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ExWeb series special: the search for Andrew Irvine, final

Posted: Apr 18, 2009 12:22 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) Here goes the third part of Tom Holzel's story: with amazing details about Mallory and Irvine's last hours and a possible key to the 1924 Everest mystery: the probable location of Andrew Irvine's remains.

The Ice Axe Fall

Mallorys body was discovered 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. This further indicates that Mallory survived the initial Ice Axe Fall and also suggests that the two were not glissading down, roped together. Thus, unless Irvine fell all the way down to the Rongbuk Glacier from the initial Ice Axe Fall, he is still somewhere in the Yellow Band.

Because Mallory was found some 300m below the ice axe site, and his body was relatively undamaged (and his ice axe was still with him), it is certain that he did not fall the entire distance from the ice axe to his discovered site (as other modern climbers have). This means he survived the Ice Axe Fall. Here is a major unexamined question: After the Ice Axe Fall, Mallory, freezing and with at least his serious waist injury, must desperately have been trying to get 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? (Fig. 14.)

There seem to me to be only two likely possibilities:

1. After the Ice Axe Fall, Mallory was seriously enough injured that he could not climb or traverse. He had to descend by butt-sliding down the Ice Axe fall-line.

2. If Xu did not see Irvine, then it is theoretically possible that he, too, survived the Ice Axe Fall. With both men seriously hurt, they needed to help each other down.

By the time he/they came to the bottom of the Yellow Band, he/they discovered he/they were much too far to the West (right). Yet in this latter scenariofreezing due to the squall but still able to walkhe/they would immediately have angled over the easy ground to the North Ridge and the shelter of his C-6, (red dotted line); and the terrain is such that he/they should have reached it. Thus, we conclude that, Mallory did not traverse toward the North Ridge and the safety of his tent. This can be for one of two possible reasons:

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.

Yet the second possibility means with Mallory having the only ice axe for self-arrest, they would again have to rope up in order for Mallory to control the glissade. However, David Breashears notes that what uninjured climbers can do for each other at such altitudes is extremely limited; to think that if one was unable to walk that they could do much for each other in a frigid squall, both injured, borders on the impossible.

Therefore, Mallory could not have been descending with an also severely injured Irvine because it simply cant be done. Irvine is not likely to have been uninjured, because to fall where he did 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 axebecause he was tugged by Irvines slip, not jerked off his feet. Thus, he must have had a few split seconds to ready himself and control his slide. Perhaps he was even able to loop the rope around an outcropping (or that happened accidentally).

Everything in our analysis begins with the assertion that the ice axe marks the point of a fall of the two roped-up climbers. It is a fall that seriously injured Mallory with a rope jerk injury. If Irvine were still alive but barely able to walk, Mallory would have to escort him down through the Yellow Band with as little walking as possiblein other words, more or less dragging him straight down. We agree that such a feat would be nearly impossible even if Mallory were not injured, so that scenario is highly unlikely. This suggests that Mallory almost certainly descended alone and Irvine was left behind to be seen by Xu. Numerous modern climbers fell from within the Yellow Band and came to stop near Mallorys location. If glissading together, so would have Irvine. This suggests that Irvine did not fall out of the Yellow band. In which case, he is still there.

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 their high tent C-6 or he would surely freeze to death. We are obliged to assume that Mallory was so seriously injured that once out of the Yellow Band, He could 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 down 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 axe, Mallory must have slid most of the way down the 8200m Snow Terrace. Near its end, he must have sped up. Pressing harder on the adz, it struck a rock and kicked back, the ice pick piercing his forehead and killing him instantly. In the next moment he crashed into the rock[21] over which he lay draped face down until found by Wang Hung-bao in 1975.

Wang also found Mallorys axe [22] and took it with him.[23] That the ice axe was still near-by after a glissade that went out-of-control tells us a lot. It tells us Mallorys initial fall at the Ice Axe Site was not so out of control to cause him to lose his ice axe there. It practically guarantees he must have been in control until the last few seconds of his sliding down the 8200m Snow Terrace. When, then, did Mallory lose his Vest Pocket Kodak camera? One likelihoodif he actually took it--is during the first fall. But, since the two left all sorts of gear behindlamps, compass, flares, etc., it is more likely that they took just one camera. Irvine would be carrying it to document Mallorys progress.

However, when found by Anker in 1999, Mallorys 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 Mallorys foot to twist over on top of his broken leg.) Unless he moved Mallory, Wang could not possibly have spotted the ice axe injury to Mallorys forehead which he described by gestures to the Japanese climbing Leader, Ryoten Hasagawa. Wang obviously gestured about the head injury (but not Mallorys 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 claimthat Wang found Mallory draped over the rock that stopped his slide, and rolled him off. Asking them to explain how Wang could have noticed the hole in Mallorys head as the cause of death with his head buried in the scree causes a look of cognitive dissonance and a change of subject.

Because of his location and condition, the circumstances of Mallorys descent can be fairly well gleaned; without further evidence, Irvines less sountil we turn to Xus testimony. Then his evidence permits us to construct a detailed Irvine scenario as well.

Let us assume 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 can only mean:

1. Irvine did not die from his fall, but was rendered unconscious or paralyzed. 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] )

2. 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.

3. Irvine was likely incapacitated in the original Ice Axe Fall, and not later in a subsequent fall. If Irvine were still mobile after the Ice Axe Fall, he would have naturally continued down along Xus descent path. In order to have still been seen by Xu, he would have had to fall againthis time far enough to become incapacitatedbut that would mean falling even farther off Xus routeand thus probably out of Xus eyeshot.

