"And what do you think you will find up there that might prove it one way or another?"

"We've been through all this. We know he wasn't carrying a camera, but he might have a stone from the summit in his pocket, or there might be some clue in the oxygen equipment he was carrying...."

"But he was," Jack interrupted. "I can tell you now, he was carrying a camera."

"What?" Andy stared at the old man. "But you always said...."

"No, I always said that he'd forgotten his camera. But I never mentioned that he'd borrowed mine. And I never told you because I knew exactly what effect it would have on you. You'd want to go hunting for it up that bloody mountain. But as you seem determined to go anyway I decided this afternoon to tell you after all."

"Tell me what?" Andy was becoming agitated. "What camera did you give him?"

"Well, it was my own V.P.K......Norton, Somervell and I had come down to the North Col camp after our attempt on the summit.... I was in a pretty bad way. Mallory and Irvine were there getting ready for their attempt using oxygen apparatus. He was terribly forgetful, you know. He'd forget his boots if you let him ...... that's why he asked me for the loan of my camera. He'd forgotten his own ...... I saw him packing it away in his knapsack.....and then he was off up the slopes of Everest. And I never saw him again."

"You've kept this from me for years, haven't you?" Andy said furiously, "Why didn't you tell me? I've been planning this trip for ages, and you've withheld a vital piece of evidence. Why? You know what this all means to me!"

The old man swung around. "It means too much to you!  Do your own thing! Don't chase these ghosts, Andrew." He glared at him. "What does it matter now?"

Andy faced him stubbornly. "It matters to me. Mallory deserves the credit for that mountain. You've got to set things straight. Haven't you?

Jack sighed, then ran a hand through his white hair. "I suppose so. I suppose he'd be pleased at what you're trying to do."

Andy laughed and put his arm around the old man's shoulders.

"Come on, tell me everything. I want you to tell me everything." 

From the window Celia watched them strolling down the paddock, Andy's tall figure seeming to bend over Jack's shorter, stockier frame. They paused and opened the gate. It closed and they disappeared from view. 

Later in the car Andy remembered her look when they had returned to the house. But he was too full of Everest to give it any thought.

The room was hot, and the press conference was going well. The story had attracted a large number of the newspapers and there was even a film crew from one of the BBC newsrooms. Andy was sitting next to his old friend and climbing partner Kurt, who was coming with him on the trip. Kurt was on good form, his eloquent New England tones resounding through the P.A. system.

"...and so we are confident that this camera can be found. Our metal detectors are tuned to an identical Vest Pocket Kodak camera loaned to us by the Kodak museum and we'll be able to pick it up under six feet of snow. As long as we're somewhere near the body."

Towards the back a dark-haired girl stood up, a girl Andy had noticed arriving late and pushing in with whispered apologies.

"Kate Holland. Daily Post. So how do you know where the body is? Mount Everest's enormous."

Kurt leaned slightly towards the microphone and looked at Andy. "Okay, here we come to the story I promised. And there's no embargo on this. Back to our expedition leader...Andy?

Andy swallowed some foul mineral water and pulled the microphone towards him.

 "Thanks, Kurt. Well, this is it, really. For years there's been rumours that a Chinese climber had found the body of an English climber at twenty-seven thousand feet on the North side of Mount Everest. It could only be Mallory or Irvine, the two English climbers who were last seen going for the top back in 1924. I knew of this story through my Uncle Jack Doncaster who was selected as a young climber to partner Somervell just as Irvine partnered Mallory. People forget that it was the British who discovered that Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world, explored the approaches to it and then made several attempts to climb it back in the 1920's, before they knew anything about the problems of surviving at high altitudes. Eventually a British expedition put Hillary and Tenzing on the summit in 1953 from the Nepali side, a country that was forbidden to foreigners in the twenties. Mallory and Irvine had disappeared into clouds and were never seen again. But it was Mallory's third year of trying and a lot of people think that he might have done it. He certainly deserved it."

Kurt interjected. "Mallory became obsessive about climbing the mountain. He must have realised that this was his last chance to really make something of his life."

