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November 29, 2020

The Mallory and Irvine Mystery: The Radical Plan to Reach Everest’s Summit

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This is the second in a three-part series. Part 1.

On June 6, 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine departed from Camp IV on the North Col.

Two days prior, Norton and Somervell finally departed from Camp VI at 6:40 am.

This delay was caused by a leaking thermos of now frozen tea inside Norton’s sleeping bag overnight.

Thus, Norton and Somervell departed toward the summit much later than they had planned which may have been fortuitous, as if they had kept their schedule, they may have encountered a decision that Mallory and Irvine must have been confronted with, the crucial time of turn around on the upper slopes of Everest?

As it was, that dilemma never eventuated.

Norton and Somervell traversed well below the ridge, where eventually the latter became tired and had issues with his breathing. So around noon, Somervell rested on a boulder under a clear sky and signalled Norton to continue, which he did so for another hour until he crossed the exposed depths of the Great Couloir and tried to then ascend onto the North face of the final pyramid and ultimately the summit.

However, he had no hope of climbing that high, so he decided to turn around about 1 pm, fetch Somervell and successfully return to the North Col.

The turn-around time of Norton as well as the fact that Somervell could wait in the open for the duration was something that must have not been lost on Mallory.

A surprise awaited Norton, the expedition leader, as he finally rested in his tent that he shared with Mallory.

Norton was informed that there was to be a third attempt for the summit and it was to be an attempt with oxygen and comprise of Mallory and Irvine, the original team for the oxygen attempt, which was decided as early as April 21.

Norton had no option but to agree, but he did forward Odell’s name in lieu of Irvine, but Mallory demurred.

The reasons for not selecting Odell were clear to Mallory;

Irvine was adept with the oxygen apparatus and thoroughly committed to the climb with oxygen. Odell by contrast was less enamoured and as per the original plan, was always to be in the support role. It’s also possible that Mallory as the appointed climbing leader, felt “side lined” by his colleagues and perhaps even feeling humiliated in having his plans arbitrarily discarded in late May for two seemingly hopeless summit attempts that were doomed to failure.

When did Mallory decide on this?

Mallory led an abortive summit attempt with Geoffrey Bruce on the June 2, but advanced no further than Camp V on the North Ridge due to reticent porters struggling to continue. Perhaps realising that if a serious attempt was to be mounted on the summit in 1924, there was no other option but to revert back to the original plan he devised in April and mentioned by Irvine in his diary then.

So, the decision was made on June 2 itself, irrespective of what would happen on Norton’s effort.

The Difficult North Col, first scaled in 1921 and seen as the start of the route to the summit. Camp IV is located on the top of the ice wall which changes every year and is prone to avalanche.

The final attempt

Thus, by the evening of the June 4, Mallory, Irvine and a group of some 15 porters, carrying most of their usable oxygen stores, had returned to the North Col and presented a defeated Norton with a new and final summit attempt. The nature of the plan itself was nothing short of radical, but its possible Mallory told Norton only what he needed to know, as if he knew the full details. Mallory’s plan entailed taking a full complement of some 10 oxygen cylinders and to include as much redundancy into the summit attempt as possible, especially for the equipment they’d use above Camp VI to better improve their options and prospects to reach the summit.

The second element of the plan was the decision to take two extra sleeping bags up to Camp VI from Camp IV. This aspect regarding the sleeping bags needs some elaboration.

We know that six sleeping bags were taken to the higher camps above the North Col in early June; two by Mallory and Bruce, which reached Camp V and were left there, used only by Odell later; then Norton and Somervell took their sleeping bags first to Camp V and ultimately to Camp VI, with Norton’s becoming soiled by a thermos leak. Finally, from Mallory’s notes, we know he and Irvine took two extra sleeping bags for themselves and also a bag for the porters at Camp V, which meant that only two remained in Camp V and four ended up in Camp VI!

What wasn’t realised until this century (by one of us, Summers) was that Mallory and Irvine’s sleeping bags were missing from Camp VI, and the support climber Odell during his dual visits to the single tent at Camp VI, only saw two sleeping bags there on June 8 and 10.

Astoundingly, Odell and everyone else since missed the fact that there should have been four sleeping bags in the Camp VI tent, but only two were ever seen and used by Odell. Indeed, there is now enough evidence to suggest that Mallory and Irvine did take the two extra sleeping bags all the way up to Camp VI for their own personal sleeping preferences but also in part to counter Norton’s soiled sleeping bag. In addition, Irvine also likely took the mouthpiece from a spare oxygen set stored above the North Col, supposedly used to aid descending climbers but was now superfluous and Irvine certainly thought it could be useful as a spare for the final summit attempt.

