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Everest: Who Got There First?

5 minute read
Frederic Golden

The story has assumed mythic proportions, like the sinking of the Titanic or Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed race to the South Pole. Shortly after noon on June 8, 1924, the 38-year-old English schoolmaster and Alpinist George Leigh Mallory, along with a young companion, an Oxford engineering student and oarsman named Andrew (“Sandy”) Irvine, 22, vanished into the mists surrounding the summit of 29,028-ft. Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, never to be heard from again.

For 75 years their disappearance has loomed, like Everest itself, as both a challenge and a mystery, made all the more memorable by Mallory’s classic retort when asked why he wanted to risk all to climb the far-off mountain: “Because it is there.” But did he make it to the top? Or did he falter just short of his goal? Last week an expedition led by veteran American climber Eric Simonson, retracing Mallory’s old route on Everest’s Tibetan, or north, face, seemed to be tantalizingly close to some definitive answers.

On a rocky, windswept slope some 2,000 ft. below the summit, expedition member Conrad Anker spotted “a patch of white”–brighter, he says, than any of the snow or rocks around it. Sprawled facedown on the mountainside, with arms outstretched and hands dug into the frozen ground, lay the bleached, mummified remains of a man. It was Mallory, his body almost perfectly preserved in the thin, dry air, a safety rope around his waist, and still partly clad in remnants of his tattered cotton, wool and tweed climbing clothes, the ragged collars stitched with markings G.L. MALLORY. He had apparently tumbled wildly down the slope, tried to arrest his descent with his hands, then died shortly thereafter–“still fighting, still gripping the rock to the end,” says climber Jake Norton.

Mallory’s leathery skin gleamed so brightly that climber Dave Hahn likened it to “a Greek or Roman marble statue.” Mallory’s face was the only part of his body unexposed. He had a broken right arm, trauma to his shoulder and fractures of both leg bones just above the top of his single surviving hobnail boot. Even so, the climbers were awed by the physical specimen before them. “We each noticed the muscular arms of the climber,” says Hahn. “After all these years, George Mallory still cut an impressive figure.”

Aided by a spring with unusually light snow, the team located him just above the ridge crest where an ice ax–presumed to be Irvine’s–was recovered in 1933 and on a shelf where a Chinese climber reporting seeing the remains of an “old English dead” in 1975. When the climbers reached under the body, they found letters from Mallory’s family, poignantly close to his heart, as well as a broken altimeter, a pocket knife, monogrammed handkerchiefs and other personal items. Intriguingly, a pair of sun goggles found in a pocket suggest that he was trying to descend in fading light. There was, however, no sign of Irvine. With the Mallory family’s permission, the team took a snippet of tissue from the forearm in order to compare any surviving DNA with samples from his descendants, including perhaps his grandson George, who reached the summit in 1995. Then they covered the body with rocks and read the Anglican service of committal before descending 10,000 ft. for a few days’ rest at their base camp.

The expedition, which is being filmed by a joint Nova/BBC crew and is posting communiques on two websites mountainzone.com pbs.org/wgbh/nova) will continue searching in the few remaining weeks of Everest’s busy spring climbing season. Besides Irvine’s remains, the expedition is eager to find a Kodak vest-pocket folding camera given to Mallory just before the ascent. If he and his young partner made it to the summit, they would undoubtedly have photographed themselves at the top of the world–and those images would probably still be retrievable from film kept in so deep a freeze even after three-quarters of a century.

Meanwhile the arguments continue to rage over whether Mallory and Irvine made it all the way, beating New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay by 29 years. “It’s an interesting, romantic thought, but until someone shows a clear image of them at the summit, I’m happy to stick with Hillary and Tenzing,” says veteran climber David Breashears. As for the 79-year-old Sir Edmund, he isn’t losing any sleep over the matter. “Getting to the bottom is an important part too,” he told Television New Zealand.

The climbers, although initially skeptical, have changed their mind about Mallory. “Just seeing his strength and his obvious tenacity,” says Norton, convinces him that Mallory and Irvine “both made it and met their demise on their way down.” Still, just as the discovery of the Titanic’s fragmented hull stripped that timeless tragedy of some of its fascination, so the sight of Mallory’s mortal remains somehow makes this larger-than-life figure more human–and more vulnerable.

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