100 years ago: Mallory and Irvine go missing on Everest

North side of Mount Everest
North side of Mount Everest

Noell Odell is collecting fossils on the Tibetan north flank of Mount Everest when the weather suddenly clears. “The entire summit ridge and the last ridge of Everest became visible,” the British mountaineer later wrote about this moment in the midday hours on 8 June 1924.

“My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.” Odell is apparently the last person to see his expedition colleagues George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their summit attempt. They never return. At the time, Mallory is 37 and Irvine 22 years old.

How high did they get?

George Mallory during the British Everest expedition in 1921
George Mallory (during the British Everest expedition in 1921)

How close they came to the highest point on earth at 8,849 meters is still an unsolved mystery 100 years later. Some consider it possible that the two were the first people to reach the summit of Everest – 29 years before the ascent in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay – and died on the descent. Others suspect that Mallory and Irvine failed at the latest at the so-called Second Step at around 8,610 meters. The around 40-meter-high, steep rock step on the Northeast Ridge has been overcome with a ladder since 1975 and is very difficult to free climb. Others speculate that the two British climbers turned back prematurely in 1924 due to poor visibility – or because their bottled oxygen equipment did not work.

Mountaineers of a British Everest expedition in 1933 found Irvine’s ice axe at an altitude of almost 8,500 meters. In 1991, an oxygen cylinder attributed to the 1924 expedition was discovered at around the same altitude.

And Mallory and Irvine? In 1979, the Chinese climber Wang Hongbao claims that he found an “old English dead man” on Everest at around 8,200 meters four years earlier. Two days after his statement, Wang dies in an avalanche. 20 years later, on 1 May 1999, the US mountaineer Conrad Anker, a member of an international search expedition, discovers Mallory’s body frozen in the rubble at 8,159 meters. George’s name is written on a label on the collar of his jacket and there are letters addressed to him in his pocket. Mallory’s leg is broken, severe head injuries are visible. He has obviously fallen to death.

Where is the camera?

Andrew Irvine
Andrew Irvine

However, Anker and his teammates do not find the Kodak camera that Mallory and Irvine carried with them to document their ascent. The camera is still missing today. Some suspect that Chinese mountaineers found Irvine’s body in the 1970s and removed the camera. The camera, along with other items found by Mallory and Irvine, is said to be under lock and key in a Chinese museum. There are indications of this, but no evidence.

Irvine’s body remains missing. And Mallory’s mortal remains are no longer in the same place where Conrad Anker found them 25 years ago. Have the Chinese removed all traces, as some people speculate? Or did Everest itself dispose of the bodies by storm, avalanche or rockfall? Until the camera is found, it will remain a mystery as to how high Mallory and Irvine climbed on Mount Everest 100 years ago. In his last letter to his wife Ruth, George Mallory wrote on 27 May 1924: “It is 50 to 1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud.”

P.S. I recommend the book “The Ghosts of Mount Everest” to anyone who wants to find out more about the mystery surrounding Mallory and Irvine. One of the authors is the German geologist, mountaineer and alpine historian Jochen Hemmleb, who co-initiated the expedition in 1999 and coordinated the search for Mallory and Irvine from the advanced base camp. Another book by Jochen on the subject will be published shortly.

2 Replies to “100 years ago: Mallory and Irvine go missing on Everest”

  1. I have no doubt that the Chinese have the camera ,and if the film could be developed, they would have shown it if it provided no corroborating evidence that the summit was reached in 1924.

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