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Pete Poston, part 2: Why Andrew Irvine Will Not Be Found in a Sleeping Bag!

Posted: Mar 23, 2011 12:58 am EDT

Long time contributor to ExplorersWeb, this time around American researcher and climber Pete Poston revisits the Mallory & Irvine Everest mystery. The 2-part special follows last year's contribution by Tom Holzel who, after studying aerial images taken at 8200m, believes he has spotted Irvine.

Poston throws in another clue, contradicting the sighting by Xu Jing of the 1960 Chinese Expedition. His team the first to climb Mallorys route to the summit, Xu reportedly saw an old body inside of a sleeping bag high up on the face. The remains must have been Irvine's but what's up with the bag?

Having established yesterday the documented movement of supplies up the mountain, in this part 2 Pete compares it to the official expedition account:

"I also come up with an indirect argument why the extra two bags werent taken," he says, adding, "Im going to pull a Sherlock Holmes, and figure it out by examining whats not been found." Here goes.

Why Andrew Irvine Will Not Be Found in a Sleeping Bag! Part 2
by Pete Poston

In the following article, the camp names are based on 1924 numbering, not what is used today. So ABC was Mallorys Camp III, C1 on the North Col was Camp IV; C2 was Camp V, and C3 was Camp VI.

The Logistics of Stocking the Upper Camps

In 1924 the original plan of campaign was found to be impracticable owing to bad weather. So a shortened and lightened form had to be adopted, a description of which will probably be of service, together with some of the details of our movements and equipment. Howard Somervell, Appendix E of FFE, p. 358

Written by Howard Somervell, this Appendix appears to be the definitive account of how the high camps were stocked with equipment.

So the question is, how does Somervells description of the high camps match the accounts given by Norton and others? Norton was there with him, sharing the same high camps being described in the Appendix, so their accounts should be the same.

Its here that we see Nortons statement that he and Somervell had only two bags illustrates that the description in the Appendix appears to be as much a suggested plan for future parties. For example, Somervell writes on p. 353-361

Nos. V and VI. To these camps sleeping bags alone should be taken, on the scale of two per sahib. One can then be used as a mattress, and is always available as an emergency bag in case plans go wrong and someone extra turns up.

Another example - starting on p. 359 Somervell suggests this schedule - Day 1. 2 Sahibs and 8 porters go to 25,000 or 25,500 feet, and then the party is advised to .take with them 3 Light Meade tents

This didnt happen - only two tents were taken to Camp V by Mallory and Bruce, one for themselves and one for the four porters.

Norton says no additional bedding was needed

Norton writes in the famous footnote on p. 116 of FFE, that after he and Somervells attempt the entire mountain was left completely stocked with bedding -

...and, lastly, Camp VI having been established with tents and bedding by Somervell and me, nearly every available porter could now be used for carrying oxygen cylinders

So here we have the man who was in each of the upper camps, who helped stock them and spent a night in each, that no additional bedding was necessary.

Theres just one little problem, though.

Norton is contradicted by Odell

Poor Nortonhe wrote the expedition book, but keeps getting contradicted, first by Somervell and now by Noel Odell. On p.125 of FFE

The eight porters , who accompanied them from Camp IV, carried provisions, bedding, and additional oxygen cylinders, but of course no breathing apparatus for their own use.

So there you have it. But what I dont understand is, since Odell contributed a chapter on Mallory and Irvines attempt, surely he would have read the rest of the book! If there was a real contradiction, wouldnt such an important detail as extra sleeping bags have been clarified?

Odell writes twice that there were only two bags in Camp VI, once when he first climbed up to Camp VI, and again after he climbed back up to Camp VI two days later. After he failed to find any trace of the climbers, he dragged their two sleeping bags out of the tent to signal Hazard on the North Col that there was no trace of them.

So if Odell knew there were extra bags and mattresses taken up to Camp VI, then he should have been curious why there were only two bags instead of four - in Mallory and Irvines tent.

Is it possible that Odell simply missed the extra mattresses in the tent? Perhaps there were two mattresses for each climber stacked on top of each other, and in the messy confines of the tent, went unobserved?

I have trouble with this, though. Odell retreated into this tent to escape the Into-Thin-Air type of storm that hit the mountain around 2 oclock. What would he have done? Gotten into a sleeping bag, of course!

Nowhere has Odell written that he was surprised the extra bedding he previously mentioned wasnt in either Camp V or Camp VI. Because of the obvious implications, surely he would have said something about this.

The Extra Porter Bag

However, I do believe that they did take the extra porter bag written on the provisions list.

The extra porter bag on Mallory's provisions list is easy to explain. And I think Ive uncovered some new evidence proving it was indeed taken (at least that Ive heard)

After Norton, Somervell and the porters reached Camp V, some loose rocks tore through the porters tent, and two of them suffered serious injuries.

Lobsang Tashi was hit in the head, and Semchumbi suffered a nasty gash on his knee (although this didnt prevent him from stoically carrying a load up to Camp VI the next day). Lobsangs head wound reportedly bled quite copiously.

So this furnishes a reasonable explanation why the extra porter bag was taken to replace the bloody one.

Theres even a teasing reference to it on Mallorys provisions list that I never noticed before.

In the upper right-hand corner is listed a coolie bag and rations. The bag and rations are connected together with a curly brace, and next to it is a check mark (its upside down!).

For me at least, this proves special attention, the extra porter bag was deliberately double-checked, and therefore taken along with them. In addition to the check mark by the porter bag, there are several other check marks next to pieces of gear and foodstuffs, indicating Mallorys progress as he prepared for the ascent.

Logistics of the climb to Camp VI

Since it doesnt really matter what the porter loads were from Camp IV to Camp V, only the logistics from Camp V to VI needs to be considered.

