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ExWeb series: Mallory and Irvine - Comments on the 'real Second Step' route, part 1

Posted: Nov 17, 2005 04:17 pm EST

(MountEverest.net) In a 5 part ExWeb series last year, researchers Pete Poston and Jochen Hemmleb (author of several books on the subject) offered some interesting insight into the quest for the true fate of Mallory and Irvine.
The pair introduced the mystery, presented their own opinions and criticism of the EverestNews Theory - a theory that lacks documentation and photographs, involves some serious climbing stunts, and relies on unidentified climbers in unrevealed locations.

Later, Jochen added another part to the series, in response to EverestNews subsequent interview with Chinese veteran climber, Xu Jing.

Is it for real?

Now it's Pete's turn again. Poston has analyzed EverestNews' latest - a route the website claims Mallory followed to the summit of Everest.

ExWeb has not followed on the exact details of this "search" and provides just a forum for the published Mallory/Irvine researchers to voice their concerns. However, given the years of consistent lack of evidence and the amount of unlikely and unsubstantiated claims surrounding EverestNews's theory on the Mallory/Irvine route, we have to point out that it's unclear how much of the "EverestNews Mallory&Irvine; search" actually has taken place physically on the mountain.

Anyway, here goes - for all you Mallory/Irvine fans out there, Pete Poston's criticism.

"Criticism of the Everestnews.com Proposed Mallory Route up the Second Step
By Pete Poston for MountEverest.net

As part of their theory on the fate of Mallory and Irvine, the website Everestnews.com claims that Mallory could have climbed the Second Step via the "true 2nd Step", that is, a route that remains on the crest of the Northeast Ridge rather than the standard traverse and offwidth crack route that is followed today (1). Since the website has not released any details on this alternative route, presumably this means that Mallory either climbed directly up the vertical prow of this formidable feature, or took a route that climbs up the Kangshung side of the Step. It's the purpose of this article to investigate the feasibility of these alternatives based on existing photographs and the historical record.

According to news dispatches and question and answer sessions from their "Mallory and Irvine 2005: The Final Chapter" website, the Kangshung side seems the most likely, although it's a little unclear (2). They report that their climbers who observed and filmed the route directly up the Second Step claim "there is a shoulder on the Kangshung side", and "it is very possible to go that way staying on the ridge". If true, this hitherto undiscovered "shoulder" on the Kangshung Face is a fantastic discovery, because it sounds like the ladder on the crux pitch can be removed, and the route can now go free.

The obvious question however, is why hasn't this "shoulder" been discovered before after so many climbers have been up and down the 2nd Step, some of them multiple times? Well, as a result of this article, I think you'll know why.

Where's the Evidence?

Unfortunately the news website has made these claims without any supporting photographic or physical evidence to date, so we are left having to rely on verbal claims by unknown climbers who didn't actually attempt the route. When asked by readers why they don't show photographs, the website claims that some climbers don't like to publish their photos on the Internet for fear of them being stolen (3). This seems disingenuous, not to mention a little paranoid, since for the purposes of this article there were no difficulties whatsoever in locating an Everest summiter and receiving permission to publish his photographs that show details of the 2nd Step very clearly (Figure 1, photographs donated courtesy of Franck Pitula).

This is all part of the Everestnews.com modus operandi however. The Mallory and Irvine research community has never been given the complete facts, whether it's the exact location their secret sources have placed Irvine, or a complete photograph and location of the old pre-war oxygen bottle they found in 2004. Now we aren't explicitly shown where this new route of theirs goes. To accept these claims based purely on faith is simply unacceptable.

The Standard Route up the 2nd Step

The Chinese in 1960 first sent a reconnaissance team to explore the 2nd Step, and this team also approached the Step along the ridgecrest as Everestnews.com suggests for Mallory and Irvine. However, after viewing the direct approach, probably from the Mushroom Rock (located on the ridge about halfway between the 1st and 2nd Steps), the Chinese decided it was much too difficult to attempt. It was then that they noticed a line of weakness that ascends more broken up ground on the right side of the Step, which terminates in a crux pitch consisting of a fifteen foot, offwidth crack (Figures 1 and 2).