Although seemingly innocuous and overlooked for nearly a century, the extra sleeping bags intended for Camp VI formed part of a radical plan that Mallory and Irvine devised to aid their summit attempt. Granted the two sleeping bags Mallory listed on his recovered notes, were likely listed for inclusion around June 4, during preparations with Irvine.

However, after Norton and Somervell returned to Camp IV, Mallory learnt about the collapsed tent now at Camp VI caused by Somervell taking half a tent pole to aid his descent as a lost ice axe substitute.

Intriguingly, under a horizontal line scribed across Mallory’s inventory note, a half tent pole was listed underneath, perhaps as a hastily added reminder upon learning of this fact about Camp VI’s status.

Thus, by June 5, the plan to take the sleeping bags and a spare oxygen cylinder to the summit may have been formulated by Mallory and Irvine. However, it perhaps could have been as late as the night before their final climb, but it could also have been formulated several days beforehand too.

Certainly, Mallory’s notes to Odell and Noel suggest nothing unusual in the planning for the June 8 summit attempt with just two cylinders per man being the suggested carry – and Mallory complaining about how that is a “bloody load”. Indeed, as noted above, it’s even possible that as late as the night of June 7 or even the morning of June 8, Irvine may have raised the issue with Mallory as they lay in their tent. Perhaps Irvine had doubts about their success and especially regarding the reliability of the fickle oxygen apparatus and thus wanted some added insurance, thus a fifth cylinder was added to their inventory which contrasted with Mallory’s stated plan as relayed to Odell in his notes.

From that the question of Somervell’s open exposure whilst waiting for Norton on May 4 might have played on the minds of both Mallory and Irvine, where bad weather could be life threatening for any waiting man, thus the decision was taken to take their 6 lb sleeping bags so “in extremis” one man could take shelter whilst the other continued to the summit, with what remained of the oxygen, including the back up fifth cylinder, if all their plans went awry.

This would ensure a reasonable summit possibility for at least one climber if all else failed such as delays by bad weather, health or mechanical failure as well as an accident.

Whether Irvine agreed to this prospect if discussed openly or he worked it out for himself if Mallory kept it private is unknown, but we now suggest there was a change of plan before the summit attempt at Camp VI that included taking the sleeping bags and a spare cylinder and its entirely possible that Irvine was behind the inclusions. Indeed, as some of the changes concerned the oxygen equipment, it would be surprising if Irvine wasn’t involved; he may even have been the instigator.

Also Read: An Enduring Mystery on Everest: The Story of Mallory and Irvine

The intended route

The third element in the plan concerned the intended route and the manner in which Mallory and Irvine wanted to attempt it.The standard British pre-war expedition route on the North face of Everest was to always traverse below the ridge crest and then cross the Great Couloir before climbing onto the north face of the north pyramid to the summit itself. This was the route pioneered by Norton and Somervell and was subsequently followed by every pre-war expedition. The exceptions were Mallory and Irvine, who chose to climb to the summit on the crest of the North East Ridge itself. Thus, the crux of the climb was the eponymous Second Step and that is where Odell saw them at 12:50 pm on the afternoon on June 8.

In summary, the elements of Mallory and Irvine’s plan to reach the summit firstly comprised of the decision to use supplementary oxygen, taking two sleeping bags from Camp VI (which later vanished from Camp VI) and by choosing the ridge crest route to the summit. The oxygen cylinders and the sleeping bags gave Mallory and Irvine a longer turn-around time in their estimate, much longer than what was thought permissible then and even today.

A close up view of the upper North East Ridge of Everest showing the three rock steps and Mallory’s possible solo route to the summit up the final pyramid, diverging onto the North Face and zig-zagging via the modern day “dihedral” route to the summit. If Mallory was hindered by the mid-afternoon storm, its likely though that he would have veered to the left to shelter in the lee of the final pyramid which would act as a giant windbreak, before continuing up over the apex or “North pillar” to the summit proper. Photograph courtesy of Stuart Holmes with thanks from the authors for this kind contribution.

Invariably the role that Irvine played in this planning must have been critical, as he was the oxygen expert as well as being a strong young man, willing to follow Mallory with his own ambitions for the summit as well. Thus, Irvine was almost certainly at the centre of this ambitious plan, which centred on his capabilities as a climber and as an expert on keeping the oxygen apparatus going.

Last seen nearing the final summit pyramid by Odell, Mallory and Irvine were never seen alive again. Mallory’s remains were finally located at 8,155 metres agonisingly close to their Camp VI, but where was his partner Irvine?

What happened on June 8 and where is Irvine now on Mount Everest?

Philip Summers is an Australian researcher, historian and writer with a particular interest in the early British Pre-War Everest expeditions and the Soviet/Russian Space programme to the present day. He can be contacted at everest1924@mail.com.

Ajay Dandekar is a historian and a faculty member of Shiv Nadar University, Delhi. He can be contacted at ajayd16@gmail.com.

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