Jochen Hemmleb

Jochen Hemmleb Interview taken in 2010

Jochen Hemmleb was a member of both the 1999 and the 2001 Mallory and Irvine Everest Expeditions where he distinguished himself as the world’s foremost expert on the history of Mallory and Irvine. He is the co-author of Ghosts of Everest and Detectives on Everest.

Jochen has just published his new book ‘Tatort Mount Everest – Der Fall Mallory’ which in English means ‘Crime Scene Mount Everest – The Mallory Case’

In your book Xu Jing describes leaving his high camp VII after abandoning his summit bid and descending down the crest of the ridge, where after about 2 hours he reached a point where he saw a dead body?

With many climbers nowadays only taking perhaps 30 minutes to descend from the base of the 1st step to the vicinity of the ice axe and if the body seen by Xu Jing is perhaps 100 metres beyond that, then do you see any inconsistencies in the timings in light of Xu Jings account, specifically, could a descent of about 2h actually take him lower into the yellow band which is more consistent with Mallory’s injuries, instead of placing him on the ridge but off the main route?

When we interviewed Xu in 2008, there was some uncertainty as to how far the body was away in horizontal distance from his high camp. But as for the general location, he was unequivocal. Through his interpreter, Xu emphatically said that the body was on the ridge, not on the route, and that the other climbers had passed to the right and underneath the location. Therefore a descent of 2 hours could not have taken Xu lower into the Yellow Band, yet farther down the ridge than we assume. As for the time of 2 hours, you have to keep in mind that the Chinese in 1960 did not use any fixed ropes on the upper mountain. Also, Xu was very tired at the time and took things slowly and carefully. And he did not use oxygen, at least not continuously.

Do you think there are any lessons for us in today’s life in the 21st century that we can learn from the story and Mallory and Irvine?

In the afterword of my book, I compare the summit attempts of 1924 with a moon shot. While flying to the moon was a lot more dependent on technology than climbing Mount Everest, there is one strong similarity between the two: both were attempts to go as far as possible with the equipment available. Nowadays this is not done. We have a lot more technology available these days, yet we don’t use it to its full potential.

We are kind of under-achievers in this regard, shedding our self-reliance and confidence rather than expanding it through the technology we have. I found the following quote from Steve House, which captured the essence of this, and which I put in my book. Speaking of repeating old classics in the Alps, House wrote: “Its intensely mind-opening to be up there on these routes that were climbed sixty plus years ago, to be trying as hard as you can, with all the technological advantages and safety we have now. You realize that we’re not any better. Mor equipped and more resourceful for sure, but better? I don’t think so.”

Another lesson I gained from the 1924 story, which may come as a surprise to some, is that I have come to feel that for me the inspirational figure of this expedition is no longer Mallory, but Edward Norton. In a sense, Mallory was the first “Everest junkie”. He needed the mountain, because he realized what an ascent could mean for his life, for his support of his family, for his career as a writer and lecturer, etc. You can call that “visionary”, for sure. But he made himself dependent on a public that could only see or understand success in terms of reaching the summit. To a certain degree, Mallory became a slave to his own ambition. Norton, on the contrary, approached the mountain differently. His son Hugh recently told me that his father regarded his Everest expeditions as an interesting “sideway” to his main occupation, that of a professional soldier. It amazes me that Norton, with this background, was not only fit enough to reach over 28,000 ft. without oxygen, but remained clear-headed enough to recognize his limits in time and return safely. Norton’s approach to climbing Everest speaks a lot about true independence and freedom, not only in mountaineering.

In the book, you’ve touched on the effect the Mallory and Irvine story bought to bear on your life personally in terms of a brush with today’s mass media, do you have any thoughts on the ‘politics’ of research and the effects of the media for example on such research?

I am critical of the fact that the media often turns an event into an over-simplified “hero-and-villain” story. I’ve seen myself and others put in either corner, neither of which has a lot to do with the human reality. Likewise I am critical of the fact that constructive criticism of someone else’s opinion is often replaced by personal attacks against the person. The intolerance expressed by some towards differing opinions is astonishing – and laughably so, because so much of the debate about Mallory and Irvine is purely academic. There is so little we actually know, and only further traces found on the mountain will increase that knowledge. A contest of “who shouts loudest” clearly won’t.

If so, do you have any regrets and in future would you do things differently as a result of these lessons?

