Reaching the top of the mighty Mount Everest is the most famous, and among the most challenging, of mountaineering goals. To climb to the top of the highest mountain in the world is the crowning achievement in the career of many famous climbers.
But for many years the mountain defeated all who tried to climb it. Only in 1953 did the team of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary manage to reach the summit and return safely, becoming the first confirmed climbers to do so.
However, this is not to say that other attempts had been made which came close to success. In the decades before this famous climb, many teams had reached Everest base camp and gone on to climb even higher, only to be defeated by the altitude, the weather, and the sheer size and impassability of the mountain.
One expedition in particular has attracted much discussion and speculation over the years, particularly for the final ascent of two men: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The pair were to tragically die on the bleak slopes of Everest during their attempt, but the question has always remained as to whether, before they perished, they made it to the top.
Did they die on the way up, or the way down?
Decades before Edmund Hillary
George Herbert Leigh Mallory was a teacher and professional mountaineer. In 1924, almost three decades before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s attempt, he joined the expedition of General Charles Bruce to attempt to summit Everest.
The expedition was equipped with the latest mountaineering equipment and technology, including supplemental oxygen, and was the second attempt by the British to summit Everest, the first having been in 1922. Mallory had advised on the earlier expedition and it was his proposed route up the mountain that was followed.
The team of 12 mountain climbers and 60 local porters had reached the staging post in Tibet by late March and the journey to the Everest base camp began. A month later, they had reached their camp where they rested, preparing for the attempt on the summit.
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The journey to this point had not been without incident. Bruce had already dropped out of the attempt, attacked by his recurrent malaria. Furthermore, the group had not been blessed by the monks of the high altitude monastery which stood on the route to the base camp, a step seen by many as vital in ensuring a safe and successful expedition.
The plan was to establish four camps at increasing heights on the side of the mountain. Camp IV, the highest at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) above sea level, was on the North Col, a dizzyingly steep and high pass which led to the top of the mountain.
In order to summit, the climbers making the attempt would face three “steps” during their ascent. The first is a boulder field where broken ground and the massive obstacles make progress extremely difficult. The other two are sheer cliff faces where the climbers would be forced into vertical climbs in order to proceed, neither of which had ever been attempted.
Mallory’s Second Attempt
On 5 June 1924 Mallory and Irvine set off for their fateful journey up the mountain. The attempt was actually Mallory’s second of the expedition, and the expedition’s third.
The first attempt, in which Mallory was involved, was successful in establishing a forward camp higher up the mountain to assist in the following climbs. The intention had been for there to be two such camps, but Mallory was unable to reach the site of the second and was forced to turn back.
The second attempt, by two climbers who passed Mallory as he was returning from his first climb, was more successful, reaching within 300 meters (980 feet) of the summit before exhaustion and the increasing difficulty of the terrain forced them to turn back. Both climbers returned successfully to Camp IV.
Mallory and Irvine were carrying oxygen and were both aware that their ascent would likely be the final attempt to summit of the expedition. Mallory’s companion, Irvine, was not as experienced as the rest of the climbers, but the pair were close friends and Mallory considered him capable of making the climb.
The last note from Mallory, carried down the mountain by one of the porters from an advanced camp, talked of an attempt to summit on the 8 June. This was the last anyone heard of the two climbers: both perished making the attempt.
Odell and the Sighting Near the Peak
Much of the speculation around Mallory’s attempt comes from a reported sighting of the two climbers made by another member of the expedition, Noel Odell. During a moment of clear weather Odell claimed to have seen the two climbers in the far distance above him, at the base of the “second step” on the way to the summit. They were able to pass it and he felt that they had a clear run to the top.
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Many since have offered the opinion that Odell was incorrect or mistaken in his claim. Few believed that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed the “second step” as quickly as Odell said they did (even today such a fast ascent is impossible), and when pressured by experts Odell changed his story several times.
However, only Odell truly knows what he saw that day. Modern climbers have made assessments of the likelihood of Mallory successfully reaching the top, based on his skill as a climber, the equipment available, and the time he had to summit. But they were not there, and they did not see what Odell saw.
Mallory, aware that this was the last attempt and determined to “win” the mountain for the British, would have been extraordinarily committed to the climb. Could it perhaps have been possible, through a superhuman effort made by the two friends, that they had made it?
Even now, a century later, it is not known what happened on that fateful attempt. Mallory’s body was found in 1999 but what happened to him remains unanswered. The position of his remains, and the various other items from that climb, do not offer conclusive evidence either way.
However, there is a glimmer of hope that one day there might be answers. Irvine, Mallory’s companion on the ascent, carried a camera with him, and if the pair had reached the summit there would surely be photographic evidence of this astonishing achievement.
But Irvine’s body, and the camera he carried, have never been found. Maybe, one day in the future the pictures he took on the hostile slopes of the world’s highest mountain will be developed, and we will know for sure whether Mallory and Irvine were the first to summit Everest.
Top Image: Mallory (circled) and other members of the 1924 expedition. Source: Nationaal Archief / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri