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

Posted: Apr 21, 2009 04:17 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) "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 'Occams 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, thats a fascinating bit of analysis, and it really seems to round off all that can possibly be knowable about Mallory & Irvines final hoursat least until Irvine is found. But lets get right to the elephant in the room: Your mapping images are clear enough to show old climbing ropesbut 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 illustratea 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 dont see large stones, for example, even those much larger and thicker than the rope. I dont know why. Of course theres always the possibility that Irvine is not there to be seen.

ExplorersWeb: How certain are you that youve found Irvine?

Tom Holzel: Unhappily, only about 65% certainwhich 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 didnt show Irvineonly a dark crevice in which he might be lyingbut which certainly dont 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 hes not there at allin which case we cant 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 Xus descent path. Clues just dont get any more positive than that. But, but, but

ExplorersWeb: Arent you being too graphic in describing Irvines possible broken neck and that the ice axe may have remained lodged in Mallorys forehead? What are the family members to think?

Tom Holzel: Well, Im pretty sure the Brits will jump all over me on that with their usual glee. But I havent yet figured out at what point to censor myself in the over-arching interests of political correctness. Sort of like Robertsons biography of Mallory in which he was too sensitive to mention that his subject had been killed.

ExplorersWeb: And you dont 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 Everestand the most innovative.

But Finch was not considered a gentlemanwhy 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 assertionssome highly detailed: they climbed the Second Step. Full stop. They each took three bottles of oxygen. Full stop. The blood stain on Mallorys 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 clothand 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 single scintilla of evidence.

ExplorersWeb: Like the location of the Irvines 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 OccamOccams 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 areafter all, you originally gave them what they wanteda realistic scheme to get at least Mallory to the top. Now youve gone apostate on them. Now you say all they accomplished was to mill around below the Second Stepand then get themselves killed by dallyingas you put iton 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 beenall 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 Mallorys hand in the planning.

By the First Step at one oclock, 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 Krakauers 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, Odells fantastic performance was not demonstrated until after Mallory & Irvine disappeared.

So Irvines reputation with the oxygen and for being as strong as an ox seemed at the moment to outweigh Odells 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 Irvines 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 climbingthe 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, theyor 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 acurate 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 body" 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.

Mallorys remains were found at 8,200 meters on Everest in 1999. Severe rope-jerk injuries around the bodys 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 Irvines body.

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


Tom Holzel (insert) and a 1:5000-scale orthophoto of Mt. Everest north face. The green line marks the modern route which Mallory & Irvine are believed to have followed. A red circle marks where Irvines ice axe 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).
Tom Holzel with the ultra-high (5000 dpi) resolution 435:1 scale image of Mt. Everests Yellow Band. On it a six-foot figure would be ½ cm in length. (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).
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.