The Search for Andrew Irvine

By Tom Holzel

18 April 2009

(Rev 28 Sept 2010)


Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.

(Suppositions should not exceed necessity.)

William of Ockham 1288-1347?


Note 09 Jan 2010: Major new discovery of possible Irvine location at "An Aerial Photographic Search for Andrew Irvine on Mt. Everest."

Chinese Describe 1960 Irvine Sighting




On June 8th, 1924, Mallory & Irvine set off from their 8200m high Camp-6 on the North Ridge of Mt. Everest in a final attempt to be the first to reach its summit. They were using oxygen breathing equipment. At 1PM they were spotted high on the Northeast Ridge surmounting either the First or Second Step at about 8500m. If the Second, they had a chance that one of them might have made a successful dash to the summit.[1] It was a climb from which they never returned. Because they were both believed to have taken Vest Pocket Kodak cameras, it was hoped that the discovery of their bodies might yield photos taken on the summit.


Fig. 1. The North Face of Mt. Everest on the magnificent 1:5000-scale orthophoto of Mt Everest. The green line marks the modern route which Mallory & Irvine are believed to have followed. A red circle marks where Irvine’s ice ax was found in 1933. The red “X” marks where Mallory’s body was found in 1999. The yellow shaded area is in the “Yellow Band” of limestone strata where much of the searching for Irvine has taken place.  © BSFSwissphoto AG, Zurich. Overlay by the author.


In 1971 I proposed in Mountain Magazine #17 that if Noel Odell really did see the two surmounting the Second Step as he believed, based on the time of day they would each have about 1-1/2 hours of oxygen remaining.  The climb to the top would take 3-6 hours. If Mallory had then taken Irvine’s remaining oxygen and sent him back to safety, Mallory might just have had enough to reach the top. As important, the issue might be resolved by searching for a body and camera on the “8200m Snow Terrace” below Irvine’s ice ax found on the NE Ridge in 1933. When this article was reported in the London Sunday Times, it was met with 3 weeks of letters of outrage at this foreign meddling in a sacred English legend.


In response to my letter in 1979 asking them to be on the look-out for this putative body, The Japanese Alpine Club replied that their Climbing Leader had been approached by Chinese porter Wang Hung-bao describing his discovery (in 1975) of “an English dead” at 8100m. When he touched the clothing, it “danced in the wind.” The next day Wang died in an avalanche. His was all the confirmation I needed. Although Wang’s claim was officially denied by the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) and roundly ridiculed in the British mountaineering community (“Another Everest ghost”), it was enough for me to launch a 30-man expedition to Everest in the fall of 1986 to search for the body and camera. We were snowed-out and prevented from reaching the 8200m Terrace. But, on literally the last day of the expedition, I met with Wang’s tent mate, Zhang Junyan. He admitted that, yes, in spite of official denials, Wang had indeed told him (and several other Chinese climbers) about his discovery at 8100m of “a foreign mountaineer.”[2]


In 1999, another American, Eric Simonson, along with German Everest researcher Jochen Hemmleb launched only the second expedition specifically designed to search for the body and camera.[3] On the first day of the high-altitude search, Conrad Anker found the body on the “8200m Snow Terrace” at 8165m. The big surprise: It was Mallory rather than Irvine. The major new clue: Mallory had severe rope-jerk injuries around his waist signifying that he and Irvine were roped in a fall. This all but proved the two did not separate. Having taken two tanks each, the pair did not have enough oxygen for any hope of reaching the summit together.[4] But no camera was found on or near Mallory. The hopes were that if only a single VPK camera had been taken, Irvine would have been carrying it to photograph Mallory making his bid for the top. Eastman Kodak experts believed that if properly handled, images might still be obtained from the perpetually frozen (but now extremely delicate) A127 film.[5]


Since the discovery of Mallory, a number of searchers have clambered through the ledges and gullies of the vast Yellow Band terrain (8350-8500m), searching for Irvine and his camera--all with no luck.


Fig. 2. Everest researcher Jochen Hemmleb’s map of various search routes taken to look for Andrew Irvine. The Yellow arrow points to the standard route. © BSF Swissphoto AG, Zurich, 2001; overlay: J. Hemmleb, 2004.[6]


Part of the problem in not finding Irvine lay in the lack of focus of where to look. For each different theory about what might have happened to the pair, a different search area was called for. The result was that climbers spread-out all over the vast North face hoping to get lucky. But there is another major problem--the way they were doing the looking.


It is far easier and safer to search while ascending. Your eyes pass over the place where you will next place your feet; if you slip, your hands are close to the ground to grab hold. Thus, searchers work backwards, i.e., they search from below traveling upwards. By this means they inherently block themselves from walking or seeing many of the descent paths that Irvine might have trod. Searchers climbing up are always brought to a stop and forced to circumvent the many small cliffs and ledges of the Yellow Band—the very same ledges on top of which Irvine might have been brought to a halt.


Fig. 3. Here is an example of the ascent/descent paradox of searchers working their way up the Yellow Band (Red) vs a desperate climber falling or working his way down (Green) in the near white-out of a the squall. Note how the searchers must always circumvent the small ledges (Blue) to follow routes with the least blocking steepness. Even if he survived the ice ax fall, it is just that ledge steepness that might have forced Irvine to give up his descent (Green X’s), too exhausted and hypothermic to return uphill to find a better route. This is exactly where ascending searchers would not likely go.


Fig. 4. Andy Politz searching in a gully at the base of the Yellow Band. This photo gives an idea of the gully/ledges nature of the Yellow Band[7]. © Jake Norton, The (See Jake's video of climbing in this area. )


Did Xu Jing Spot Irvine?


In 2001, 1999 Expedition Leader Eric Simonson and Jochen Hemmleb traveled to Beijing to interview some of the Chinese 1960 Everest climbers.[8] Theirs had been the first expedition back to the North Side since the British attempts of the 1920s and 1930s. During their meetings, one of those climbers, Xu Jung, spontaneously blurted out that he recalled having spotting a dead climber lying on his back, feet facing uphill. Since no one other than Mallory and Irvine had ever been lost on the north side of Everest up to that date, and Mallory was much lower down, it could only have been Andrew Irvine. However, the sighting was brief, Xu was in desperate straits during the descent, and while he clearly remembered seeing the body, he was unclear about where it was:


I found his body in a crack one metre wide, with steep cliffs on both sides,” Xu said. “He was in a sleeping bag, as if he was taking shelter, fell asleep and never awoke.


His body was intact but his skin (face) was blackened. He was facing up. After I returned, I did some research of the historical records and realised it must have been Irvine.


Xu said he was the only member of the Chinese team to see the body because he was lagging behind and turned round at about 28,000ft, 1,000ft below the summit. “I saw the body on the last of four attempts to make it to our camp 7. On my return down, I took a more direct route.[9] (Emphasis added.)


Other rumors surfaced about unknown bodies having been spotted on the Northeast Ridge between the First and Second Steps, and just below the First Step. George Martin of hired Sherpas to look, but the only thing discovered was a 1938 oxygen bottle nowhere near the rumored body.

The "steep cliffs" phrase has also sent investigators scrambling onto the NE ridge, believing the only cliffs in that location are the North Face and the Kangchung Face. A simpler, more accurate translation might be "a crack, cleft or slot with steep sidewalls", of which there are plenty.


Another claimed sighting of Irvine's body was by Sherpa Doring Chhiring. According to Everest researcher Pete Poston, Chhiring ascended via the complete Northeast Ridge (beginning at the Raphui La) to the base of the First Step with the 2003 Japanese team. From there he turned back, but rather than descend via the difficult NE Ridge, he returned to the North Col roughly via the conventional Norton route. Thus, he was faced with the same dilemma as Xu Jing: how, exactly, to get down quickly through the Yellow Band. And he must have made the same decision based on what he saw in front of him--a series of linked snow ledges that seemed to offer a clear route. It is highly possible, then, that he, too, did indeed spot Irvine's body in the same place as Xu did.  This is a near confirmation that Irvine is really there! Although several searchers have tried to reclimb Chhiring's descent path, they have likely been thrown off by an incorrect aim point--the accepted estimation of where the ice ax was actually found--and they were ascending, rather than climbing down. [Ed Note 19 Nov 09: For another confirmation See below.]


Sherpa Phurbu clambered about the following year. All with no luck. But, as we show, they probably searched down the wrong location.

One problem to date has been a lack of searching focus. As we shall see, there are only two realistic scenarios of what could have happened to Irvine. Either he was indeed spotted by Xu—which means he must be somewhere along Xu’s descent route—or Xu was mistaken, in which case Irvine can be anywhere below the ice ax site and the Main Rongbuk Glacier 9000-ft below. In other words, back to square one. We examine both possibilities.


If Xu did see Irvine, he must lie near Xu’s descent route. But which route was that? According to George Martin, Xu Jing said: “…we went to Beijing University where they recommended that we learn from the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, which was very useful and inspirational. You could say we climbed the mountain inspired by the British pioneers. That is mountaineering – you learn from the experience of others.” [11]  


All known pre-WW-II ascents that reached the vicinity of the First Step used the same route—the Norton/Harris path up the North Ridge and then angling over to the base of the Yellow Band at 8310m (Fig. 2.), just at the top of the “Chinese Rill” (Fig. 14). From there the climbers cut diagonally through the Yellow Band until they reached the Northeast Ridge, which they followed to the base of the First Step. This is the route the very strong British expedition of 1933 took when they reached the base of the First Step and beyond—although some of these climbers did descend via the Longland traverse to the head of the North Ridge.[10] But since that descent is longer, not “more direct,” Xu cannot have taken it. (However, Mallory & Irvine's ascent route is not known. It is likely to have been the Norton/Harris route, but they may as well have ascended straight up the North Ridge to the NE Ridge, and then followed it to the First Step.)