I would not describe it as regret, but since 1999 I certainly lost any illusion that climbers are “better people”. In the climbing community I have met some amazing and admirable people, as well as some who were exactly the opposite – just as in other aspects of life. Perhaps the only difference is that climbing can bring out qualities in people that I consider essential for good and trusted friendships. But it doesn’t mean that climbing always and exclusively does. Would I do things differently because of this lesson? Perhaps I would be even less impressed by climbing achievements and focus on the person behind it sooner. Ultimately, admiration can be as narrowing to a full view of an event or a person as dislike is.

Many theorists focus on the technical aspects of the mystery constructing a case based on Mallory and Irvine’s lack of ‘modern inventory’ and concluding they couldn’t have succeeded due to lack of modern equipment etc. Do you think this argument is cogent and if not could you elaborate on more indistinct aspects like teamwork, the spirit of the climbers, and perhaps old fashioned gritting your teeth and stamping into the wind?

I think the best answer to this argument is to just take a look at the events of 1924. Norton and Somervell made it to over 28,000 ft. in their gear, without oxygen, and made it back safely. Need anything else be said about the spirit and competence of the old climbers?

Much controversy is attached to the 2nd step with modern claims for and against Mallory and Irvine’s odds of success. Could you elaborate on the claims by various climbers on having successfully free climbed the step such as Theo Fritsche and the naysayers who question the credibility of these claims and how they bear on the question of Mallory and Irvine’s likelihood?

Some of the naysayers make it sound as if Cadiach and Fritsche don’t know what a free-climb is and what isn’t. That’s nonsense, particularly when it comes from people who never met any of them. Both Cadiach and Fritsche are undisputedly experienced high-altitude mountaineers, who have summitted seven and five 8000-meter peaks respectively. Plus, they are skilled rock-climbers with many of the classic alpine walls to their credit. So their testimonies and opinions carry some weight, to say the least. Frankly, in my opinion Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding did a great job in free-climbing the Second Step and documenting it. But they didn’t do it first. They only did it better.

Whether this has any bearing on the Mallory mystery is a completely separate issue. If Cadiach, Fritsche, Anker and Houlding all come away with the belief that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed the Second Step, then it is just that – a personal belief. But it is no evidence. Only traces of Mallory and Irvine found above the Second Step or a picture from a camera could definitely prove that they climbed it back in 1924.

What motivations lead you to continue your pursuit of this mystery and do you see these skills and lessons being applied to other aspects of your life?

The best answer lies in a quote by my favourite Scottish writer, Andrew Greig (who, in my opinion, also wrote some of the best and most underrated climbing books of all), which I put at the end of the closing chapter of my book: “When a person dies, sooner or later you may search for the details or meaning of their life, to make some kind of piece. And in that search you may come to glimpse not that person but yourself now that they are gone. That’s their last gift to you, the one they give through being dead.”

Andrew Greig originally wrote this in the context of dead parents, so the quote struck a very personal chord. But there is a general truth in it. I experienced a couple of deaths in recent years that affected me deeply and always led to some sort of “search” and insights. As for Mallory and Irvine, my core motivation to pursuit the mystery was never just to prove that they made the summit. The open question of “Did they make it?” was only part of the attraction. More than that I wanted to see how far you can get back into the past and shed light onto a story from the past, perhaps even find a new, untold story behind it. That the stage turned out to be the Mallory mystery was because of my mountaineering background. But there are other stories that hold the same attraction and feed the same core motivation. Mallory expressed this drive perfectly: “To struggle and to understand – never this last without the other; such is the law …”

Related to an earlier question on the ‘politics’ of Everest research, does it trouble you to see such discord and unpleasantness in the debate internationally, pitting one camp against the other and worse?

I am trying not to be troubled by this too much. Part of this might be human nature. If people can’t do better than verbally abusing or ridiculing others, then it is just revealing about them. Strong words always make a weak case. The biggest drawback is that the progress in the research is hindered and distracted by this.

In the book, you’ve touched upon some of the ‘unusual characters’ (shall we say) who you’ve met since your Everest research began. People including a ‘medium’ for example. Could you elaborate on that aspect and perhaps any other characters you’ve encountered over the years to give the readers an insight into the your adventures?

“Spiritual” attempts to solve the mystery of Mallory and Irvine have been reported since the 1920s, and I included the story of the “medium” in my book to show that this hasn’t changed even now. This doesn’t mean that I fully believe in that story, even though I find it fascinating how well this particular story fits the evidence we have today. What I do believe, however, is that there are phenomena which can’t be explained with conventional laws or definitions of physics, but which definitely exist, and which you can experience in the mountains. I touched upon this in my previous book “ Broad Peak”, there is an early work by Reinhold Messner on this subject, and writer Maria Coffey recently explored these spiritual aspects of climbing in her book “Explorers of the Infinite”. For me, climbing and being in nature has always had a strong spiritual component, and I keep an open, yet still critical mind towards “unusual” views and insights into the world. After all, how senses and perception work is still largely unexplored. If people don’t like this, that’s their problem.

What about situations that have made you laugh, do you wish you had more of those?

There were a couple of situations during the 1999 and 2001 research expedition that were just unforgettably funny. Luckily, we had some great people in our team, who were absolute professionals in their work, yet were also able to see the lighter side of it all. Dave Hahn and Jake Norton immediately come to my mind. As far as the expeditions are concerned, we had good enough a share of such situations. It’s the lack of humour in some quarters of the (academic) research I find pitiful.

One of the more unusual factors you cite in your book relates to the repeated claim by Xu Jing that he saw a dead body seemingly in a sleeping bag. Some express scepticism about this, but one researcher actually has identified a plausible accounting for this anomaly in terms of a surplus of sleeping bags taken such as a spare ‘coolie bag’ and also two extra ‘sahibs bags’ to the 1924 Camp VI in the preparation by Mallory and Irvine before the 8th of June, with two of the four sleeping bags seemingly missing by the time Odell appeared during his visits to the high camp and thus perhaps actually taken by Mallory and Irvine on the summit bid to ‘buy some added time’ to summit or as a safety measure as a counter to a long exposed descent. Could you expand on this matter of the anomalous sleeping bags and Xu Jing’s repeated assertions of his finding confirming this, where the research would seem to confirm Xu Jings veracity?

I can only repeat what Xu was saying. He mentioned the sleeping bag in both of our interviews 2001 and 2008, and also in his Sunday Times interview in 2003. He denied seeing a sleeping bag in his interview with EverestNews in 2005. Also, he claimed that Maurice Wilson was found among the remnants of a disintegrated sleeping bag – but we know this wasn’t the case. So I consider it possible that Xu confused multi-layered clothing with a sleeping bag. As for the sleeping bags that are unaccounted for, I take a conservative stand in my book and mention only the “coolie bag” listed in Mallory’s notes. I partly do so because I am still unconvinced that Mallory and Irvine carried two heavy “sahib bags” on the initial stage of their summit bid, when Mallory had already recognized the importance of carrying as little as possible. The weight of a “coolie bag”, however, was less than a full bottle of oxygen. Anyway, I congratulate the researcher who uncovered the sleeping bag issue, even if he may have gone too far with some of his conclusions. Who knows at this point if he is right or not? Only a discovery on the mountain can provide a definitive answer.

You suggest in your book that perhaps Mallory may have damaged his wristwatch and where the watch hands closely correlate with the Odell sighting at 12.50 PM. You describe a reasonable mechanism for this with the 2nd step off width crack. But is it fair to say that no similar ‘mechanism’ exists for the lower 1st step, so in light of any known ‘encumbrance’ on the lower 1st step not existing, the 2nd step seems a viable and more logical explanation for what happened to the watch and when it happened?

First of all, this idea was not mine. It was first raised by Jim Curran in 1999, and picked up later by Charles Lind in his fictional account of Mallory’s last climb, “An Afterclap of Fate”. I quote both of them as sources. Lind argued that Mallory must have taken off his watch when he still had the time and nerves to do so, because it involved removing his mittens to undo the small buckle. Lind suggests that this happened during a rest break after Mallory had climbed a rock step. In my book I concluded (p. 205): “Suitable places for such a rest break exist beyond the First and Second Step: the platform next to the ‘Mushroom Rock’ halfway between the First and Second Steps, and the expansive scree plateau between the Second and Third Steps. Beyond the Third Step, however, follows the steep summit snowfield. There is no prominent spot for a rest break until the exit onto the summit ridge.” So I am open to the possibility that the watch was damaged either during a climb of the First or of the Second Step. It could have happened someplace else, of course, but the coincidence between Odell’s sighting the climbers surmounting a “prominent rock step” at 12.50 and the stopping of the watch at 12.52 or 12.53 is striking.

If you would like to find out more about Jochen then please pay a visit to his website at