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Tom Holzel's latest on Mallory & Irvine: The final time line

Posted: Sep 25, 2009 02:22 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) A weekend summit watch is on at ExWeb. Besides Cho Oyu, Manaslu, and Shisha; focus is on the major attempt this season; three climbers inching their way up the steep and dangerous Hornbein Couloir on Everest north side.

While we wait for news, here goes a Saturday special read for you, about an old drama that unfolded on Everest north side exactly. "The mystery is about to be solved," historian Tom Holzel told ExplorersWeb. "And perhaps this coming spring."

After years of researching Mallory and Irvine's 1924 final climb on Everest - mounting the first search expedition in 1986, checking hi-res mapping images, interviewing Everest summiteers, comparing testimonies and theories, and weighing all possible scenarios - Tom has managed to reconstruct, minute-by-minute, Mallory and Irvine's final hours.

And there is a major new clue: a different eye-witness account of the sighting of Irvine's body.

The Deaths of Mallory & Irvine--A Time Line
By Tom Holzel Rev. 21 Sep 09

At their assault camp C-6, Mallory had decidedreluctantly (because of the weight)that they should each take two bottles of oxygen rather than one for their final climb. How conservative this calculation was can be seen by the rapid ascent they made from C-4 to C-6 (3800 vert-ft.) using only ¾ of a single bottle.

Now with only 2200 vert-ft left to ascend, Mallorys decision to err on the safe side was a conservative guess that the Second Step region might be significantly more difficult than the technically easy slog they had just endured up the North Ridge. And higher up, they might also need oxygen for the descent. So he safely opted to take the bloody load of a second bottle. Mallory likely switched from the low ( 1.5 L/m) flow rate they used climbing up to the North Col to the higher rate. By taking the second bottle, he allowed himself the capability to climb at 2.2 L/m rate to maximize their ascent speed.

They left C-6 at 5:30AM ±30 min. going on oxygen at a flow rate of 2.2 Liters/min.(Authors note: This departure time was arrived at by working backward from Odells sighting at 12:50PM, and based on their first four-hour bottle climbing speed of 250 vert-ft/hr, with an altitude gain of 1000-ft. And Mallory was a known early-starter.)

What, then, must have gone through Mallorys mind when their first bottle ran out at 28,000-ftthey having gained only about 1000-vert ft.? And they hadnt even reached the First Step.

Mallory & Irvines Situation

At about 9:30AM, well before the First Step, the first oxygen bottle ran out, which Mallory had thought might have been enough to take him to the top! What a shock! It had given them not even half the vertical gain of the previous bottle. Was there a leak? No, Irvine had also run out at the same time. The two did not know that with open-circuit oxygen systems climbing speed drops with altitude because the significant oxygen contribution of the outside air diminishes rapidly with altitude. Now, with the oxygen having proved its worth in spades up to C-6 on the previous two days, a sinking feeling must have set in today that maybe, once again, they just werent going to make it.

Each dropped off his empty bottle. (These were found by Eric Simonson in 1995.) It was time to reassess the situation.

- Weather: Iffy, clouds blowing in and out but still climbable with no change from fair to worse. If anything, it appeared to be lightening up a bit. But the likely onset of the monsoon was hard on Mallorys mind.

- Physical fitness: Except for his sun-shredded face, Irvine was strong; Mallory was O.K. but his previous exertions had taken their toll. He was nothing as fit as in 1922.

- Oxygen: Low for both of them. Four hours left and they had not even reached the First Step. Could they make it to the summit at this rate of expenditure vs climb rate? Not together. So the question washow far should they try to get? As Mallory was all too aware, this climb on Everest would be his last hurrah. He was determined to do something notable.

- Time: 9:30. Still 4 hours of safe climbing ahead before the agreed-to precautionary turn-around time of 1PM. But was that enough to get to the top?

- Decision: So far everything was working fine; they were climbing well, the weather was holding. Carry on at least to the looming obstacle aheadthe First & Second Step escarpment--and recalibrate from there.

Beginning their second bottle of oxygenand now in a hurry--they continued to follow the NE Ridge Route, i.e., climbing the slope just below the cornices of the ridge. Thank goodness the slope eased up and the climbing became more of a walk. They followed the obvious route below the crest of the NE Ridge and easily passed below the base of the First Step, likely climbing up to the ledge that leads to the Second Step. But there the climbing situation changed radically.

The stretch from the base of the First Step to the base of the Second is a steep and dangerous traverse. With time and oxygen running out, Mallory must have finally realized the summit was no longer in the cards for them both. He now had to decide what to do. His choices were:

1. With only three hours each of Oxygen remaining at the First Step, the summit was now out of reach for them together. They could turn back now with absolutely nothing to show for their effort. In the absence of any objective danger, this was an impossible choice for Mallory to make.

2. Traverse to the Second Step together but necessarily roped, which would greatly slow them down as Mallory would have to belay Irvine over the difficult spots which even then he would be taking at a very slow pace. This was direct, but slow, and dangerous for both of them. And the return would be just as slow and dangerous. And time was now of the essence.

3. Drop down to the Norton Traverse, following it to below the Second Step, to which they would then climb straight up. This would be safer but require giving up hard-won altitude. And then require a strenuous straight-up ascent of 100 feet or so to attain the base of the Second Step. A non-starter.

4. Drop down and take the Norton Route into the Great Couloir. This meant giving up altitude to try an unknown snow-filled route with no belay points and possibly much exhausting step-cutting.

5. Leave Irvine in the safe, sheltered nooks of the First Step, take his three hours worth of oxygen added to his own 3 hours worth, and rock climb solo to the base of the Second Step to reconnoiter its crux. They would be in sight of each other the whole way. This would glean valuable route information. Then, if the Second Step proved feasible, Mallory would climb it with 5 hours of oxygen on his back, and Irvine would descend to C-6 by himselfa safe climb with the camp in sight from where they were.


<b>Odells View:</b>. Both Steps have a snow patch at their base, fuelling for years arguments over which one Odell saw them on. Odells view was through broken clouds. This is a part of a fabulous panoramic by Jake Norton. (Click to enlarge).
<b>Yellow Band Route and Time Line:</b> Beginning at 5:30AM from their C-6, (out of the photo below, left) the Green and Red lines show Mallory & Irvines two likely ascent paths. The dotted blue and red (far right) are Mallorys presumed solo traverse to the base of the Second Step which he reaches at 11:30. The blue line shows their retreat with a detour up the First Step, where they are spotted from below by Odell. The yellow dot marks our suspicion of Irvine current location..
Norton resting high in the Yellow Band only a few days before Mallory & Irvines attempt. The Green line shows the (very) approximate route Mallory must have down-climbed in search of Irvine. Note the small amount of snowpack at the base of the Yellow Band. The red-circled area gives a better idea of the angle of the last 50m of that climb. Climbers may scoff that this is not overly steep. But Mallory was descending an unknown route in the agony of broken ribs in a fierce snow squall over f..
Odells drawing of his route from the North Col (Chang La) to C-6 and the distance he searched beyond. The red line shows his sightline to the Second Step. On this map his path reaches up to 8100m and only 200m East of Mallorys body. The ball point pen ink of the original has faded a lot so his pen line on this image has been colored. (Click to enlarge).
Spanner in hand, Andrew Irvine poses by his "Mark V" version of the oxygen system with a full load of three bottles. On the right-side of his belt appears one of his braces loops (the British term for suspenders).