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  Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine

I’m frequently asked if I want them to find Sandy’s body and it is not a question I find easy to respond to. Frankly the memory of his life is of far more significance and interest to me than how he died, although my interest does extend as far as the camera or other concrete evidence that might be found on his body. Only by confirmation of the details of their final climb via photographic or written evidence would I be prepared to believe that they had reached the summit. The one piece of consolation I have [is that] we might one day know whether Sandy and Mallory stood on top of the world but no one will every be able to prove conclusively that they did not. 

            ―Julie Summers, great-niece of Andrew Irvine, author of FEARLESS ON EVEREST 

FEARLESS ON EVEREST is a highly personal and intimate account of a quest to discover more about a man who, at age twenty-two, died in the flush of youth alongside one of mountaineering’s greatest legends. Although the names of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine have been inextricably linked for over seventy years, Irvine’s story has never before been told. Using previously unseen material, his great-niece presents, for the first time, a picture of the valiant and extraordinary young man and what might have happened on that ill-fated trip. Why was the young and relatively inexperienced Irvine partnering Mallory, a mountaineer returning to Everest for the third time?  How did he come to be considered an indispensable member of the 1924 climbing team? Were Irvine and Mallory in fact the first men to conquer Everest?  Even the discovery of Mallory’s frozen body in 1999 did not provide the answer.

In May 2000 Julie Summers made a remarkable discovery: a long-forgotten trunk belonging to Andrew Irvine’s brother yielded previously unreleased documents from the 1924 expedition. Photographs of the approach trek from Darjeeling to Everest (a distance of some 350 miles) and letters Irvine sent home capture in great detail all aspects of the march, pleasurable and otherwise. Irvine described to his mother the inhospitable conditions they encountered on the Tibetan plain, his relationships with other members of the expedition team including George Mallory, and his impressions of Tibetan culture and religion. He revealed a mind for logistics: he carefully detailed the food, tents, and equipment needed, and the porters, mules, and ponies involved. Even a wry account of a trip to Rongbuk Monastery―made by the climbing party and porters who, after suffering a major setback on their first summit attempt, sought a blessing from Rongbuk’s Holy Lama for their renewed bid―is documented here.

Through these letters we see a side of Irvine never before uncovered. He was passionate, expressive, creative, and a fiercely ambitious young man. His engineering brilliance was recognized by the 1924 expedition team as was his remarkable fitness and seemingly perpetual good humor. Irvine not only re-designed the oxygen apparatus used on the 1924 Everest expedition (original sketches of which have been discovered and are included in FEARLESS ON EVEREST), but he also completed all the running repairs on the camp’s equipment, being the only person to have brought any sort of tool kit! It is thus not surprising that Mallory, who had no such technical expertise with the oxygen apparatus or cameras, chose Irvine as his partner. Nor was this a surprise to Irvine’s family, long accustomed to his back-yard workshop tinkering and inventing. (Too young to enlist in the autumn of 1917, Irvine invented, apparently from scratch, an interrupter gear that permitted a machine gun to fire through the propeller without making holes in it. He also designed a gyroscopic stabilizer for aircraft and caused a small stir by sending off beautifully worked-up designs for these two inventions to the War Office in London.)

As well as presenting Andrew (“Sandy”) Irvine the mountaineer, Julie Summers reveals Irvine the son, brother, friend, lover, and inventor. Born in Birkenhead, educated at Shrewsbury School and Merton College, Oxford; a brilliant scientist and keenly competitive rower; known as a daredevil and a ladies’ man; Irvine’s life was tragically short but he lived it to the full. Fearless on Everest is the revealing story of a young adventurer whose life and death linked him with one of the greatest mountaineering legends of all time.  

About the Author: Born in northwest England, Julie Summers is a great-niece of Andrew Irvine. Her own fascination with the mountains developed in early childhood, with skiing trips to the Alps and vacations in North Wales, always spurred on by family tales of her great uncle’s exploits. She was living in California in 1997 when she began research for Fearless on Everest. Summers now lives with her husband and their three sons in Oxford, England.

A review by Tom Holzel is below:

Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine, Julie Summers, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London; 290 pgs, L 20. © 2000 by Tom Holzel

The unearthing of new information about Mallory & Irvine seems never to end. Eight years after their death, expedition members of 1933 retracing their route discovered Irvine’s ice ax marking the point of a fall. In 1980, the Japanese Alpine Club announce the discovery five years earlier of “an English dead” at 8200m on Everest’s North Face. In 1979 Irvine’s diary—“discovered” first in 1962--was published privately in a spare book of the same name edited by Herbert Carr.  In 1984, Audrey Salkeld discovered a large, hidden cache of Mallory’s letters for our book, “The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine.”  Recently, Peter and Leni Gillman dug even deeper and were finally able in their book “The Wildest Dream” to pierce the veil of Mallory’s jumbled private life that we could only hint at. Then, incredibly, Mallory’s body was discovered below the site of the ice ax. Other than the climbers’ fabled camera, only Andrew Irvine remained essentially unknown, his diary offering only a self-effacing  (and edited) glimpse of the man through his own eyes.

