Mallory and Irvine

Search for George Mallory and Andrew Irvine

NUMA was one of several co-sponsors who backed Tom Hotzel and the North Face Research Expedition to find British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, lost on Mount Everest. November, 1986.

The unknown fate of Mallory and Irvine, who vanished near the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, has been a puzzle for over six decades. Mallory, a famous mountain climber of his day, was the man who coined the phrase “because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to reach the peak of Mount Everest.

I read of Hotzel’s expedition in the newspaper and contacted him, offering to contribute to his effort. Unfortunately, his search team was beat out by terrible weather and they accomplished very little. We’ve maintained close correspondence and Hotzel intends to try again. His story of the expedition follows.

As of this writing (2-11-88) Mallory and Irvine remain buried somewhere on the icy slopes of Everest.

Mallory & Irvine–The Search Continues by Tom Holzel 617 263-1122 Of forty-two Himalayan expeditions setting out to conquer Himalayan summits this autumn, none of them succeeded. We were no exception. Pinned down in our tents by furious winds, the hard won tracks of the previous days’ route filled in by nightly snowfalls, the expedition members were slowly worn down by exhaustion, high altitude deterioration and, eventually by the sheer cold, but we scored several small victories.

Post-monsoon (Autumn) expeditions to Mt. Everest all follow a simple plan–a plan simple to describe, that is. The climbers try to stock an intermediate “Advance Base Camp” (ABC) as fully as possible. Advance Base Camps are situated as high up the mountain as possible, but before the climbing becomes too difficult, or “technical”, i.e., requiring ropes to climb. Then, in an anticipated seasonal 10-day window of calm, clear weather, the climbers attempt their rush to the summit.

We followed this plan to the letter, stocking our camp three (C3) with 15 pitched tents, oxygen, ropes, food, fuel and a powerful team of strong, young climbers. While we were right on schedule, Mother Nature failed to follow hers. The 10-day window never arrived. Even so, the climbers repeatedly broke trail over the same route in order to stock C-4 and C-5 at 23,000 and 25, 300ft, but it was not to be.

Once stocked, climbers never again were able to reach C-5. It was during an effort to regain our high point that 4 Sherpas became stranded at C-4 for two nights of harrowing storms. At the first sign of clear weather, they aborted their attempt and began a descent. Although the exact cause of the avalanche is not entirely clear, it seems likely that a Sherpa higher up on an 150-ft long rope started an avalanche that ripped loose his companion lower down. The sliding Sherpa fell over a 60-ft cliff. His impact created a second avalanche of large, hard snow blocks. The pummeling of these blocks, added to by the oxygen bottle in his pack probably broke his neck, the likely cause of his death.

Our primary goal was to reach the 27,000-ft snow terrace where we hoped to discover the body of an “English dead” sighted by a Chinese climber in 1975, and reported to a Japanese climber in 1979. The day after the report, the Chinese discoverer died in an avalanche on the same North Col headwall that killed our Sherpa. Because of the description given of the body and its location, it could only be that of Mallory or Irvine, two British climbers who disappeared on Mt. Everest in 1924. We hoped the cameras both climbers were known to be carrying would answer the 62-year old mystery of whether or not the two climbers reached the top before they perished.

A second major goal was to search the top of the Second Step cliff. Here we had hoped to find their empty oxygen cylinders to confirm that the two climbers did indeed get that high, and so probably did reach the summit some three hours farther up, but if we failed to reach these two major goals, was the expedition a failure?

Strangely not, for the Search for Mallory & Irvine has taken place on many levels. It was on the literary level that we discovered facts suggesting that Mallory & Irvine had a much greater chance of having reached the summit than their contemporaries were willing to give them credit for. Here too we discovered the powerful British prejudice against the use of oxygen breathing equipment, and how this sentiment would doom the subsequent pre-WW II expeditions to failure.

Our search has also taken place on the eyewitness level. Here like so many others, we interviewed the two still-living 1924 expedition members. But their testimony equivocal has been around for a long time. The most galvanizing eyewitness testimony has been that of Chinese climber Wang Hung bao. It is a report that, like nearly every aspect of the Mallory & Irvine episode, has engendered heated controversy. Most damaging, the Chinese Mountaineering Association was caught completely off guard by the report, a report made by one of its own members to the Climbing Leader of a Japanese Everest expedition, Ryoten Hasagawa. More incredible, still, is that Wang died in an avalanche the day after telling his story to the Japanese climber!