Andy continued, the enthusiasm of the two climbers beginning to grip their audience. "This was all happening in Tibet, but of course Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in 1949, and it's been the Chinese who kept this story quiet for years. But since the recent change of attitude there's been a release of information from the Chinese Mountaineering Authority Archives. And I have it here."

He flapped a piece of paper at the cameras and then read from it.

"'We can confirm that our citizen Wang Hong Bao did discover the body of an Englishman at 8100 meters on the mountain Chomolungma in 1975. He covered it with snow and spoke prayers. He took nothing from the body. Another successful ascent of the world's highest peak was made shortly afterwards by nine citizens of the People's Republic of China.'"

He tucked the slip of paper away and gazed at his audience.

"Now that we have this proof we want to locate the body, retrieve my uncle's camera and develop the frozen film inside it. Kodak tell us that it should still be all right, just as frozen plates discovered in Captain Scott's hut were successfully developed years after they were exposed. I'm sure Mallory would have taken a photograph if he reached the summit, and our theory is that he and Irvine died of cold and exhaustion on their return to the last camp on the North ridge, or possibly slipped and fell to their deaths. Whatever happened, I'm convinced that Mallory made it to the summit of Everest, and I think that he deserves the credit for it."

The dark-haired girl spoke again, addressing him directly across the crowded room.

"What about Sir Edmund Hillary? How's he going to feel about you proving that he was pipped to the post by thirty years?"

This provoked murmurs of agreement from the audience. Kurt leaned into the microphone. "Yeah, but he was the first guy to get up and get down alive. That's got to count for something!"

Laughter swept the room, but the girl was still standing firm, and persevered. "And what if there's no image on the film, or if there's just a blur?"

Andy considered. "Well, as far as I can see, the absence of a picture can't prove that he didn't get to the summit; he might have been too exhausted, or it might even have been too dark to take a picture. But if there is a photograph in that camera it will probably prove what I believe; that George Leigh Mallory reached the summit of Mount Everest and died shortly after reaching his goal."

And then she came right back with the question he suddenly knew she'd been waiting for.

"But if you do find a body, what will you do with it?"

Kurt scratched his chin. "I guess we'll see if there's anything else on it..."

Andy broke in over him swiftly, "We will of course respect the dead. We'll recover the camera, and then re-bury the body and leave it in peace. For ever."

Andy flung down the paper Kurt had just brought in and yelled down the phone.

"GRAVE-DIGGERS UP EVEREST!" You call that sympathetic reporting!

Kate's voice was distant and defensive. He noticed she had a slight accent under pressure.

French? Dutch?

"Look, that was the sub-editor! I don't write the headlines! Have you read the piece?

"I don't want to read your piece. We've had enough of this crap from the climbing clubs. You're just stirring it up again, and you know it. You hacks are all the same, you just love stirring up the shit, don't you?

Kate's voice became clearer and vituperative.

"Look, Mister high and bloody mighty, I'm not just a hack, I'm a climbing hack. That's why I covered your crap little press conference. No-one's interested in your pathetic little expedition, not when Everest's been climbed hundreds of times."

"So why did you write the piece?"

"Because I thought you needed coverage and sponsorship! Look, just read what I wrote, then you can ring back and apologise!

Her phone went down, decisively.

Andy stood there, breathed deeply and replaced the handset.

"Stupid bitch."

Kurt casually picked up the paper and glanced at the article.

"What'd she say?" He started to read.

Andy slowly lowered himself into his chair.

"Said a sub-editor wrote the headline."

He felt defiled. He hadn't meant it to be like this. He gazed around his study. Ever since Caroline had moved out everything in the house seemed shabby and dislocated. Faded photographs of his old expeditions gazed back at him from the walls. Some of the faces were now dead. He felt sick of them all.

Kurt was still reading. Andy studied him. His was a face that appeared in several of the expedition photos. Kurt was one of the top American climbers, and an Everest summiteer as was Andy. They'd climbed the mountain from the south, Nepali side together two years ago and discovered that they shared a common interest in the early attempts on the mountain. He was wiry and dark, with piercingly blue eyes. A highly successful man, with further ambitions. Andy found more and more that it was the proving of Mallory's claim that interested him, though. He just felt an increasing dissatisfaction with ordinary life. The only place he felt really at home now was at extreme altitudes, where the sun was too bright to look at and the sky was black. Just like it was on the pictures on the wall.