Thus, there was only one established British route the Chinese could have studied and that is the Norton/Harris Route which cuts diagonally through the Yellow Band. So this must certainly have been the route the Chinese took in 1960.


Fig. 5. Left, the  Chinese 1960 team on their assault.[12] Thom Pollard noticed that this location matches almost exactly his path at about 26,000-ft, directly on route via the modern diagonal cut through the yellow Band. Color photo ©Thom Pollard,


If Xu did not see Irvine, a different scenario must be considered of where Irvine lies. And it is Mallory’s location which offers a much overlooked clue that suggests where that might be. But first let us see how we are to search where Irvine might lie.


The Search


On December 22nd of 1984 a SwissPhoto Lear jet under the direction of Brad Washburn of the Boston Museum of Science and sponsored by it and the National Geographic Society, made successive passes over Mt. Everest at 13,500m (44,550-ft) taking high-resolution color photographs in order to create a detailed topographic (“orthophoto”) map of the mountain. (An orthophoto is a photograph in which the point-source perspective is re-imaged by a computer to correspond to a flat map.) The film transparency size is 9-inches square. Xu’s reported location of Irvine’s body is at approximately 8400m. (See “Irvine Search Zone” rectangle at upper left in Fig. 1.) In other words, the distance from the mapping camera to Irvine’s body is about 5000m—around three miles. The Cosmic Question is, could Irvine’s recumbent six-foot body be spotted by a scrutiny of these high-resolution photographs?


I scanned a portion of my eight square-foot 1:5000 orthophotographic print of the North Face image with an overlaid  millimeter scale to calibrate the enlargement. On the enlargement I placed a to-scale 6-ft object (blue circled object below). Notice that this six-foot object is relatively large! But it is still fuzzy. And its contrast will probably be very similar to surrounding rock. Nevertheless it seemed at least feasible that a close scrutiny of the very small section of the map (especially by experienced photo- interpreters) might uncover the location of Irvine. In 1984, there were only three bodies on this part of the mountain—a Chinese climber and Mallory & Irvine. It was at least worth a try.


Fig. 6 A six-foot blob is shown here in its correct scale (blue circle) compared to a millimeter scale. Of course this scanned image of this printed photo is not nearly as high as the resolution of the original film. © BSFSwissphoto AG, Zurich.


The “Andrew Irvine Search Committee” commissioned a custom scan from BSFSwissPhoto at the highest resolution yet attempted--a 5µ scan of one of the black & white mapping photographs. (Previous scans had been made at 8µ.) And we had contact prints made of two 9-inch color transparencies. This higher scanning resolution is enough to identify an old climbing rope beneath the First Step!



Fig. 7. The 5µ-scan image appears to show an old climbing rope beneath the First Step.  The nearly vertical line is a film scratch. © BSFSwiss Photo AG, Zurich



Fig. 8. Tom Holzel with the ultra-high (5000 dpi) resolution 435:1 scale image of Mt. Everest’s Yellow Band. On it a six-foot figure would be ½ cm in length.


The Actual Ice Ax Location


Climbers have shown that random searching has not worked.  To photo-search all possible routes that Irvine might have descended is just too much area. Thus, I felt it was essential to create a “Mallory & Irvine Descent Scenario” to greatly narrow-down the photo-interpretive search. Here it is:


It is my firm opinion that the search for Irvine must begin with a single assumption from which all possible scenarios flow: The ice ax was dropped in an accident on the descent by the two roped-up climbers.


Wynn Harris, who found the ice ax in 1933, remarked that it seemed likely to mark the point of a fatal accident. Some Mallory & Irvine aficionados still want to believe that at least Mallory made it to the top (and I was one of them!). For them, the ice ax is a very unwelcome clue. And the conclusion-driven explanations of what else it could mean other than an accident sometimes border on the ludicrous. But it and Mallory’s body are the only two hard clues we have. To blithely ignore 50% of the best evidence in favor of wishful thinking is not good sleuthing.

But where, exactly, did Harris find the ice ax? To chart the search zone for Irvine’s body on our aerial photographs, we must narrow down his likely location as much as possible. This is because the clothed body is essentially the same color as the rocks. Without narrowing the search area down, a lot of time is wasted “cruising” the image through a magnifying glass or a microscope, looking here and there, much like the searchers on the mountain, in hopes of getting lucky. And looking for small, indistinct features through a loupe or a microscope is slow, eye-tearing work.


On page 137 of Everest 1933, Ruttledge states that when Wyn-Harris found the ice axe “it was lying free on smooth, brown ‘boiler-plate’ slabs” of rock. A few pages later (p.145), as he attempts to analyze the accident, Ruttledge states that “the slabs at this point are not particularly steep, but they are smooth and in places have a covering of loose pebbles which are an added danger.”  In Ruttledge's earlier published account in the November 1933 Alpine Journal, he describes the spot as follows: 


Traversing diagonally upwards they found, after about an hour’s climbing, an ice axe which must have belonged to either Mallory or Irvine.  It was lying loose on a slab at an angle of about 30°, about 60 ft. below the crest of the N.E. arête. 


“(I)t seems probable,” Harris continued, “ that the axe marked the scene of a fatal accident.” … “(I)ts presence would seem to indicate either that it was accidentally dropped when a slip occurred or that its owner put it down possibly in order to have both hands free to hold the rope.”[13] Note that 30o is not “not particularly steep;” it is fairly steep. (Few Black Diamond ski slopes are as steep as 30o.)


Fig. 9. Here is Wynn Harris’ location for Irvine’s ice ax. This indicated location is too low, being much more than “60-feet below the crest of the ridge.” We assume that the east-west location in the photo is correct. (Btw--are there two climbers on the extreme left of the photo—yellow circle?) Photo from Everest 1933, Hugh Ruttledge, opp. p. 188.


There is a second way to determine Irvine’s ice ax location. Shown below is the above 1933 image "morphed" onto the 1984 aerial photo. By selecting the same recognizable points on both images, the 1933 image is distorted to fit the modern one while maintaining relative positions.


Fig. 10. The little black circles are reference points on each photo that correspond to the same locations on each image. The orange lines connect them in this illustration. The Harris image is then stretched (“morphed”) so its circles overlap the corresponding circles on the modern photo. The blended result below shows where  the ice ax location of the Harris image falls on the modern photo.


Fig. 11. The 1933 image morphed to the SwissPhoto image. The blue circle is the location other researchers attribute to the ice ax. The green line shows the standard route; the orange line the presumed "more direct" descent that Xu took.


Jake Norton did climb directly through this ice ax area (the higher yellow line in Fig 11a) when he searched for Harris’s ice ax which was thought to have been left behind. He also visited the shallow “Big Cave." But he did not find Irvine. Of course, he was ascending, unlike Xu who was on the descent. And, in my estimation, too high.


Fig. 11A.  Our ice ax location (green circle) shows where we think Harris found the ice ax--255 yards left of the peak of the First Step (based on morphing Harris' photo. The red circle is a location estimated by others at 205 yards. The pink line and thin yellow line are the routes previous searchers followed looking for Irvine. The red line is the modern route. The heavy yellow line is the descent route we presume both Xu and Sherpa Chhiring took when they both described spotting a body. The blue circle pinpoints some suspicious objects (of which more below). © Google Earth. Overlay by Pete Poston.


Odell Spots the Two Climbing the First Step--On Their Descent!


It now seems certain to me that when Noel Odell saw the two at about 1PM climbing what he firmly believed was the higher Second Step “with alacrity,” and “going strong for the top,” he actually saw them climb the First Step as they were making a small detour on their descent for a final look around. We presume the two initially got to the First Step around 11AM. There, Mallory realized that the traverse to the base of the Second Step was a serious climb, not only too dangerous for Irvine to attempt, but one that would seriously slow Mallory down if they attempted to reach its base--each person sequentially belaying the other. Mallory likely climbed to the base of the Second Step alone. When he reached it, he realized it was beyond his capabilities on that day. It would take at least a highly experienced partner to affect a belay, and it would have to be on a day when Mallory was not so close to exhaustion from his previous trials.

The reason for Odell's mistaken judgment is clear enough.[14] Since Odell saw them ascending, he immediately assumed they were still on their way up—in which case they would only have been on the Second Step, as the First Step does not require to be climbed. It never occurred to Odell that Mallory had already given up and they were already heading down, even though their agreed upon turn-around time was 1 o'clock.


Thus, if Irvine’s VPK camera is found, its last images will not be the view from the top of Everest, but the view from the top of the First Step—Makalu in the distance, and the Second Step and continuation of the NE Ridge in front of them. Perhaps even a shot of Mallory glumly holding up his custom-made 30,000-ft altimeter, reading 28,080 ft.


With this assumption—of their having been spotted by Odell climbing the First Step on their descent--all the unsupported rational for a late start evaporates, as does the treasured companion sentiment that, therefore, their unreliable, ungentlemanly oxygen gear was the cause of their five-hour delay. (Mallory had expected to be at the Second Step as early as 8 AM.) As clearly, Mallory would never have started an ascent from C-6 if his start-time had been held back five hours. Like Finch before him (1922) he would have just waited to start again the next day.


If the two climbers left their high camp, C-6, at five AM (Mallory was a known early starter) they would have run out of oxygen just before climbing the First Step on their descent (after Mallory's foray to the Second Step). Freeing themselves of the clumsy apparatus, they could well have decided to clamber up the step to photograph the NE Ridge in order to bring something back. But this is less likely as they would have left the oxygen gear stashed nearby, and the Chinese could not have failed to spot it. After coming down from the First Step and continuing their descent, they would have reached the location of the discovered ice ax at about 2PM, just as a sudden and intense snow squall began.