Wang described in detail finding a body at 8100m (27,000 ft) dressed in old-fashioned clothing that “danced in the wind” when touched. The corpse had a hole in one cheek. Wang claimed to have discovered the body during his participation in the very large, and very successful Chinese Everest expedition of 1975.

The report was immediately attacked by older British climbers as a delusion, confusion or a fraud, as they have reflexively attacked every aspect of the Mallory & Irvine episode that might put the two climbers on top. But we were convinced by Wang’s story that the body (and camera) of either Mallory or Irvine lay on the 8100m snow terrace and, given reasonable weather, that we could search for it and find it.

When we questioned our Chinese Liaison Officer assigned to the expedition, Mr. Song Zhiyi, (who was a member of the Chinese expedition of 1975) he admitted he knew the story well. And he denied its authenticity vigorously. But his was a reflexive denial, too, and simply reflected the official view of the Chinese Mountaineering Association. After many discussions over the months at Base Camp, Song came around to admitting the faint possibility that Wang may have found an English body. After all, he agreed, how could a relative simple man, as Hasagawa and Song had both described him, dream up so complex a plot–and be so precisely correct as to the location the body should be found? Its location reported in 1980 was precisely where I had predicted, in 1971, the body of Andrew Irvine should lie. Given the still insular conditions in China in 1980, it was a prediction Wang could not conceivably have learned about.

More important than Song’s change of heart was his subsequent agreement to introduce us to the group climbing leader of Wang’s assault team, Mr. Chen Tian Lian, now an official of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association in Lhasa. Mr. Chen had led the 4-man team including Wang on an unsuccessful summit attempt. Certainly if Wang discovered a body, it could have only been while climbing with Chen and their two other companions. Mr. Song agreed to introduce us to Chen upon our return from the mountain through Lhasa.

The five-hour interview of Mr. Chen at the luxurious Lhasa Hotel started on a depressing note. Mr. Chen began by stating that as Wang’s climbing leader, he had been with him the entire 4 days the group was at C-5 or higher, and that he was aware of no body discovered by Wang during that period. But persistence pays off. It was only in the final half-hour of our discussion that Mr. Chen recalled receiving an emergency radio call from Base Camp ordering him up to the next camp–a hasty bivouac actually, at 28,000 ft., to search for a missing Chinese climber. “Did you take Mr. Wang with you on this climb?” I asked. “No,” he replied, I/I went with one of the Tibetan porters. Wang and his partner Zhan Jun Yan remained in C-6 for the day.”

“So it was possible that if Wang did find a body, he could have done so on that day, May 5th, without you knowing about it?” Mr. Chen gazed at me intently as he though about that question. “Yes,” he answered finally, “It is possible.” Our next assignment was clear. Find Mr. Zhang, living in Peking.

Our Liaison Officer was able to arrange the Zhang meeting, but only just. We met the evening of our departure to the US over supper at the Bei-Wei Hotel in Peking. The interview was unexpectedly short. Yes, Mr. Zhang, had been left along with Wang on the day that Chen and his Tibetan companion left on a search & rescue mission. He, Zhang stayed in his sleeping bag that morning, but Wang got up and wandered around the snow terrace by himself. Then came the $64 question: “bid Wang ever mention finding the body of an English mountaineer?” “Yes he did,” Zhang answered easily. “He mentioned it to me and to several of our climbing companions on the way down.” So there we had it–confirmation from an “eyewitness” that Japanese climber Hasagawa was not deluded, and a direct refutation of the criticism that Wang must have been lying because he never told any Chinese about his discovery.

In the sense of this discovery, we did not fail in our search, we were simply defeated in climbing the mountain. We did not set foot on the 27,000 ft snow terrace, yet we were able to scan that territory with high-powered binoculars and so pin-point the presumed location of the “foreign mountaineer.” This location is fortunately off any presently used route up the mountain which means the body will only be rediscovered by climbers also anxious to solve this great mystery, climbers committed to continuing the Search for Mallory & Irvine.

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