The Chinese attempt on this route was an epic. It took them three hours to surmount the fifteen foot crux pitch, requiring pitons and a leg-up for the leader Chu Yin-hua, who incredibly resorted to taking his boots off and climbing in stockinged feet (losing many of his toes to frostbite as a result). Every expedition that has ascended the Northeast Ridge to date has followed this line, using the ladder that another Chinese expedition in 1975 later put into place.

In order to more closely approximate Mallory and Irvine's techniques, Conrad Anker nearly free-climbed this crux pitch during the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, and later gave it a rating of at least 5.8, if not 5.10, after climbing similar terrain in Utah's magnificent Indian Canyon.

A Choice of Routes

Which route would Mallory's climber-eye have picked out, especially considering that he had the relatively inexperienced Irvine along? The steep, vertical prow with the huge drop over the Kangshung Face, or the more broken up ground to the right?

On the positive side, Mallory was known to be a "ridge man", so it makes sense he would have stayed on the ridgecrest wherever possible. It seems highly likely that Mallory and Irvine could have made it as far as the Mushroom Rock. It's here that the climber has to make a decision to stay on the ridgecrest, or take the "scary traverse" that the modern route takes to reach the base of the Step. Photographs of this area can be seen on MountainZone.com's website devoted to the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition (4) - follow the link labeled "The Summit Bid".

Practically speaking, this means there were time and oxygen factors to consider, since we know that they had consumed their first oxygen bottle already, and discarded it below the 1st Step. And if Odell had seen them climbing the 1st Step, this means that it was past 12:50 PM already, with the afternoon monsoon clouds welling up all around them. So surely they would have chosen the easier line like the Chinese did in 1960. Faced with the same choice in 1999, Conrad Anker weighed the options and also stayed with the normal route.

Tomorrow Part 2, final: Options and conclusions

In 1924 British climber Noel Odell, while searching for his lost comrades George Mallory and Andrew Sandy Irvine, would have hardly described the upper slopes of Mount Everest as a place where the wind sings hymns of praise, or that life was like a flag unfurled. In one of the most poignant passages in mountaineering literature (1) Odell wrote:

This upper part of Everest must be indeed the remotest and least hospitable spot on earth, but at no time more emphatically and impressively so than when a darkened atmosphere hides its features and a gale races over its cruel face. And how and when more cruel could it ever seem than when balking ones every step to find ones friends?

Odell of course failed in his search, repelled by the difficult weather conditions and the immensity of the North Face.

The two Mallory and Irvine Research Expeditions that went to the mountain in 1999 and 2001 (2)(3) to search for traces of the pair were much more successful in finding evidence of these brave pioneers. Despite the steep terrain, loose rock outcrops, jet stream winds, and the lack of oxygen, these expeditions unearthed an enormous amount of new information regarding Mallory and Irvines historic climb.


Special thanks to Mr. Franck Pitula for granting permission to use his photographs, and to Jochen Hemmleb for making his research results accessible to all, as well as making many useful suggestions for this article. Thanks also to Phil Summers and Tom Holzel for discussion of the available photos.




"Detectives on Everest: The 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition", by Jochen Hemmleb, Eric Simonson, Dave Hahn, Mountaineers Books, 2001

High, 205 (12/1999)
High, 243 (2/2003)

http://www.everestnews2004.com/malloryandirvine2004/stories2004/mipictureshow102920043b.htm, and the next picture too. Located in the middle of the pictures to the right of the dark rock outcrop.

"Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge", by Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke, W.W. Norton & Company, 1984, p.104


Normal vs. Everestnews Routes up the 2nd Step. Photo, courtesy of Franck Pitula (click to enlarge).
Same view basically as on upper image, but emphasizing the top part of the 2nd Step. Photo, courtesy of Franck Pitula (click to enlarge).