"What's she say?"

The American grunted.

"It's pretty good. Listen to this, 'This is a big gap in mountaineering history... these are men determined enough to do it.....but it will take great willpower to search the upper slopes of the mountain when the climbers greatest prize of all lies just two thousand feet above them...'" He gestured theatrically. "'The summit of Mount Everest.'"

Andy snorted. "Poor research. We've done it already."

"Hey, now here's a thing. 'This paper believes that these men should be supported in their quest for the answer to the question: "Was Mount Everest climbed in 1924?"

He looked up, his sardonic smile alight. "Now there's no way she can write that without getting the editor's consent. I think we should ring him direct and try to get a deal for exclusive coverage."

"Well, you know how I feel about the press. You try that and I'll carry on with the lists."

Kurt rose and went downstairs. Andy went back to the computer. Every expedition to the big peaks was getting hugely expensive. First there was the enormous fee for the peak permit demanded by the country the mountain lay in. That was payable well in advance, and only bought you permission to attempt the mountain, and the unwelcome presence of a liaison officer, usually a bureaucrat whose ideas of a holiday most certainly did not include living in a tent on a glacier for ten weeks. Then there was the cost of whatever porter help you might need to carry the supplies to base camp. Andy hoped that he could get the food supplies themselves free from a manufacturer or a supermarket chain, but it wasn't looking good. They would need about three Sherpas to help carry their supplies up to the top camp. And then they would need ropes, climbing hardware and some new tents. The trouble was that the sums just didn't add up, and Viktor, their Russian team-member wasn't likely to be bringing anything but debts.

At least all the logistics were plotted out on the computer. The plan was to fly to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, meet up with the Sherpas and load a truck with all the gear. Then they would drive up to the Tibetan border just before the great Himalayan barrier. There they would have to change vehicles and start paying through the nose to the Chinese for abominably bad accommodation and unnecessary vehicles. Once at base camp on the Tibetan side of Everest, though, they could relax and concentrate on the climbing. Their route would follow the old British path up the mountain; up the East Rongbuk valley, onto the North Col which joins Mount Everest to it's northern satellite peak of Changtse and then up the North Ridge to the site of the 1975 Chinese Camp Six, where the climber Wang had made his grisly find. If they could make it that far.

The main problem was the weather. Most expeditions to Mount Everest attempt the summit in a brief weather window either before or after the summer monsoon, with its heavy snowfall. Before the monsoon the winter winds would have blasted the North face clear of snow, but it was deadly cold. After the monsoon it was warmer, but there was the danger of avalanches. They were going after the monsoon.

Plenty of expeditions hadn't got any higher than the North Col due to the appalling winds that blasted across the vast North face. Newcomers, even experienced climbers, couldn't believe the ferocity of a wind that could pick a man up bodily and fling him a hundred feet up the mountain. If they had that kind of weather the trip would be finished. But if they could only stock that last camp and occupy it for three days Andy believed they had a chance of finding the body. Three days at that altitude was pushing it- they certainly couldn't afford more than a couple of bottles of oxygen- but all three of them were good at altitude and could probably survive. Above twenty-six thousand feet you are well into what the high altitude climbers call the Death Zone; the part of the atmosphere where there is insufficient oxygen to maintain life and your body is dying fast. Although you can breathe, every step exhausts you, your lips are blue with cyanosis and you shit half-digested food. Three days would be hard, but they might do the job quicker if they got lucky.

Andy gazed out at the Mendip hills. It was going to be a lovely summer here again. Cattle grazed in the meadows across the river, and the gorse was coming into flower on the great roll of Wavering Down. Mallory in one of his letters home had written about being tired of the dust and wind of Tibet, and how he longed for a west-country water-meadow. And here was Andy, longing to be in Tibet. He shook his head in perplexity at it all.

Kurt had finished on the phone and called up to him. "Hey, good news, Andy! I get to meet the great press baron himself tomorrow!"