Julie Summers knew there had to be more.  She searched for and finally discovered a trove of hitherto unknown information about Mallory’s 22-year-old climbing partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine—“Sandy” to his friends—complimenting perfectly the detailed picture of Mallory painted by the Gillmans.  It is always unbelievable when the heroes of our Pantheon are described as having inhumanly spotless lives. Thank goodness the Gillmans, and now Julie Summers, are able to show the human side of their subject.  Sandy, it is revealed, had a torrid affair with Marjory Summers, the 25-year old step-mother of his best friend. A strong clue to their intensely passionate involvement can be seen clearly in the full page photograph of the couple.  (Any hint of this affair had been expurgated in Herbert Carr’s book.)  At last we have in this fine work the unearthing of this and much other new and refreshing information about someone who--although sharing equal billing--had essentially remained a footnote in the great Mallory & Irvine saga. 

Irvine’s contribute on the mountain was the guarantee of providing working oxygen systems to fuel their fatal climb--something which no one else on the expedition was capable of. In fact, given the anti-science mind-set of the gentlemen of the Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club, Irvine and George Finch were the only ones so capable.  George Finch, who made a terrific oxygen-assisted attempt on Everest in 1922, was black-balled in part for his first-rate engineering talent, the results of which showed up (by climbing higher and faster) the oxygenless “first team” of Mallory, Somervell & Norton. This hands-on know-how was too much for a gentleman.  Seeing a photo of Finch repairing his own boot, E.L. Strutt, sneered at this show of practicality by remarking that this proved the man was "a shit."

Summers points out that Irvine had a form of dyslexia that resulted in his writing with what can only be called telegraphic punctuation. Some of this must have passed down the Irvine line (Julie Summers’ grandmother was Irvine's sister), for the book is annoyingly replete with many small numerical errors: C-4 is given as 23,500-ft when it is elsewhere shown correctly as 23,000; The Rongbuk Monastery is three, not eleven miles from Base Camp, which is at 16,500-ft, not 17,800-ft (which is C-1). In an otherwise detailed genealogy of Irvine’s family which includes herself, she leaves out her mother! These are nits, to be sure, in an otherwise wonderful depiction of young Irvine's rather racy life.

The new information she gathers leads up to the expedition of 1924, and offers some interesting new insights into Sandy’s role in it.  For the most part, this latter section of the book comprises well-known information.  A breath-holding test at Base Camp revealed that Sandy, able to hold his breath for two minutes at sea level, was  able only to do so for half a minute at Base Camp—a good sign of the reduced capacity of the blood to store oxygen at altitude.  Mallory’s “astonishing” ability to perform math exercises while the others were woefully slow is also an interesting new tidbit, but this should not lead anyone to think that full mental functioning is possible, even at “only” 17,000-ft.  Mallory’s (and everyone’s) handwriting became more angular and cramped as he ascended, and dyslexic mistakes became ever more common (e.g., Mallory’s “8 p.m.” instead of 8 a.m.).  Summers begins to suggest that the “8 p.m.” notation meant Mallory might have conducted an afternoon recon of his route at C-6 prior to their next day’s assault, but then fails to complete the thought.  More likely is that the two men moved C-6 from its exposed position to a more sheltered spot hard on the lip of the North Ridge.  This would explain why Odell felt it necessary to clamber some 300 yards up the rout during the snow squall, to aid the descending climbers in finding the tent which was no longer clearly in view from above, as it had been previously during the Norton/Somervell attempt.

This fine book is a necessary and delightful compliment to a full understanding of the dynamics of the endlessly fascinating Mallory & Irvine partnership. It goes far in explaining the universal attraction felt by all on the expedition for their young “experiment,” and especially the instant rapport the two men quickly felt for each other.  With Sandy’s innate exuberance, his astounding mechanical aptitude, his boundless energy, and his unfailing enthusiasm and cheer even under the most daunting hardships, it is now abundantly clear why the equally sociable Mallory could not have chosen a better companion. 

Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine by Julie Summers US

Order Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine UK 

Some of the older Mallory and Irvine Highlights on EverestNews.com: 

Jochen Hemmleb's Research Papers
Jochen Hemmleb's Q&A
Eric Simonson's Q&A on M&I
Graham Hoyland Interview
Tom Holzel's side
Jochen's reply 
Then Tom's 
Tom's Q&A Part 1
Tom's Q&A Part 2
Tom's Q&A Part 3
Your comments on the forum
Graham Hoyland's Q&A on the Mallory and Irvine 2000 Expedition. 
Jochen's reply to Tom
Tom Holzel replies

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