If, alternately, they started their climb at 6AM (a more likely time on Everest) the eight hours of oxygen available in their two bottles means they would have run out at 2PM—after having already climbed and descended the First Step, and just at the time the snow squall started. Because of the severely restricted visibility as the squall hit them (“a few yards” according to Odell who experienced it a thousand feet lower down) [15], they would certainly have roped-up to continue their long descending traverse toward C-6 with Mallory leading to find the route. It is then possible that, as the oxygen supply now became exhausted, they stopped to take of the apparatus. Irvine laid down his ice ax and, struggling to remove the clumsy oxygen apparatus, slipped on the pebbly, snow-coated 30o rock slab. Or, as I believe, Mallory slipped and Irvine flung his ice ax aside to grab the rope with both hands and was himself pulled off his feet.[16]  In either case the oxygen gear may have fallen with them, and a search of the correct ice ax fall line should turn up parts of the apparatus.

In any case, with the onset of the squall, fatigued and becoming hypothermic[17] and because of the slick coating of new snow, one of them slipped at the Ice Ax site. Mallory’s rope jerk injury tells us they were roped and one climber slipped and pulled the other down.


The Ice Ax Fall


Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999 by Conrad Anker with a severe rope-jerk injury about his waist and with half or less (~30-ft.) of the rope length the two were presumed to have had.


Fig. 12. Andy Politz beside Mallory’s body. Note the severe mottling and indentation around his waist—a classic injury caused by the severe force of the rope on a falling climber suddenly being jerked to a stop. This degree of injury was not caused by a small slip. And such hemorrhaging can only have occurred in some one living, i.e., it was not inflicted at the moment Mallory was instantly killed when his fall was stopped by a rock at 8165m. ©1999, Thom Pollard, www.



Here is how Mallory may have received his waist injury:


Fig. 13.  A snagged rope inflicts heavy rope-jerk injury around both men’s waist. The momentary halt of their fall is enough for Mallory to land on a ledge and manage to hang on, while Irvine plunges head-first 100-ft to his death. [09 Aug 10 Note: It is now clear that Irvine did not plunge to his death on this, the "Ice Ax Fall." He landed higher up than Mallory. Probably injured himself, he continued on laterally for 45m before falling again, this time to his death. See An Aerial Photographic Search]


Because Mallory was found some 300m below the ice ax site, and his body was relatively undamaged (and his ice ax was believed to have still been with him), it is certain that he did not fall the entire distance from the ice ax area on the NE Ridge to his discovered site (as other modern climbers have). This means he survived the Ice Ax Fall. Here is a major unexamined question: After the Ice Ax Fall, Mallory, freezing and with at least his serious waist injury, must desperately have been trying to descend diagonally back to the shelter of his high camp C-6 on the North ridge. How on Earth, then, could he possibly have ended up where he did--straight down from the Ice Ax Site? (Fig. 14.)


 There seem to me to be two possibilities:


1.     Mallory descended alone and was no longer able to walk; or

2.     With Mallory and Irvine descending together, one or both were sufficiently injured, that together they could not traverse.


However, the second possibility means with only one ice ax between the two of them for self-arrest, they would again have to rope up in order for Mallory to control the glissade. David Breashears notes that what two uninjured modern climbers can do for each other at such altitudes is extremely limited; to think that if one of them was completely unable to walk (and neither on oxygen) that they could do anything for each other in the frigid squall, borders on the impossible.


Therefore, Mallory could not have been descending with a more severely injured Irvine because it simply can’t be done. Irvine is not likely to have been uninjured, because to fall where he was spotted by Xu is to guarantee serious injury or death. Mallory, with his cat-like reflexes, must have been able to mitigate his fall--after all, he kept his ice ax. Thus, he must have had a few split seconds to ready himself and control his slide. But his fall pulled Irvine down head-first. Perhaps he was even able to loop the rope around an outcropping (or that happened accidentally). In short, Mallory descended from the Ice Ax Site by himself.


However (exculpatory evidence), could anyone descend straight down from the Ice Ax Site completely through the Yellow Band with a broken foot? "Very difficult" as the Japanese say when they mean nearly impossible. This suggests Mallory must have broken his foot later on--perhaps in a second fall just before exiting the steep Yellow Band, as he was scouring the fall line for signs of Irvine. With both bones in his leg broken just above the ankle, no walking would have been possible at all.


Fig. 14. Mallory was so  severely injured in the Ice Ax Fall that when he reached the bottom of the Yellow Band, he could no longer walk. The yellow lines mark a series of connecting snow bands from beneath the Ice Ax Site that any mobile climber would naturally take to speed his descent back to the North Ridge and the safety of their high camp. (The green line is the modern route.) Anyone exiting the Yellow Band in the area of the red shading and then glissading (or falling) down would be funneled to where Mallory was found (red dot). Even if Mallory was scouring the ice ax fall line (purple line) searching for his comrade, if still mobile he would then certainly have followed the dotted red line to get back to their high camp.  Only if he was unable to walk at all, and could only descend by butt-sliding would he have ended up where he did. The blue rock is the “Chinese Rill” a shallow rise that has funneled at least a half-dozen modern climbers to Mallory’s location. Because they all fell from much higher up they are all grotesquely broken-up, as Mallory was not. © BSFSwissPhoto AG, Zurich. Overlay by the author.


In the frigid squall, no longer on oxygen and in their totally inadequate clothing,[18] Mallory realized he must descend immediately to the shelter of the high tent C-6 or he would surely freeze to death. Because of where he ended up, we are obliged to assume that Mallory was so seriously injured that once out of the Yellow Band, He could not traverse but only slide down on his butt, much the way Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan did in the summer of 1986, when they slid 10,000 feet straight down the North Face from the summit in 3½ hours.[19]

Modulating the speed of his glissade once on the snow Terrace by dragging the adz[20] of his ice ax, Mallory must have slid most of the way down the 8200m Snow Terrace. Near its end, he may have sped up. Pressing harder on the adz to slow himself down, it struck a rock and kicked back, the ice pick piercing his forehead and instantly incapacitating him. [28 Sept 10 Note: While MGH neurologist D. Lee Schwamm believes the injury to Mallory's forehead would likely result in instant incapacitation, neurologist Dr. Martin Samuels suggests that such injuries to the frontal lobe may not necessarily even seriously impair a person(!)] In the next moment he crashed into the rock[21] over which he lay draped until found by Wang Hung-bao in 1975.

Wang  also found Mallory’s ax[22] and took it with him.[23] That his ice ax was still near-by after a glissade that went out of control tells us a lot. It tells us Mallory’s initial fall at the Ice Ax Site was not so out of control to cause him to lose his ice ax there. It practically guarantees he must have been in control until the last few seconds of his sliding down the 8200m Snow Terrace. (Otherwise Mallory would have crashed into the rock that stopped his fall with much greater force than his comparatively modest injuries suggest.) When, then, did Mallory lose his Vest Pocket Kodak camera? One likelihood—if he actually took it--is during the first fall. But, since the two left all sorts of gear behind—lamps, compass, flares, etc. to save weight, it is just as likely that they took only one camera. Irvine would be carrying it to document Mallory’s progress.


However, when found by Anker in 1999, Mallory’s was lying flat, face-down on scree, his head completely buried. I claim Wang must have rolled Mallory off his rock perch to lie face down on the scree in order to be able to place a few rocks on him. (This rolling motion caused Mallory’s foot to twist over on top of his broken leg.) Unless he moved Mallory, Wang could not possibly have spotted the ice ax injury to Mallory’s forehead which he described by gestures to the Japanese climbing Leader, Ryoten Hasagawa. Wang obviously gestured about the head injury (but not Mallory’s nearly broken-off foot), to suggest the obvious cause of death. For reasons it is difficult to fathom, many M&I buffs object strenuously to this claim—that Wang found Mallory draped over the rock that stopped his slide, and rolled him off it to affect a simple burial.  The complaint is that if Mallory were laying face-up for Wang to notice the head injury, why wasn't the front of his clothing as shredded by wind as the rear was. That Mallory may have been  draped over the rock that stopped his fall also lying face-down is never considered. Asking them to explain how Wang could have noticed the hole in Mallory’s head as the cause of death with his head buried in the scree causes a look of cognitive dissonance and an abrupt change of subject.


What Happened to Irvine?


Let us assume (as I do) that Xu did spot Irvine (even though the mind plays tricks at altitude, particularly when climbers are in extremis[24]). In that case, consider what his sighting means. Xu stated that Irvine was lying on his back, within a rock crevices, his face black, his feet facing uphill. He looked as if he were in a sleeping bag. If Xu did indeed spot Irvine in this condition, it must mean:


[Rev 29 Aug 2010]


  1. Irvine did not die from the first fall, the "Ice Ax Fall," but carried on some 45m laterally before he fell again.
  2. Irvine did not die from his second fall, but was rendered unconscious or paralyzed, and trapped by the rock slot into which he fell and which halted his fall. His blackened face means he remained alive long enough to have become frostbitten--at least several hours. (Mallory died instantly, so his face was not discolored.[25] )
  3. Irvine must have been knocked unconscious, or suffered a broken neck which paralyzed him. No climber voluntarily lies head downhill, nor do climbers lie face-up in a raging blizzard. If Irvine had regained consciousness and was able to move, he would certainly have swung his feet downhill and rolled on his side to shield his face from the wind and conserve warmth.
  4.  Mallory never found Irvine. If Mallory had discovered his friend, he would have swung his body around head uphill to make him more comfortable if he were still alive or, if he were dead, flipped him over face down to prevent the voracious Goraks[26] from pecking at his face, and have piled a few rocks on him.


