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ExWeb series special: the search for Andrew Irvine, by Tom Holzel

Posted: Apr 16, 2009 03:04 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) Everest North side, 1999: on a snow terrace at 8,200 meters, an international team of mountaineers found Mallorys body. The corpse showed severe rope-jerk injuries around the waist, suggesting 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. It became one of the greatest mysteries in climbing history, with many still searching the barren slopes for the two missing clues.

The ultimate goal is to find an answer to the true fate of the 1924 pioneers, and possibly change history with regards to the first ascent of Mount Everest.

So why have all the search teams failed thus far? Maybe because they didnt know exactly where to look, according to American historian Tom Holzel.

In his popular Tracking truth-in-evidence on Mount Everest, published at ExWeb last year (check the links section), Tom compiled a strictly fact-based conclusion about Mallory and Irvine's final climb. In the Q&A; follow up, he also revealed his battle with media and the British climbing establishment.

This time around, following a systematic research of testimonies, thousands of images and a 1986 field expedition; Tom has found (more than) a clue to Irvines possible location - as he explains in this big three-part series that will run today through Saturday.

Here goes the first part, offering reasons to why Irvines body still remains undiscovered.

The Search for Andrew Irvine
By Tom Holzel Rev 7 Apr 09

Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.
(Suppositions should not exceed necessity.)
William of Ockham 1288-1347?


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] Because they were both believed to have taken Vest Pocket Kodak cameras, it was hoped that their discovery might yield photos taken on the summit.

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 taken Irvines 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 Irvines ice ax found 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 Wangs 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 Wangs 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.

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., searching from below traveling upwards. By this means they inherently block themselves from walking or seeing 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 Bandthe very same ledges on top of which Irvine might have been brought to a halt.

Did Xu Jing spot Irvine?

In 2001, 1999 Expedition Leader Eric Simonson and Jochen Hemmleb traveled to Beijing to interview some of the 1960 Chinese 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 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 EverestNews.com hired Sherpas to look, but the only thing discovered was a mysterious 1938 oxygen bottle nowhere near the rumored body. Sherpa Chhiring Dorje explored a secret location and found nothing in 2003. Sherpa Phurbu clambered about the following year. All with no luck.

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 Xuwhich means he must be somewhere along Xus descent routeor 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 shall examine both possibilities.

If Xu did see Irvine, he must lie near Xus 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 Societys 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 routethe 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 also took when they reached the base of the First Step and beyondalthough 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 nearly to the NE Ridge, and then followed it to the First Step.)

Thus, there was only one established British route, 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.

If Xu did not see Irvine, a different scenario must be considered of where Irvine lies. And it is Mallorys 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.

Part 2: the search for Andrew Irvine

Part 3, final: the probable location of Andrew Irvine


[1] See The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine, by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, 1986 and preferably the revised second edition, The Mountaineers Books, 1999.
[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 exceptionsGeorge Finch (the other George) and Noel Odellboth incredibly durable climbers, both side-lined by shoddy RGS politics.
[5] See film developing suggestions at: http://www.velocitypress.com/mallory_irvine.shtml#A127_Film

[6] First published on www.mounteverest.net and in the 2005 American Alpine Journal, p. 442. See: http://www.affimer.org/hemmleb-xujing.html
[7] A YouTube video shows more of the nature of this terrain at: http://mountainworld.typepad.com/mountainworld/2007/07/more-video-from.html#comments
[8] Recounted in Detectives on Everest, Hemmleb and Simonson, The Mountaineers Books, 2002.
[9] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article869755.ece
[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 Irvines body was seen there by others (contradicting Xus claim) must explain how Mallory could sustain such a severe rope jerk injury and yet leave Irvine able to traverse several hundred yardsand only then collapse. Not impossible, but much less likely.
[11] http://www.everestnews.com/mallory2005/mallory2005update04112005.htm
[12] Mountaineering in China, Foreign languages Press, Peking, 1965.

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


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 Irvines ice ax was found in 1933. The red X marks where Mallorys 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. © BSF Swissphoto AG, Zurich. Overlay by the author. (Click to enlarge..
Fig. 2. Everest researcher Jochen Hemmlebs 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] (Click to enlarge).
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 Xs), too exhausted and hypotherm..
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 MountainWorldphoto.com - see Jake's video of climbing in this area. (Click to enlarge)
Fig. 5. Left, the 1960 Chinese 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. (Click to enlarge)