In addition, the expedition policy was to limit the porter loads to about 20 pounds.

The logistics therefore break down to making a reasonable estimate of what each load could have been based on the provisions list, plus additional gear not specified but probably taken.

Its also interest to consider that Norton and Somervell used a porter as a reserve, who climbed unladen. In the Geographical Journal, Dec 1924, p. 452, Norton mentions the reserve porter explicitly -

This breakdown of the first party enabled us to reduce our porters to four one of whom climbed unladen, as a reserve man.

Mallory and Irvine may have done the same on the climb up to Camp V, but as well see, theres just too much equipment to climb to Camp VI without using all four porters.

Three porters carry oxygen and a possible oxygen bottle number?

Mallorys provisions list specifies a total of six oxygen bottles, but only five show up on the Stella letter. This is speculative, but I wonder if the number of the sixth bottle appears on the provisions list.

In the lower left-hand corner of the list is a sideways number 46. Its certainly not a page number there arent any page numbers on either of the notes sent down by Mallory, which were torn from the same little notebook. On the flip side, why isnt the bottle pressure there as well?

Sleeping oxygen and the remaining provisions

The porters carried the oxygen bottles in an empty duralumin frame (a stripped down oxygen apparatus), and with two bottles the weight was 16 pounds (Im assuming that the 16 pounds includes the wait of the carrier).

We know that bits and pieces of the oxygen apparatus were scattered about the inside and outside of the tent. Like others, I believe this indicates they slept on oxygen, so the extra weight of the apparatus parts and a few tools needs to be included in the total.

We also need to consider the weight of the porters personal gear and munchies for the climb. A thermos alone weighed two pounds, and when the weight of the water is added, the total weight of personal gear could easily have been around 5 pounds or so.

The remaining items on the provisions list are foodstuffs, the Unna cooker plus fuel, and other items sent up by Bruce to the North Col when he sent Mallory the porters, oxygen and food needed for their attempt.

Miscellaneous other pieces of gear undoubtedly were taken, too. For example, who carried Mallory and Irvines rope? With all those porters, why not save yourself the weight and have a porter take it?

So how much weight must have been carried by these remaining four porters, not including personal gear? At 20-25 pounds per porter, thats a total of about 100 pounds of gear that could be carried. Do the remaining items on the list add up to this much?

According to the list, the following items remain (additional rations were picked up in Camp V)

oxygen 16
oxygen 16
oxygen 16

rations Camp V foodstuffs + tongue etc 10 (?)
oxygen parts, tools 10 (?)
Unna Cooker + Meta 5

rope 5 (?)
tent pole 2 (?)

total w/o bags = 80
80/4 = 20 lbs/porter

total w/bags + mattress = 100
100/4 = 25 lbs/porter

Now add the five pounds of personal gear, and the porter loads without bags is about 25 lbs with them the load was 30 pounds, much too high based on the expeditions policy.

All things considered then

Theres just not enough manpower for the extra weight of the bags and mattresses.

The Nail in the Coffin

For me the nail in the coffin of the sleeping bag theory is - -

Why does Mallory's provisions list contain both sleeping bags AND mattresses?

This is strange. If two extra bags and mattresses were taken to Camp VI, this is a problem because now it has to be explained what happened to the mattresses. To me it's a type of reductio ad absurdum argument - assume they took extra bags which leads to a contradiction - where are the extra mattresses? They obviously wouldnt take both on the summit assault.

If you claim bags were taken for an emergency because they appear on the provisions list, then it seems to me you also have to include the mattresses, too.

Final Thoughts

When you tie together all of the known facts Mallorys definitive stated intentions, the extra weight, no mention of extra bags explicitly mentioned by the expedition chroniclers, and the porter logistics - I have no doubt that Mallory and Irvine slept in two bags at Camp VI. They never would have even conceived of taking extras for a bivouac or emergency. Thats only revisionist history.

So why are the bags and mattresses on the provisions list to begin with? The earliest the list could have been written was on June 3rd when Mallory and Irvine were scurrying around for gear in Camp III. If so, then the list was added to on June 4th while Mallory and Norton discussed the upcoming assault in Nortons tent on the North Col (after Norton and Somervells summit attempt).

It would have been at this time that Mallory would have learned that no bags were actually needed, except for the bloodied porter bag. More importantly, Bruce was in Camp III on June 4th and 5th, and would have been in constant communication with Mallory and Irvine since he was organizing the transport of supplies up to the North Col. In Bruces note to Mallory sent with the porters on June 5th , he never mentions the extra bedding.

While exciting to think about, Id have to say that this particular theory doesnt hold water. In 1924, they were smart enough and respectful enough of the mountain to never get caught out after dark. This philosophy was neatly summed up in Mallorys note to Odell the night before his fatal summit attempt -

Be sure of getting back to IV tomorrow in time to evacuate by dark, as I hope to.

A forlorn hope, as it sadly turned out to be.

Next: Pete's closing editorial about the politics around the search.


Thanks to Bill Lougheed for many useful suggestions.


1. Tatort Mount Everest: der Fall Mallory, Reich, Luzern; Auflage, 2009
2. E.F. Norton, Fight for Everest, 1924, Pilgrims Publishing, 2004
3. After Everest: The Experiences Of A Mountaineer And Medical Missionary, Hodder and Stoughton; 5th edition, 1950

Find related links below images.

#Mountaineering #Science #topstory #feature

Close-up of food items found at Camp VI.
Image by Pete Poston courtesy Pete Poston, SOURCE
The North Face of Mount Everest from the Rongbuk Monastery.
Image by Pete Poston courtesy Pete Poston, SOURCE