But since Irvine’s fall ended close enough to Xu’s descent route (and to Chhirring's) to have been seen by him, why wouldn’t Mallory also have found him? Xu Jing could realistically be expected to have noticed a corpse no more than 25 yards or so distance from his own descent route—especially as he was close enough to have noticed the blackened face in the failing light. The only “more direct” descent route available to Xu is likely one following a series of semi-linked snow gullies that pass just below the Ice Ax Site—and just about where Mallory would have halted his own, shorter (less injurious) fall.


According to Odell, 1,000-ft farther down, visibility during the snow squall was near zero. In the confusion of the fall, Mallory might have assumed Irvine had fallen farther down. Mallory was also in excruciating pain from the rope jerk injury (broken ribs at least), and hoped by descending directly down, to find his companion along the fall line.


[New 18 Nov 09]

We favor the simplest scenario—that Irvine’s body lies below the ice ax site where it crosses Xu’s presumed “more direct” descent route. Examining the 5µ scan in this region, two highly provocative objects were spotted—the “bowling pin” object (yellow circle), and a similar object (orange circle).


Fig. 16. The “bowling pin” object looks exactly like a mummy sleeping bag with its feet facing uphill, just as Xu described. The location is 80-ft. below the ice ax site and just grazing Xu’s presumed descent path (green line)—in other words, a perfect match. © BSFSwissPhoto AG, Zurich.


With hopes hugely raised, a different film transparency was examined under a microscope. This color image, with less snow, told a less optimistic story. The bowling pin seemed to resolve as a shadowed crevice. But perhaps the snow dusting in the left image highlighted the object inside the crevice by differential melting due to the different thermal mass of rock and body. Or there is nothing there—but then, how to explain the obvious “bowling pin” shape which SwissPhoto has assured us is not an image defect?


Fig. 17. Exculpatory evidence: The green semi-circle outlines the “lobster claw” terrain shape on both images. The blue line points to the six-foot long “bowling pin” object on the 5µ scan--left--which certainly looks like a mummy sleeping bag, i.e., Irvine’s body. But the object seems to dissolve into the shadow of a Y-shaped crevice on the color image, right. Is Irvine indeed lying in that crevice? Only a ground search will tell. © BSFSwissPhoto AG, Zurich. Color microscopy courtesy of Gail Edwards of Analog Devices.


[(09 Jan 2010) Note: Major new discovery of possible Irvine location at "An Aerial Photographic Search for Andrew Irvine on Mt. Everest."


The bowling pin is visually the most likely prospect of a few likely objects at the intersection of Xu’s presumed descent path and the ice ax fall line. But fly soon appeared in the ointment. Subsequent scrutiny of color transparencies by us and SwissPhoto did not show evidence of a body at the bowling pin location on other film. And a newly discovered clue forces a slight modification of the exact location.


1.      In spite of the evocative B&W scan of the Yellow Band showing what looks like a body in a mummy sleeping bag, we have not positively identified a body at the assumed location. Indeed, using other film, both SwissPhoto and I have separately looked at the described location, and neither of us can see a body in the given location. The resolution of the other (color) film is such that a body, if there, should be visible in spite of some shadow obscuration. On the other hand, SwissPhoto states that the “bowling pin object” that looks exactly like a body in a sleeping bag in the B&W scanned image is NOT a film defect. (Go figure...)

2.      A recently discovered factoid argues against the exact spot we had selected. Xu is said to have seen the body on his right-hand side during his descent. Confusing location is easy, but spatial orientation of left-side, right-side is not. Thus we must find a location which Xu could have passed-by with Irvine on his right.

3.      The entire current scenario is largely based on Xu’s statement that he descended “by a more direct route.” There is only one such more direct route that I can see, before one gets too far off the ridge, and that is the one I show. It is a logical descent via a series of linked snow bands. The snow bands suggest more level strata that one would naturally follow.


Xu makes other statements that seem inconsistent with what anyone in his situation would have done. One such statement that has thrown a lot of searchers off, is Xu’s claim that Irvine’s body is on, or nearly on, the crest of the Northeast Ridge proper. This cannot be, as one cannot reconcile his statement that he took a more direct route, with a route that is far less direct—that of staying on the ridge beyond the modern route. (If Irvine was on the ridge along the modern route he would have been discovered years ago.)


Thus I have returned to the Yellow Band images in an attempt to reconcile Xu’s “right-hand side” statement. This has resulted in a “hit” of another possible body sighting. This one is very close to the original site—only 13 meters away at 11 o’clock from the original site.


[End of 18 Nov 2009 edit.]


In spite of these and a few other suggestive “possibles,” none of the objects are yet clear enough for us to say positively that we have discovered Irvine's body. This may be for any one of several reasons:


  1. We are looking right at him, and one of the few “possibles” is indeed, Irvine’s body, but not provably so because the image quality is just not high enough.  Or,
  2. Irvine is in the ice ax vicinity but not noticeable in the three photographs. Detail within the shadows of the film is poor. If he was seen by Xu in a cleftt which is likely to be in shadow, he might be indistinguishable in the film images among the dark rock. Or,
  3. Xu spotted Irvine farther down along his route through the Yellow Band. This would mean that Irvine was not incapacitated in the ice ax fall, became separated from Mallory, and attempted to make his way down alone, along the same obvious route as Xu chose (Fig 20.) Or,
  4. Xu did not see Irvine’s body at all, so he could be anywhere. Or,
  5. Our entire descent scenario is wrong, and Irvine is somewhere else based on an entirely different scenario, and could thus, again, be anywhere at all.


If Xu did not spot Irvine, where do we look for him? The answer is the same—somewhere below the Ice Ax Site. Only now the search area once again becomes very large.


Isn’t it possible that Irvine and Mallory were separated at the Ice Ax Site and both continued on their own--Irvine remaining high while Mallory, wounded, descended? Possible, of course, but then, how could Xu have seen Irvine?  The place to look would again be on the natural descent lines that cut diagonally through the Yellow Band, in the direction of the North Ridge—the yellow or green bands shown if Fig. 14. But we then are back where we started—guessing wildly and looking all over the map.


So, where is Irvine? We cannot positively say we have found him. Our extensive theorizing dictates he should be below the Ice Ax Site, which we determine to be some 265-yds east (left) of the peak of the First Step, and 145-ft below the NE Ridge. We have discovered a few tantalizing “possibles,” but our photo analysis is just not clear enough that we can definitively say that we have spotted a body. However, more photo-interpretation may yet yield positive confirmation.


Where, then, do we think he lies?



Fig. 20. The Andrew Irvine Search Committee’s best guess of where Irvine’s body lies. It is certainly just below the Ice Ax Site, but our Ice Ax Site is farther east than that of other researchers. We have identified two likely possibilities--the "bowling pin" object and now, a new object 13 meters up and left of the the bowling pin. Both are 60-70-ft below the ice ax site and 270 yards east (left) of the peak of the First Step. While the splendid  SwissPhoto 5µ scan is just not clear enough in the shadows to reveal his body unequivocally, ongoing examination of the color transparencies may. Both suspect spots are at the intersection of Xu’s 1960 and Sherpa Chhiring's 1995 presumed descent route (green line) below where we think the the ice ax was found in 1933 (green dot or red X).  Because the location contains two objects suggestive of bodies, we recommend it be thoroughly searched by descending the route. The blue line shows the standard route which then follows the NE Ridge right, to the First Step, just beyond the spot where Eric Simonson first discovered a 1924 oxygen bottle. Photo: © BSF Swissphoto AG, Zurich, overlay courtesy of Pete Poston.



Metrics of suspected locations:

"Bowling Pin" (Google Earth)


27,568 ft



"Bowling Pin" (SwissPhoto)


27,842 ft



Distance below NE Ridge


150 ft



Ice ax location (Google Earth)


27,835 ft



Ice Ax Location (SwissPhoto)


27,918 ft



Distance below NE Ridge


60 ft



Distance East of Big Cave


130 ft




Note: Various versions of Google Earth/Digital Globe of Mt. Everest vary by as much as 73-ft in altitude from each other, and 274 ft. compared to the SwissPhoto orthophoto. One Digital Globe version has the summit at 28,961-ft. instead of the correct figure of 29,035-ft. The GPS coordinates must also be considered suspect because, as exact-looking as they are, they have not been calibrated to ground truth.



                                         Andrew Irvine Search Committee


                                                 Gordon Brown


Richard Montague

                                                 Eric Green

Jim Wickwire

                                                 Tom Holzel

John Wood


Gerhard Bax








Chinese 1965 Description of Irvine’s Body (Added 29 Sep 09)


Veteran Mountain Guide Eric Simonson who led the 1999 expedition that found Mallory’s body, and German researcher Jochen Hemmleb, who inspired the search, interviewed Xu Jing in Beijing in 2001.


Xu was the climber on the 1960 Chinese expedition to Everest who came across the body of a old mountaineer on his descent from the First Step. Hemmleb describes receiving this revelation thusly:


Suddenly Xu rose in his chair, pressed his outstretched palms against his sides and his eyes widened to a fearsome stare. It was an expression of such intensity and had come so unexpectedly, it made me shudder. But still neither Simonson not I were prepared for the translation of Xu’s words.


“At that time, he looked…there is a body, 8200 meters high, one body…in a sleeping bag. That person is frozen there.”


Simonson looked at me in disbelief. “Did he say he found a body?”


Later Xu demonstrated the location by opening a book and pointing to the top of the pages. Then he ran his finger down the gutter, saying that the body was lying in a concave hollow or gully running down from the ridge crest. Again, he mentioned that the body was in a sleeping bag, but most of the bag was rotted away. The altitude, he now said, was 8300 meters (27,230 feet).[1]


However, contrary to Xu’s belief, Xu’s revelation was not the first time the discovery of this body had been described. And he can certainly be forgiven for not remembering the episode as clearly now, 41 years later, as what was remembered only a few years after the event.  (It is odd, though, that he also forgot that his discovery of Irvine was known to other Chinese climbers at the time.)