One of Jack Doncaster's famous croquet parties was in full swing at Langtang. Celia sat under a vast sun-shade applauding languidly from time to time with one of her friends from the village. Andy and Jack had formed their usual devastating team and were two hoops ahead. Andy watched admiringly as the older man carefully placed his foot on his ball and  it with a mighty blow from the mallet. The opposition's ball leaped like a startled rabbit and bounded into the undergrowth. For a man in his eighties it was remarkable.

"Good shot!" Andy cried, "Not bad for an old fart!" There were distant cries of chagrin from the players on the far side of the lawn. Celia looked mildly disapproving. The friend tittered.

Jack leaned on his mallet with a sigh of satisfaction. "Well, that's the opposition in the rhododendrons for a while. How's the expedition doing?"

"Problems, I'm afraid, Jack. Money. Viktor won't be able to bring as much as he thought he could because the rouble's crashed. And the Chinese hit us for another five thousand pounds just to take a video camera."

"We had money trouble in our day. Did you know that we needed six mules just to carry the coinage to pay the coolies? No paper money in Tibet then. Mind you, we did rather well in the matter of rations- I remember a few tins of quails in fois gras and quite a good champagne.... it was Montebello 1915, I seem to remember."

Andy grimaced. "You poor things. How did you survive under such appalling conditions? We'll be lucky if we can afford Tibetan tea."

"I'm sorry to gloat...but we did live well. Do you think you'll raise the money in time?"

Andy sighed. "I really don't know. I've tried all the obvious manufacturers for sponsorship, but none of them see why they should pay for our camping holiday."

"I suppose climbing Everest is passι now. It's an awfully long time ago, Andrew."

"Not to me it's not. And anyway, Kurt's had more luck than I have; he's got one of the tabloids interested in what they like to call "The Photo of the Century!" He thinks he can get twelve thousand pounds out of them in exchange for all rights to any photographs we find. But I think they might want to send a journalist with us. A girl."

"Oh ho!" Jack chortled. "I hope she's nice. It's about time you replaced Caroline." Andy did not respond. His uncle went on thoughtfully. "That could be a very good proposition for them. If I were you I would restrict that to all newspaper rights. Think of the book you could get out of any discovery."

"But what about the ethics of all this publicity? Do you think Mallory would have minded about the Press getting involved?"

Jack rounded on him in exasperation. "For heaven's sake, Andrew! George toured America in twenty-three drumming up funds for the last expedition! John Noel imported the Dancing Lamas to promote his bloody cinema film! You shouldn't idealise those chaps. They were only human. You know, I never told anyone this, but one night in the Planter's Club up at Darjeeling, George and I actually stole General Bruce's jodhpurs and bribed a Tibetan nun to fit them onto one of the donkeys. Well, it shat itself in the night and you cannot believe the fuss there was when...."

Andy suddenly jumped away. "Watch out!"

There was the heavy thwack of colliding croquet balls as the other team struck back with a lucky shot from the wallflower end.

Jack ground his teeth. "Blast!"

Andy roared with laughter. "The General's revenge!"

Later, in the house Celia leaned back in her chair and watched the two of them as they talked animatedly over a map spread out over the table. Jack always enjoyed these visits from his nephew, and he was nodding and laughing at some point being made. She thought Andrew looked a little strained these days, certainly since the planning of this latest expedition. He had always been an intense child, nervy and dark-haired. She vaguely wondered if he'd find another girl friend, it was obviously what he needed to settle him. His work as a mountain-guide didn't help, as he never seemed to be at home nowadays. What he needed was a girl. 

End of Chapter One...

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Graham Hoyland to Return to Everest this Autumn

CURRICULUM VITAE Graham Hoyland and his article on THE FINDING OF GEORGE MALLORY A must read if you never have !

On Friday March 17th 2000, EverestNews.com had the pleasure of attending Graham Hoyland's Lecture "Unraveling the Mystery of George Mallory" in the Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian.

Graham Hoyland Q&A 7/19/2000 on his Mallory & Irvine 2000 Expedition

The 2000 Expedition: Graham Hoyland and the BBC returns to Everest in Spring 2000 in search of the camera and Irvine.

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