4. Mallory never found Irvine. If Mallory had discovered his friend, he would have swung his body around 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 Irvines fall ended close enough to Xus descent route to have been seen by him, why wouldnt 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 routeespecially 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 Axe Siteand just about where Mallory would have halted his own, shorter (less injurious) fall.

Of course visibility during the snow squall was very low, and if Mallory did break his foot, he would not be able to move in any direction except down, by sliding via small snow gullies to which he might have to crawl on hands and knees. Looking for Irvine was thus just not possible. More likely, Mallory was in excruciating pain from the rope jerk injury (broken ribs at least), but could still hobble.

We favor the simplest scenariothat Irvines body lies below the ice axe site where it crosses Xus presumed more direct descent route. Examining the 5µ scan in this region, several highly provocative objects were spottedthe bowling pin object (Fig. 16) and the sleeping bag shape object (Fig. 19) are two.

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 therebut then, how to explain the obvious bowling pin shape?

The bowling pin is the most likely prospect of a few apparently anomalous objects at the intersection of Xus presumed descent path and the ice axe fall line. Here is another contender:

In spite of these and a few other suggestive possibles, none of the objects are 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, Irvines body, but not provably so because the image quality is just not high enough. Or,

2. Irvine is in the ice axe 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 clef 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 axefall, 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 Irvines body at all, so he could be anywhere. Or,

5. My whole 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 samesomewhere below the Ice Axe Site. Only now the search area once again becomes very large.

Isnt it possible that Irvine and Mallory were separated at the Ice Axe 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 Ridgethe yellow or green bands shown if Fig. 14. But we then are back where we startedguessing wildly and looking all over the map.

So, where is Irvine? We cannot say we have found him. Our extensive theorizing dictates he should be below the Ice Axe Site, which we determine to be 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.

Where, then, do we think he lies?

(See the plan and details on Figs. 20 & 21).

Andrew Irvine Search Committee's members are:
Gordon Brown, Richard Montague, Eric Green, Jim Wickwire, Tom Holzel and John Wood.

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


[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 Irvines 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.
[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 summitwhich they saw!
[20] The adz, or flat shovel-like end of the axe head offers greater surface area to slow the climbers slide, and less depth which may catch on rocks.
[21] Wangs 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 Mallorys discovery. It must have been the rock that stopped Mallorys 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 Mallorys head, it is possible the ice axe was still lodged there when Wang found Mallory. Otherwise the ice axe should have been ripped out of Mallorys hands and continued down the mountain.
[23] Where is that ice axe 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 Woodrow Wilson Sayre on the North Ridge noticed the Chinese had cleverly dug an apartment complex into the North Face.
[25] Mallorys face was slightly flattened out, undamaged by frostbite and showing a several days old stubble.
[26] Corvus coraxethe large meat-loving Himalayan raven, always circling ominously at Everest altitudes, glowering for food.

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

Fig. 12. Andy Politz beside Mallorys body. Note the severe mottling and indentation around his waista 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 killed when his fall was stopped at 8165m. ©1999, Thom Pollard, www. eyesopenproductions.com. (Click to enlarg..
Fig. 13. Here is how Mallory may have received his waist injury: A snagged rope inflicts heavy rope-jerk injury around both mens waist. Of course the same injury could occur with Mallory slipping and pulling Irvine off his feet. If Mallory slipped first, Irvine may have tossed his ice axe aside in order to seize the rope with both hands. (Click to enlarge).
The Andrew Irvine Search Committees best guess of where Irvines body lies (lilac circle). It is the bowling pin object 80-ft below the Ice Axe Site and 265 yds east (left) of the peak of the First Step. The orange-shaded areas along Xus presumed descent path are the next most likely. The green line shows the standard route. (Click to enlarge).
Fig. 14. Either Mallory was so severely injured in the Ice Axe Fall that he could not walk, or (if Xu did not see Irvine) he was aiding an also injured Irvine down. The yellow lines mark a series of diagonally descending snow bands from beneath the Ice Axe Site that any mobile climber would naturally take to speed his descent back to the North Ridge. (The green line is the modern route.) Anyone exiting the Yellow Band and then falling or glissading within the red-shaded area would be funneled..
The bowling pin object, looking exactly like a mummy sleeping bag with its feet facing uphill (i.e. Irvine's body), just as Xu described. The location is 80-ft. below the ice axe site and just grazing Xus presumed descent path (green line)in other words, a perfect match. © BSF Swiss Photo AG, Zurich.

Fig. 15. The red line is 60-ft below the NE Ridge and 265 to 225-yards from the First Step. (Wynn Harris estimated the distance as 250-yards.) The red-shaded area (note the "Big Cave") is that part of the ice axe fall-line that Xu could have seen along his presumed route (green line); if Irvine briefly survived the initial fall, and struggled on only to quickly succumb to his injuries, the blue-shaded area is a second lesser possibility. The normal route follows the yellow line more or less al..
Fig. 17. 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 left, which certainly looks like a mummy sleeping bag, i.e., Irvines 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. © BSF Swiss Photo AG, Zurich. All color microscopy courtesy of Gail Edwards of Analog Devices..
Fig. 19. Another human-shaped object of the right size and shape, in a rock clef alongside Xus presumed descent route and below the Ice Axe Site. Provocative, certainly, but still not definitive enough to be positive hit--yet. Notice the many dark areas that are not subject to further resolution. © BSF Swiss Photo AG, Zurich/Analog Devices. (Click to enlarge).
Fig 21. 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.(Click to enlarge).