Fortunately, there is a far more contemporary source than the 41-year span of Xu’s understandably muddled memory:






In 1965, only five years after the Chinese Everest expedition in which Xu spotted a body, [1960 Everest summiter] Wang Fu-chou gave a lecture at the Geographical Society of the USSR in Leningrad. While describing the expedition, Wang Fu-chou made a sensational remark:


-          “At an altitude of about 8600 meters we found the corpse of a European.”


The hall burst into an uproar with the icy echo of the 1920’s tragedy breathing over the seated audience of mountain climbers.


-          “Why do you think it was a European?”  This was the first question asked when the speech ended.

The answer combined the wisdom of the East with military brevity:


-          “He was wearing braces.”[2]


Fig 5. Spanner in hand, Andrew Irvine at Shekar Dzong poses by his Mark V oxygen system with a full load of three bottles. On the right-side of his belt appears his “braces” (the British term for “suspenders”). Photo: Noel Odell


 Thus, we not only have a much earlier version of Xu’s discovery, but one that seems to point unequivocally to Irvine (See photo above). This earlier description of the discovery also eliminates the red herring of the body being seen lying in a sleeping bag, which is likely Xu’s conflation of Maurice Wilson’s body, discovered a number times below the North Col (~6500m) and which was wrapped in a sleeping bag.


In all conversations with the Chinese climbers, they never really seemed to know how high they were in meters. They were all over the map on recalling the location of the body. 8600m would be right at the Second Step, an impossibility because that area has been intensely climbed for years. The 8200m and even 8300m both given by Xu are also unlikely because no part of the NE Ridge drops below 8400m on the North Face, and Xu insisted that the body was on or near the crest of the NE Ridge.


All we know for certain is that both Xu and Chhiring did see “an old body” somewhere in the Yellow Band. Now it is up to the next Conrad Anker to go and find him.



[1] Detectives on Everest, p 183.

[2] Translated from the Russian by Tamara von Schmidt-Pauli of Primary language Services, Boston from . “‘Braces’ is the British term for suspenders, that is: "adjustable straps or bands worn over the shoulders with the ends buttoned or clipped to the waistband of a pair of pants to support it.’”




Mallory & Irvine's Climb Rates (Added 08 Jun 09)

If Mallory had done the math, he would have noticed that they had averaged 855 vert-ft/hr over 3800 ft--from the North Col to C-6.  They have 29,000-26,8000-ft = 2200-ft to go. At their previous climb rate, that should only take 2.6 hours (2hrs & 36 minutes).


2.6 hours is only 2/3rds of a single full tank. Why on Earth would Mallory then reluctantly feel they had to take two tanks which were such a "bloody load"?


Even the remaining horizontal distance is less: 2575m from the North Col to C-6, vs 2060m from C-6 to the summit. Of course the North Col (C-4) to C-6 was nothing more than a slog, with no technical climbing required at all--not even the use of the hands--while the Second Step was a difficult and unknown obstacle.


One clue to his thinking is his note which stated that it would not be too early for Capt Noel to be on the lookout for the two as early as 8AM at the Second Step at 28,230-ft. Assuming Mallory had hoped to start his last leg at 5AM, that means he had figured that part of the climb would take 3 hours. 28,230 – 26,800 = 1430-ft in 3 hours or 477 vert-ft/hr—the same ascent speed as their oxygenless climbing portion up to the North Col). If he more realistically assumed a 6AM start time, it would mean he was calculating they would be able to climb at 715 vert-ft/hr--quite in line with their ascent speed up to C-6. So this is an additional hint that they intended to start-off at 6AM.


We can additionally calculate M&I’s climb rates from C-4 to C-6, and C-6 at 26,800 to where their oxygen bottles were discovered—at about 27,850. In four hours (the duration of a single bottle of oxygen) this results in a climb rate of only 260 vf/hr. If C-6 was actually at 26,700 as is now believed, their climb rate increases to 288 vf/h—compared to 345 vf/h for Hillary and Norgay over the same altitude in 1953. (M &I cannot have known that climbing speed decreases with altitude when using open-circuit oxygen breathing apparatus.)


Indeed, it is remarkable how closely Mallory & Irvine’s climb rate follows that of Hillary and Norgay’s ascent speed, following theirs in parallel at the same altitude, at only a 15% slower rate.


The above graph is a dusted-off copy of my climb rate chart from Mountain Magazine #17 of 1971, now annotated (red & green lines) to include Mallory & Irvine’s newly discovered climb rate, and compare to that of Hillary & Norgay's ascent in 1953. Note that the M & I climb rate approaches zero at about the summit.


This calculation suggests (but nothing more) that Mallory did figure out his climbing speed in order to be able to give Capt. Noel the heads-up of when to look for them. Most importantly, it also suggests that, as his note indicates, he was still uncertain about which route he would be required to take--and so took the extra burden of a second tank in order to have enough oxygen/time to switch routes if the Second Step did not "go."


A second factual soupçon is the mistaken belief by other researchers that the oxygen bottles that Mallory & Irvine had available to them at C-6 (their final assault camp) were leaking because their pressure reading was 110 atmospheres rather than the full measure of 120 atm. And that they had, therefore, less time than 4 hours at the 2.2/L/m maximum flow rate. Engineers will recognize that pressure is related to absolute temperature. Thus, if the bottles were measured at 120 atm in India at 70oF, and then measured again at 110 atm at C-3, that only indicates that completely full tanks were then measured at 26oF, not they they were slow leakers. In other words, Mallory & Irvine's tanks at C-6 were full. Recent suggestions that the oxygen regulators were continuously adjustable even up to 6 L/m are based on pre-expedition musings by consultants. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the choice of egregiously wasting precious oxygen was wisely taken out of the hands of the climbers. The two fixed settings were 1.5 and 2.2 liters/minute.



(For more information on Mallory & Irvine's climb, see these VelocityPress articles.)


[1] See The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine, by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, 1986 and preferably the revised second edition, The Mountaineers Books, 1999. Note, the Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) camera they took was not (as some sources--e.g., NOVA, claim) the VPK Model B--which Kodak only began delivering in the U.S. in the fall of 1923--too late to have been received by the climbers of 1924.

[2] The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine, revised edition, 1999, p327.

[3] See Ghosts of Everest, by Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson and Eric R. Simonson, The Mountaineers Books, 1999. Hemmleb has heavily researched the mystery, founded the 1999 expedition and contributed enormously to the literature.

[4] Although Everest has now been climbed many times without the use of supplemental breathing oxygen, it is conceded by all Everest historians that this is a modern feat due to better training, complete route knowledge, superb equipment,  and sufficient hydration, none of which was available to pre-WW-II climbers. The two possible exceptions were George Finch ("the other George”) and Noel Odell—both incredibly durable climbers, both side-lined by shoddy RGS politics.

[Note 13 Sept 2010: Why did Mallory write they were going to take two bottles of oxygen, "but it's a bloody load"? Because he realized one bottle would not be enough. Even though they had climbed 3800 vert-ft on only 3/4 of one bottle, and had only another 2200 vert-ft to go, Mallory must have realized that the rest of the climb was over much rougher--and unknown--terrain. But Irvine was the scientist between them. It is possible that he notice their declining ascent rate with altitude, a fact not appreciated by the climbers of the time.]

[5] See film developing suggestions at:

[6] First published on and in the 2005 American Alpine Journal, p. 442. See:

[7]  A YouTube video shows more of  the nature of this terrain at:

[8] Recounted in Detectives on Everest, Hemmleb and Simonson, The Mountaineers Books, 2002.


[10] The Longland Route is a descent route used twice from the 1933 C-6 half-way up the Yellow Band. It consists of an eastwards (left) traverse along a prominent ledge in the direction of the North Ridge. It is an easier but longer descent. Suggestions that Irvine’s body was seen there by others (contradicting Xu’s claim) must explain how Mallory could sustain such a severe rope jerk injury and yet leave Irvine able to traverse several hundred yards—and only then collapse. Not impossible, but much less likely. Also far, far off the NE Ridge.


[12] Mountaineering in China, Foreign languages Press, Peking, 1965.

[13] Everest, 1933, p. 145.

[14] See “How Far Did Mallory & Irvine Get?” at

[15] Noel Odell in The fight for Everest 1924, Lt-Col E. F. Norton et al, Edward Arnold, 1925. “One could not see more than a few yards, so thick was the atmosphere.” “But in the flurry and biting wind, even my accustomed ardour for this pursuit began to wane…” P. 132.

[16] This scenario is described more fully at “How far did Mallory & Irvine get?,”

[17] A fascinating and authoritative environmental analysis of the exact (replica) clothing worn by Mallory & Irvine shows that while it was just adequate in good weather, as soon as the wind increased or the temperature fell below +14F, they would both begin to slip into hypothermia.  Thus, the sudden 2 PM squall posed a deadly threat and demanded an immediate, emergency descent. If Mallory & Irvine had not dallied on the first Step—they might have made it back. (If, if, if...)

[18] See endnote 17. The inadequacy of the pre-WW II clothing is often lamented, but rarely taken into full consideration when calculating the probable outcome of Mallory and Irvine’s climb. The inadequate insulation made upward progress during the squall unlikely even when breathing oxygen, and impossible without it. After 2PM they would have exhausted their oxygen supplies and, in the bitter squall, ineluctably faced the onset of hypothermia. If they were still descending much after 2PM, the onset of hypothermia would have been the proximate cause of Mallory's slip.

[19] We watched them through a telescope at Base Camp, 11 miles away, and flashed a Boy Scout signal mirror at them just as they reached the summit—which they saw!

[20] The adz, or flat shovel-like end of the ax head offers greater surface area to slow the climber’s slide, and less depth which may catch on rocks. Alternately, one can drag the pick or the base spike of the ice ax, depending on technique and how much drag one wants to affect.

