The Finding of Mallory in 1999
The Finding of Mallory in 1999 – Looking back from here
by Philip Summers
Nearly two decades ago now, the near mythical Mount Everest mountaineer George Mallory was finally found in early May 1999.
For decades beforehand, we’d been regaled at first his former associates with their impressions, for that is what they were, of Mallory and Irvine’s summit prospects and fate, then by later writers with any number of increasingly self- assured “theories”, which gained such provenance that even a personality cult grew up around them.
All was not lost though as in the mid 1990’s some truly insightful research did emerge from a German researcher; Jochen Hemmleb who provided us with the theoretical key to first locating Mallory’s location and once located, then uncovered a store of hidden details of Mallory and Irvine’s plans as well as expected movements on their mysterious summit attempt on the 8th of June 1924.
It is Hemmleb whose name is now perpetually intertwined with Mallory and Irvine’s last days, providing the vital theoretical and practical “guidance system” for the climber Conrad Anker to finally stumble upon the frozen remains of Mallory at 8155 metres on the north side snow “basin”.
Indeed, left to their own devices, it’s unlikely even today that climbers would still have located Mallory without Hemmleb’s insights such is the vastness of the mountain, slowness of movement in that environment and paucity of imagination and logic which did comprise Hemmleb’s research thankfully.
Tacitly, the fact that Irvine is still undiscovered is testament to the fact that we are still lacking a “Hemmlebian” insight to unlock Irvine’s story, that’s how important Hemmleb’s analysis then was and how inadequate to the task we have been since!
Once Mallory was found however it was Hemmleb whose careful and reasoned analysis lead the forensic investigation and finally revealed the first obscure details of the mystery, unknown to all but Mallory and Irvine before then;
-How many oxygen cylinders were available and how many could that have taken?.
-The specifics of Mallory’s injuries and possible causes.
-The artefacts on his person and how they added or subtracted to our understanding and
-Mallory’s private planning, scribbled on sundry pieces of paper that revealed so much about he and Irvine’s thinking.
Written up in several books since 1999 and a few more expeditions later, Hemmleb’s work like many “wunderkind”, has altered our fundamental understanding of Mallory and Irvine’s journey and created a new mythos to the story that now includes Hemmleb himself to the overall narrative!
All however isn’t clear to us now even after nearly two decades since Mallory was found sadly;
We don’t know for example where he fell to his death, as Mallory’s body condition is itself contradictory, where enough damage suggests a bad fall, but not too great a distance so as to disintegrate his body such as falling from the ice axe site just below the ridge crest at 8450 metres, which has long been proposed as a likely fall site since 1933 when Irvine’s ice axe was found.
Could Mallory instead have been crossing the north face basin, heading back on a line to Camp VI located at 8140 metres before falling in some way, perhaps in the dark or during the mid-afternoon storm between 2.00pm and 4.00pm?
Such a short fall lower on the snow basin and below the cliffs of the “yellow band”, may well indicate an unusual descent route via the Great Couloir which may tacitly suggest Mallory alone or with Irvine did indeed climb above the testing “second step” on the North East ridge before deciding that descent via the rock steps was too difficult or dangerous meaning a new descent route was needed, so they descended via the couloir and followed Smythe’s later 1933 descent route for a time?
Alternatively, perhaps the ascent route did include the Great Couloir ala’ Norton and Somervell attempt, but successful or thwarted, they then descended reciprocally or followed George Finch’s route in 1922; Mallory’s “stalking horse” but whose oxygen ideas Mallory ultimately subscribed too in 1924!
Then there is the possibility of a longer fall, from low on the “Yellow Band” terraces, perhaps after a short but recoverable accident at the ice axe site, that saw an injured Mallory, now with a broken wristwatch and altimeter struggling to then descend with Irvine before finally falling again to his death and leaving Irvine alone still lost in some nook on the terraces of that section of the mountain?
This longer fall route assumes a more traditional “Skyline” ascent and descent route via the North East ridge and the rock steps to a point where either their oxygen exhausted or they were unable to continue, usually short of the summit proper.
In truth, despite the treasure trove of new details obtained since 1999, we still know little about what happened or even what route and time Mallory and Irvine on their summit attempt.
If Irvine could be found, the comparison between the two climbers will tell us much more such as any notes Irvine may have concerning oxygen plans, routes, a diary notations as well as any tools he may carry, clothing or other equipment differences from Mallory.
One “mercenary” suggestion proposed by some was that Mallory used Irvine as a pseudo “porter” in carrying larger loads including added oxygen, so leaving Mallory alone to summit.
Whilst many decry “poor form” at such claims, others alternatively note that both men really needed each other as a team in order to succeed and survive in that harsh environment where one’s body is slowly dying once in the “Death zone” as its now called!.
Speaking of missing equipment, some people still cling to the fading hope that a camera or two will be found on Irvine at some time in the future.
This has lead to another mindset that pretends that these old cameras can be recovered and the fragile film, despite being exposed to intense cold and changing humidity, from winter to monsoon for 95 years now, can still be almost “magically” laboratory developed and not just crumble away instead, like Count Dracula when finally exposed to sunlight once any camera is removed from Irvine’s pockets……
Another curious aspect of the entire Mallory and Irvine genre, is the public reaction.
Sadly there seems to be any number of characters with agenda’s to peddle, money to make and enemies to create and slay.
That said there are some bright lights still in the field with private researchers and theorists quietly talking and formulating new ideas amongst themselves based on the known evidence and exploring any anomalies in Mallory and Irvine lore, similar to space research where it’s often said that the results will take years of research and analysis, once the mission ends.
Through it all, Hemmleb himself continues to be the leading light, having maintained his ethics and high standard of work as well as keeping a friendly open mind to new ideas and returning to the mystery repeatedly as his career flourishes elsewhere.
Ultimately, we must accept that we may never really know whether or not the summit was reached in 1924, how far Mallory and Irvine actually climbed and their movements and times up and down the mountain or how they died- together or separated.
Like the 1888 Jack the Ripper case, there may be a limit beyond which we can never exceed, due to the key information long destroyed or never being found, thus leaving the Mallory and Irvine mystery unsolved like some intractable mathematical puzzle that will always be insoluble!
Despite this distinct possibility, much has been revealed and even 95 years later, we do have a rather better understanding of what happened in June 1924, thanks of course to the independent research by Jochen Hemmleb, which then lead a few years later in 1999 where one of several climbers wandering about on the snow basin suddenly spied Mallory’s body at 8155 metres. We of course know the story from there……..