[21] Wang’s widow told Simonson and Hemmleb that her husband “had found the body of an old foreign mountaineer beside a stone back in 1975.” (Detectives on Everest, p 185.) That Wang mentioned the stone (rock) to his wife at all strongly suggests it was a key aspect of Mallory’s discovery. It must have been the rock that stopped Mallory’s fall and off of which Wang rolled Mallory in order to let him lie flat so he could cover him lightly with some stones. Otherwise, why would Wang have mentioned it?

[22] Because Wang gestured to Hasegawa about the hole in Mallory’s head, it is possible the ice ax was still lodged there when Wang found Mallory. Otherwise the ice ax should have been ripped out of Mallory’s hands and continued down the mountain. As reported by Xu Jing to EverestNews. See:

[23] Where is that ice ax today? Wang took it with him, but no one seems to know…

[24] Frank Smythe clearly saw and carefully studied “pulsating teapots” flying in the sky while on the North Face in 1938, and was careful to share his candy with a concerned (non-existent) companion who followed helpfully along. In 1962, an exhausted Woodrow Wilson Sayre on the North Ridge noticed the Chinese had cleverly dug an apartment complex into the North Face.

[25] Mallory’s face was slightly flattened out, undamaged by frostbite and showing a several days old stubble.

[26] Corvus corax—the large meat-loving Himalayan raven, always circling ominously at Everest altitudes, glowering for food.



(Return to Mallory & Irvine)


The Search for Andrew Irvine: Q&A with Tom Holzel

Reprinted from MountEverest.Net, 21 Apr 2009




11:17 am CDT Apr 21, 2009
( "It's a big disappointment. But, as a historian, one is obliged to follow the facts no matter where they lead," Tom told ExWeb last year, after coming to the conclusion that Mallory and Irvine did not summit Mount Everest.

To prove it though, Tom wants the two remaining clues to be found: Irvine and the camera. Using 'Occam’s Razor' Tom has since analyzed all the data available, extracting meaning from random facts. Following that and an investigation of high res image maps tweaked for true distance; last week Tom offered a probable location of Andrew's remains.

Wrapping up the series, today a Q&A with the American researcher. How certain are the clues? Tom answers that, adding a few words about RGS and his opposition.

And another thing; should you stumble upon the camera, please don't have the film developed at Wal-Mart, Tom begs.

ExplorersWeb: Tom, that’s a fascinating bit of analysis, and it really seems to round off all that can possibly be knowable about Mallory & Irvine’s final hours—at least until Irvine is found. But let’s get right to the elephant in the room: Your mapping images are clear enough to show old climbing ropes—but not clear enough to show a whole human body?

Tom Holzel: Yes, and there are several reasons for that. First, the greatest visual acuity is exactly what the climbing ropes illustrate—a continuous line with maximum contrast of a white image on a black background. Irvine would be a dark object among dark rocks.

And secondly, inexplicably, the section of the scan by the ropes is remarkably clear, while the area where we believe Irvine lies is much more bleary. There is no object in the Irvine region that is anywhere near as sharply defined. We don’t see large stones, for example, even those much larger and thicker than the rope. I don’t know why. Of course there’s always the possibility that Irvine is not there to be seen.

ExplorersWeb: How certain are you that you’ve found Irvine?

Tom Holzel: Unhappily, only about 65% certain—which is not that high. The B&W image certainly seems to show Irvine. And at first I was sure I had a eureka! But viewing other film of the same spot didn’t show Irvine—only a dark crevice in which he might be lying—but which certainly don’t show any hint of him that we can see.

The only possibility is that the body is obvious in the B&W image because it had been snowed upon, which snow was differentially melting from the rock around it. Or he’s not there at all—in which case we can’t explain the B&W “bowling pin” object at all.

But in spite of equivocal evidence from other film, this anomalous object is so perfectly what one expects: The object is 6-ft long, lying feet up in a crevice near cliffs directly below the ice axe site and just grazing Xu’s descent path. Clues just don’t get any more positive than that. But, but, but…

ExplorersWeb: Aren’t you being too graphic in describing Irvine’s possible broken neck and that the ice axe may have remained lodged in Mallory’s forehead? What are the family members to think?

Tom Holzel: Well, I’m pretty sure the Brits will jump all over me on that with their usual glee. But I haven’t yet figured out at what point to censor myself in the over-arching interests of political correctness. Sort of like Robertson’s biography of Mallory in which he was too sensitive to mention that his subject had been killed.

ExplorersWeb: And you don’t spare the RGS leadership, either…

Tom Holzel: It was a disgrace. A.R. Hinks, the secretary of the RGS was a bully and a snob and knew next to nothing about expedition mountaineering. Yet he was calling all the shots.

When the expedition failed to reach the summit in 1922 and dragged itself, exhausted, off the mountain, Hinks airy suggested they scoot over and try to climb Makalu. He really had it in for George Finch, the most experienced pre-WW-II climber on Everest—and the most innovative.

But Finch was not considered a gentleman—why the man even repaired his own boots!—and so always fell under suspicion of not belonging to the leadership class.

ExplorersWeb: Many, many fans of the Mallory & Irvine saga disagree with your assumptions about what happened to Mallory & Irvine--some quite vehemently.

Tom Holzel: And then you ask then for their own narrative of what happened, and all you get are a series of disconnected assertions—some highly detailed: they climbed the Second Step. Full stop. They each took three bottles of oxygen. Full stop. The blood stain on Mallory’s sleeve was caused by the missing watch crystal as Mallory arm-jammed his way up the Second Step crack, etc., etc.

None of these day dreams arise from a full and connected narrative. Many are just appealing snapshots of the mind, without the slightest attempt to string them together.

A few alternate scenarios are continuous, but are based on nothing more than ‘could have beens’ made up out of whole cloth—and usually suppressing one or more inconvenient details. The suggestion that Mallory switched to the Norton Route to attempt the Great Couloir is one such idea. It is a clear theoretical possibility lacking only a scintilla of evidence.

ExplorersWeb: Like the location of the Irvine’s ice axe?

Tom Holzel: Yes. That clue really irks the theorists who have the two climbing the Third Step with a long
45o snowfield ahead to cut steps in. Presumably they decided to carry only one axe in order to save weight, and they would alternate the arduous job of step-cutting. Right.

ExplorersWeb: You are a big fan of William of Occam—“Occam’s Razor.”

Tom Holzel: A greatly underestimated law of nature. Any suppositions beyond the fewest necessary are uncalled for.

I have always been fascinated with the tricks of magicians and especially to try to figure them out without help. Invariably, my “solution” would be vastly more complicated than the actual solution.
It took me a lifetime to appreciate how simple complicated-looking events can be. In spite of mystery novels with their arcanely complex plots, real life usually proceeds along in the most humdrum manner.

ExplorersWeb: But you can see how disappointed Mallory & Irvine fans are—after all, you originally gave them what they wanted—a realistic scheme to get at least Mallory to the top. Now you’ve gone apostate on them. Now you say all they accomplished was to mill around below the Second Step—and then get themselves killed by dallying—as you put it—on their descent.

Tom Holzel: Every accident that ever happened could have been avoided if one could eliminate one factor just preceding it. So my bringing that point out is not a criticism. It is simply a matter of fact.

One can see how disappointed the two must have been—all that magnificent effort--and especially Mallory in having been defeated for the third time. So it is easy to see why he wanted to bring something back for their trouble. Clear photos from the First Step of the Second would be useful to the next party to plan their assault. And to keep Mallory’s hand in the planning.

By the First Step at one o’clock, the weather was still holding. They could probably see their C-6 from the ridge and the return route was not difficult. What better opportunity to quickly clamber up the First Step and have a good look around. But Everest does not play fair. And the sudden squall that hit them was not unlike the perfect storm of Krakauer’s Into thin Air. With their totally inadequate clothing, once the storm started they were essentially doomed.

ExplorersWeb: Was Mallory right to have taken young Irvine instead of the far more experienced Noel Odell?

Tom Holzel: Of course. Mallory had a complete conversion about the usefulness of oxygen. They even used it to climb up to the North Col!—to the disgust of Odell.

Mallory was now betting everything on this elixir of youth. Odell would have been useless if anything had gone wrong with the equipment en route. Also, Odell’s fantastic performance was not demonstrated until after Mallory & Irvine disappeared.

So Irvine’s reputation with the oxygen and for being as strong as an ox seemed at the moment to outweigh Odell’s far greater experience. But Mallory should have realized that by rolling the dice so as to increase has chance of success by taking Irvine and oxygen, he was also increasing the odds against them in case of an unfavorable outcome due to Irvine’s inexperience. Of course, had Mallory succeeded, his choice would have been seen as a stroke of genius…

And we know now that his faith in the use of oxygen was not misplaced. If the subsequent expedition of 1933 had used any of the oxygen they took, they might possibly have reached the top. If Mallory had not underestimated the distance from his C-6 to the Second Step (as many modern climbers have), and thus taken three bottles each instead of two, and if he could somehow have surmounted the Second Step, he could possibly have reached the summit in a suicidal solo effort.

ExplorersWeb: Suicidal?

Tom Holzel: Twelve hours of climbing—the absolute minimum for them to get to the top--is a huge amount of climbing, especially in their state of chronic dehydration.

The squall would have been an enormous additional drain of energy if they could even have survived it high on the summit pyramid. Even if they could then have returned to the top of the Second Step, with no more oxygen their hands would likely have been frozen and there does not seem to be any anchor points nearby to use for a belay.

In other words, they—or even Mallory alone--could not possibly have climbed down to be found where he was. Given the circumstances extent, reaching the top on June 8th, 1924 was just not possible.

ExplorersWeb: Your newest theory on Irvine is fascinating. What now?

Tom Holzel: We sit back and wait for the next Conrad Anker to come along.

ExplorersWeb: Have you ever put your love of analysis to use in areas others than Mallory & Irvine?

Tom Holzel: Yes! I wrote a highly detailed, historically accurate WW-II spy thriller, "Ballard's War." It came out just as the publisher went out of business (!), and I've been struggling to rekindle interest in it. But so far, no joy.

In 1986, Everest expert and co-author of the book "First on Everest - The mystery of Mallory and Irvine," Tom Holzel set out to find Mallory's camera. In addition, Tom was the one to track down Zhang Junyan and corroborated the late Chinese mountaineer Wang's story about the discovery of an "English dead" on the mountain.

In his popular Tracking truth-in-evidence on Mount Everest, published at ExWeb in 2008 (check the links section), the American historian explained how he had arrived to the conclusion that Mallory and Irvine did not summit Mount Everest back in 1924. To confirm Tom's theory that the climbers fell while descending after an aborted summit push; finding Irvine and the camera is crucial.

Mallory’s remains were found at 8,200 meters on Everest in 1999. Severe rope-jerk injuries around the body’s waist suggested that he could have fallen to his death while roped-up with climbing mate Andrew Irvine. No trace of Irvine was to be found though; or the camera the two carried on their last climb. Those who have searched the barren slopes of Everest North face since all returned empty-handed.

In a three-part series on The Search for Andrew Irvine published at ExplorersWeb last week, Tom Holzel thoroughly analyzed all clues, testimonies and high-resolution orthophotographic prints, to come up with a probable location of Irvine’s body.

For more information on Mallory & Irvine's climb, see these VelocityPress articles.




The Deaths of Mallory & Irvine--A Time Line

By Tom Holzel Rev 26 Sep 09

Facts have parents—and children.

At their assault camp C-6, Mallory had decided—reluctantly (because of the weight)—that they should each take two bottles of oxygen rather than one for their final climb. How conservative this calculation was can be seen by the rapid ascent they made from C-4 to C-6 (3800 vert-ft.) using only ¾ of a single bottle.

Now with only 2200 vert-ft left to ascend, Mallory’s decision to err on the safe side was a conservative guess that the Second Step region might be significantly more difficult than the technically easy slog they had just endured up the North Ridge. And higher up, they might also need oxygen for the descent. So he safely opted to take "the bloody load" of a second bottle. Mallory likely switched from the low ( 1.5 L/m) flow rate they used climbing up to the North Col to the higher rate. By taking the second bottle, he allowed himself the capability to climb at 2.2 L/m rate to maximize their ascent speed.

They left C-6 at 5:30AM ±30 min. going on oxygen at a flow rate of 2.2 Liters/min. This time is arrived at by accepting my time line as described here, and working backwards. It also jibes with Mallory's intent to start early.

What, then, must have gone through Mallory’s mind when their first bottle ran out at about 27,800-ft—they having gained only about 1000-vert ft.? And they hadn’t even reached the First Step.

Mallory & Irvine’s Situation

At about 9:30AM, well before the First Step, the first oxygen bottle ran out, which Mallory had thought might have been enough to take him to the top! What a shock! It had given them not even half the vertical gain of the previous bottle. Was there a leak? No, Irvine had also run out at the same time. The two did not know that with open-circuit oxygen systems climbing speed drops with altitude because the significant oxygen contribution of the outside air diminishes rapidly with altitude. Now, with the oxygen having proved its worth in spades up to C-6 on the previous two days, a sinking feeling must have set in today that maybe, once again, they just weren’t going to make it.

Each dropped off his empty bottle. (These were spotted by Eric Simonson in 1991.) It was time to reassess the situation:

Weather: Iffy, clouds blowing in and out but still climbable with no change from fair to worse. If anything, it appeared to be lightening up a bit. But the immanent onset of the monsoon was hard on Mallory’s mind.

Physical fitness: Except for his sun-shredded face, Irvine was strong; Mallory was O.K. but his previous exertions had taken their toll. He was nothing as fit as in 1922.

Oxygen: Low for both of them. Four hours left and they had not even reached the First Step. Could they make it to the summit at this rate of expenditure vs climb rate? Not together. So the question was—how far should they try to get? As Mallory was all too aware, this climb on Everest would be his last hurrah. He was determined to do something notable.

Time: 9:30. Still 4 hours of safe climbing ahead before the agreed-to precautionary turn-around time of 1PM. But was that enough to get to the top?

Decision: So far everything was working fine; they were climbing well, the weather was holding. Carry on at least to the looming obstacle ahead—the First & Second Step escarpment--and recalibrate from there.

Beginning their second bottle of oxygen—and now in a hurry--they continued to follow the NE Ridge Route, i.e., climbing the slope just below the cornices of the ridge. Thank goodness the slope eased up and the climbing became more of a walk. They followed the obvious route below the crest of the NE Ridge and easily passed below the base of the First Step, likely climbing up to the ledge that leads to the Second Step. But there the climbing situation changed radically.

The stretch from the base of the First Step to the base of the Second is a steep and dangerous traverse. With time and oxygen running out, Mallory must have finally realized the summit was no longer in the cards for them both. He now had to decide what to do. His choices were:

With only three hours each of Oxygen remaining at the First Step, and a one-to-two hour traverse just to get to the Second, the summit was now out of reach for them together. They could turn back now with absolutely nothing to show for their effort. In the absence of any objective danger, this was an impossible choice for Mallory to make.

Traverse to the Second Step together but necessarily roped, which would greatly slow them down as Mallory would have to belay Irvine over the difficult spots which even then he would be taking at a very slow pace. This was direct, but slow, and dangerous for both of them. And the return would be just as slow and dangerous. And time was now of the essence.

Drop down to the Norton Traverse, following it to below the Second Step, to which they would then climb straight up. This would be safer but require giving up hard-won altitude. And then require a strenuous straight-up ascent of 100 feet or so to attain the base of the Second Step. A non-starter.

Drop down and take the Norton Route into the Great Couloir. This meant giving up altitude to try an unknown snow-filled route with no belay points and possibly much exhausting step-cutting.

Leave Irvine in the safe, sheltered nooks of the First Step, take his three hours worth of oxygen added to his own 3 hour’s worth, and rock climb solo to the base of the Second Step to reconnoiter its crux. They would be in sight of each other the whole way. Irvine would take a photo of Mallory under way as he undertook to glean valuable route information. Then, if the Second Step proved feasible, Mallory would climb it with 5 hours of oxygen on his back, and Irvine would descend to C-6 by himself—a safe climb with the camp in sight from where he was.

10:30AM. Mallory parks Irvine in the shelter of the First Step, takes his ¾-full oxygen bottle, and makes the traverse to the base of the Second Step. Because of his baulky load, it takes him a full hour—11:30AM.

Perhaps climbing up as far as the base of the open-book crux, Mallory realizes that in spite of now having 5 hours of oxygen, this is a climb he is not capable of alone, especially not in his current faltering condition and "the bloody load." The exposure is horrendous. He turns back, (11:45AM) returning to Irvine at the First Step—12:45PM.

They had come so far, and had absolutely nothing to show for their magnificent effort. Irvine, sitting around for two hours and with Mallory’s return, now anxious to warm-up with a little activity, suggests to Mallory they clamber up the First Step, where he will photograph Mallory holding up his custom-made 30,000-ft altimeter. They can at least take photographs of the intricacies of the remaining route for future planning. They will at least be bringing something back.

They clamber up. Down below, the atmosphere having momentarily cleared, Odell looks up and spots the two as they cross the snow patch at the base of the Step (12:50PM). He is stunned by the glorious sight. With thrilling thoughts of their possible summit success in mind because they are ascending, he instantly assumes they are still on their quest for the summit, noting that they are climbing "with alacrity." In his thrall he does not realize it is the First Step they are climbing, not the Second. (Both look similar from his view point.) But he is worried that they seem to be FIVE HOURS behind their schedule—having expected to reach the Second Step as early as 8AM.

Fig. 1. Odell’s View. Both Steps have a snow patch at their base, fuelling for years arguments over which one Odell saw them on. Odell’s view was through broken clouds. Photo: This is a part of a fabulous panoramic by Jake Norton.

What Step Did Odell See Mallory & Irvine Surmount?

Advocates of Mallory’s summit success insist that Odell did see them surmount the Second Step as he stubbornly claimed—or possibly even the Third!

Odell was beat-up by the RGS members to bring his thinking in line with theirs, that he must have seen them surmounting the First Step. He reluctantly yielded for a while, in hopes of being selected for the next expedition. But after he was rejected for being too old, he returned to his original belief. Twelve years later (1936) Odell reached the summit of Nanda Devi with Bill Tilman which at the time, and until 1950, was the highest mountain climbed.

Other critics eagerly seize on the cantankerous oxygen systems for their great delay. But if that had been the case, what would Mallory possibly have been thinking? Tinkering with a recalcitrant oxygen system for several hours on a summit day to then set off with only a few hours of ascent time left is unthinkable. With plenty of oxygen available to them at C-6, any long delay would have caused them do exactly as Finch did—spend an extra night at C-6 and use oxygen for sleeping. Thus, Mallory & Irvine cannot possibly have been seen climbing the First Step on their initial assault.

Why were they not seen climbing the Second or Third Steps? From a timing point of view, the Second Step fits in perfectly: With Irvine slowing them down across the First-Second Step traverse, they might have arrived at its base at 12:30 if they could have continue to climb at the 250-vert-Ft/hr rate (1hr 40 min) and if they could make the First-Second Step Traverse in two hours. But that would take 3 hrs 40 min of oxygen out of their 4-hr supply. What would have been the point of the two risking life and limb on that treacherous traverse in order to go just a little bit farther than the First Step with absolutely no chance of reaching the summit? And then have an equally dangerous 2-hour return traverse back to the safety of the First Step? And then a five hour descent back to their high camp.

Being seen climbing the Third Step is even less likely. At the base of the Second Step with at most 20-30 min of oxygen left (and that is only with the most optimistic climbing speed) we have to ask ourselves would Mallory take the enormous risk of climbing the Second Step with only enough oxygen to not even be able reach the Third Step? We see how rapidly climbing speed drops with altitude by graphing 70 known speeds and extrapolating up from M & I’s First Oxygen Bottle Drop. At 28,500-ft. Mallory & Irvine’s ascent speed drops to 100 vert-ft/hr. (See “Mallory & Irvine’s Climb Rates” at Hillary & Tenzing climbed that altitude on the other side of the mountain at 150 vert-ft/hr.

Recall that Mallory aborted his previous assault in order to try again with oxygen. To have the 45o summit pyramid climb to look forward to without oxygen, and with possible step-cutting, was just not in the cards.

Getting away from the hypothetical numbers, even modern climbers would be hard-pressed to ascend from the Oxygen Bottle Drop (~8500m) to the Third Step dragging along someone with very little rock-climbing experience, with no fixed ropes, along treacherous and hugely exposed terrain, and then climb the ferocious Second Step--all in three hours (9:30-12:30). Thus, they could not have climbed fast enough with their last bottle of oxygen to be seen climbing the Third Step together at 12:50AM. So they didn’t. (Note: Irvine did climb the Great Gully on Craig yr Ysfa with Odell, a wet, five hour climb of VDiff (~5.7) degree of difficulty.)

The Final Descent

Their view from the top of the First Step is an awesome panorama. Irvine takes photos of Mallory, of Makalu glowering 14 miles in the distance and particularly of the NE Ridge leading up to the intricacies of the daunting Second Step. At about this time, Mallory’s second bottle of gas depletes. They turn down and reach the base of the Step at 1:30PM.

They are still both wearing their oxygen racks. But Mallory still has Irvine’s ¾-full bottle on his back. The equipment is valuable and they intend to take it back. Climbing down from the First Step, Mallory shuts off his gas and takes off the facemask. The oxygen mask interferes with downward vision. Both are tired (especially Mallory), but there is no sense of danger or urgency in their situation. At various moments, the clouds open up and they can occasionally spot their C-6 on the North Ridge below. Had they had looked hard they might even have spotted Odell wending his way up to "resupply" C-6.

[INSERT First Step photos here]

Fig. 2. View from the First Step. What would recovered photographs from the VPK camera taken by Andrew Irvine on the "summit" of the first Step look like? A view of imposing Makalu, glowering 14 miles away for sure; a shot of the continuing NE Ridge showing the complexities of the approach. And a photo of Mallory’s dour expression as he holds up his 30,000-ft altimeter, the indicator far below the 29,002-ft he had hoped for. (Photos GMHM)

The Ice Ax Fall

Then, suddenly, (2:00PM) at approximately the spot where they dropped off their first bottle of oxygen, they become enveloped in a fierce snow squall. They quickly rope up, as much for moral support as for safety’s sake.

Mallory leads, (2:15PM) seeking to retrace their ascent route. Although visibility is reduced to only a few yards, the descent is not technical. Mallory’s mind is already back at Advanced Base Camp; he is emotionally crushed by this defeat. He has failed once again, and this time finally, to gain the fame he so ardently sought. He slips (~2:30PM).

Fig.2. Yellow Band Rout and Time Line. Beginning at 5:30AM from their C-6, (out of the photo below, left) the Green and Red lines show Mallory & Irvine’s two likely ascent paths. The dotted blue and red (far right) are Mallory’s presumed solo traverse to the base of the Second Step which he reaches at 11:30. The blue line shows their retreat with a detour up the First Step, where they are spotted from below by Odell. The yellow dot marks our suspicion of Irvine’ current location. Photo: © BSFSwissphoto AG, Zurich. Overlay by the author.

Irvine sees or feels the tug of the rope. He hurls his ice ax aside and grabs the rope with both hands. Mallory’s slip is not serious, but Irvine is also caught off guard. His footing impaired by the loose gravel underfoot on the 30o rock slab and the new layer of snow, he is pulled off his feet head-first.

Aided by Irvine’s momentary tug, Mallory catches himself, but then the force of Irvine’s fall pulls him off his precarious perch. They both tumble. The rope catches on a crag and jerks them brutally to a stop--and snaps. Mallory, mostly in a controlled slide is once again able to hold on, but Irvine has been pulled head first and lands hard on a lower ledge. Based on Xu's description of Irvine's lie, we can deduce that he broke his neck in the fall and came to a stop jammed into a narrow slot, face up, his feet facing uphill, and unable to move.

Mallory, suffering the agony of broken ribs but still fully mobile, strips off his oxygen rig and climbs down to look for his companion. In the blinding snow squall he passes him by, failing to notice his companion wedged motionless in the concealing slot and already covered with a thin layer of snow. Mallory continues to follow the ice ax fall line as best he can. But the lack of visibility in the driving snow makes finding Irvine an impossible task.

Fig. 3. Norton resting high in the Yellow Band only a few days before Mallory & Irvine’s attempt. The Green line shows the (very) approximate route Mallory must have down-climbed in search of Irvine. Note the small amount of snowpack at the base of the Yellow Band. The red-circled area gives a better idea of the angle of the last 50m of that climb. Climbers may scoff that this is not overly steep. But Mallory was descending an unknown route in the agony of broken ribs in a fierce snow squall over freshly snow-covered rocks. Photo T. Howard Somervell.









Mallory’s Broken Foot

Mallory’s broken foot—both bones were snapped above the ankle—provides us with an important clue. Where did he break it? It is inconceivable that anyone could climb down through the cliffs of the Yellow Band with such a terrible injury. Even conducting an ice ax self-rescue slide is hard to image. How do you hold your leg so the foot—flopping freely—does not break completely off? If he was mobile after breaking it Mallory would absolutely have had to splint his foot in order to proceed at all, but there were no signs that he had done so. Thus, he did not break his foot in the controlled part of his descent. Instead, it can only have occurred during an out-of-control second fall.

To recap the evidence of Mallory’s broken foot:

  1. His foot injury cannot have occurred during the first fall at the Ice Ax site because he could not possibly have climbed down through the Yellow Band with such an injury.
  2. He could not have fallen the entire distance from the Ice Ax site to his resting place because his body was not nearly damaged enough—as were the bodies of other (modern) climbers who did fall from that height and who were grotesquely broken up.
  3. If he had successfully exited the Yellow Band with an unbroken foot, he would immediately have angled over to the North Ridge—an easy hike—and not fallen to where he was found.
  4. If he had broken his foot upon exiting the Yellow Band and been in control, he would have had to splint it in order to continue--even to do a butt-slide glissade--but there is no evidence of that.
  5. Ergo, Mallory must have fallen out of the very bottom of Yellow Band (~8300m) of the 8200M Snow Terrace, which resulted in an uncontrolled slide and tumble down its entire length to where he was found at 8165m. At some point in that fall—probably near the end, below the snowpack--his foot caught between two rocks and snapped. That his ice ax was found by Wang near Mallory's body is clear evidence that the slide was relatively slow and certainly not from the NE Ridge. 1


Mallory’s Death

The upper reaches of the Yellow Band offers many ledges to use as a descent path. It is this route that I believe Xu took when he described his own solo return "by a more direct route." The 1960 Chinese had studied and followed the Norton/Harris Route diagonally through the Yellow Band. But at the bottom of the Band the cliffs become abruptly steeper (See Fig.3. above). Here Mallory slips once again, but this time he is not able to catch himself. (3:30PM).

This second fall onto the top of the 8200 Snow Terrace continuing in an uncontrolled slide explains why, once out of the Yellow Band, Mallory did not immediately angle over to his C-6 on the North Ridge which was an easy traverse. It would have been essential to get back at least to the shelter of their C-6, and the known route of the North Ridge. Then Mallory might conceivably have attempted to continue a descent to C-4 the same day in order to marshal a rescue attempt. Odell once glissaded that entire distance in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Had Mallory not fallen the second time, he would have reached C-6 just about the time Odell was preparing to leave! With the squall over at 4pm, they might yet conceivably have mounted a forlorn rescue attempt.

He falls to the snow layer on top of the 8200m snow terrace and begins an uncontrolled tumble. As his slide approaches the 8130m cliff edge of the snow terrace, he desperately attempts an ice ax self-arrest, but on the thin snow layer his ax strikes rock and kicks back plunging into his forehead. Instantly rendered unconscious or dead. In the next moment his foot jams between rocks and nearly breaks off—but the break slows him down. He crashes onto the edge of a 2-foot high rock near the lip of the Snow Terrace which brings him to an abrupt halt, lying face down on top of it. He is found there by Wang 51 years later, his ice ax lying near-by.1

On the next day, the 9th, the weather was very windy and bitterly cold. Odell was able to struggle up only to C-5. The day after, June 10th, he arrived alone at C-6. After climbing a 100 yards or so above the solitary tent, "…in the time available under the prevailing conditions, I found it impossible to extend my search." Thus ended the first brief, heroic search mission for Mallory & Irvine.

 Fig. 4. Odell’s drawing of his route from the North Col ("Chang La") to C-6 and the distance he searched beyond. The red line shows his sightline to the Second Step. On this map his path reaches up to 8100m, only 200m east of Mallory’s body.The ball point pen ink of the original has faded a lot so his pen line on this image has been colored. Photo: ©Tom Holzel












1 This important fact, the presence of his ice ax near-by, indicates Mallory must have been in some degree of control during his final fall, but not enough to stop himself. As reported by Xu Jing to EverestNews. See: