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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." <cutoff>

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.

<i><b>The Deaths of Mallory & Irvine--A Time Line</b>
By Tom Holzel Rev. 21 Sep 09</i>

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 <b>5:30AM ±30 min.</b> going on oxygen at a flow rate of 2.2 Liters/min.<i>(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.)</i>

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.

<b>Mallory & Irvines Situation</b>

At about <b>9:30AM, well before the First Step,</b> 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.

- <b>Weather:</b> 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.

- <b>Physical fitness:</b> 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.

- <b>Oxygen:</b> 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.

- <b>Time: 9:30.</b> 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?

- <b>Decision:</b> 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. <b>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.</b> 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>10:30AM.</b< Mallory parks Irvine in the shelter of the First Step, takes his ¾-full oxygen bottle, and makes the traverse to the base of the Second Step. It takes him a full hour<b>11:30AM.</b>

Perhaps climbing up as far as the base of the open-book crux, Mallory realizes that in spite of having 5 hours of oxygen, this is a climb he is not capable of alone, especially not in his current faltering condition and the bloody load. The exposure is horrendous. He turns back, (<b>11:45AM</b>) returning to Irvine at the First Step<b>12:45PM</b>. <i>(A. note: Of course, this is where summit advocates would have Mallory push on.)</i>

<i>They had come so far, and had absolutely nothing to show for their magnificent effort. Irvine, sitting around for two hours and with Mallorys return now anxious to warm-up with a little activity, suggests to Mallory they clamber up the First Step, where he will photograph Mallory holding up his custom-made 30,000-ft altimeter. They can at least take photographs of the intricacies of the remaining route for future planning. They will at least be bringing something back.</i>

They clamber up. Down below, the atmosphere having momentarily cleared, Odell looks up and spots the two as they cross the snow patch at the base of the Step (<b>12:50PM</b>). He is stunned by the glorious sight. With thrilling thoughts of their possible summit success in mind because they are ascending, he instantly assumes they are still on their quest for the summit, noting that they are climbing with alacrity. In this thrall he does not realize it is the First Step they are climbing, not the Second. (Both look similar from his view point.) But he is worried that they seem to be FIVE HOURS behind their schedulehaving expected to reach the Second Step as early as 8AM.

<b>What Step Did Odell See Mallory & Irvine Surmount?</b>

Advocates of Mallorys summit success insist that Odell did see them surmount the Second Step as he stubbornly claimed or possibly even the Third!. <i>(A. note: Odell was beat-up by the RGS members to bring his thinking in line with theirs, that he must have seen them surmounting the First Step. He reluctantly yielded for a while, in hopes of being selected for the next expedition. But after he was rejected for being too old, he returned to his original belief. Twelve years later (1936) Odell reached the summit of Nanda Devi with Bill Tilman which at the time, and until 1950, was the highest mountain climbed.)</i>

Other critics eagerly seize on the cantankerous oxygen systems for their great delay. But if that had been the case, what would Mallory possibly have been thinking? Tinkering with a recalcitrant oxygen system for five hours on a summit day to then set off with only 3 hours of ascent time left is unthinkable. With plenty of oxygen available to them at C-6, any long delay would have caused them do the same as Finch didspend an extra night at C-6 and use oxygen for sleeping. <b>Thus, Mallory & Irvine cannot possibly have been seen climbing the First Step on their initial assault.</b>

<b>Why were they not seen climbing the Second or Third Steps?</b> From a timing point of view, the Second Step fits in perfectly: With Irvine slowing them down across the First-Second Step traverse, they would have been at its base at 12:30. But now they would have used up all but one hours worth of oxygen. <b>What would have been the point of the two risking life and limb on that treacherous traverse in order to go just a little bit farther with absolutely no chance of reaching the summit?</b> And then have an equally dangerous 2-hour return traverse back to the safety of the First Step?

Being seen climbing the Third Step is even less likely. It means they would have had to climb 820 yds horizontally and 600 vert-ft at the same speed (250 vert-ft/hr) they managed 1000-ft lower down. Because the First-Second Step Traverse would have taken the two of them two hours with essentially no altitude gain, to maintain the 250 vfh speed means they would have to climb above the Second Step at 400 vert-ft/hrjust not possible. We see how rapidly climbing speed drops with altitude by graphing 70 known speeds and extrapolating up from M & Is First Oxygen Bottle Drop (See Mallory & Irvines Climb Rates at <a href=" http://www.velocitypress.com/CopyIrvine.shtml" class="linkstylenews" target="new">VelocityPress articles</a>. At 28,500-ft. Mallory & Irvines ascent speed drops to 100 vert-ft/hr. <i>(A. Note: Hillary and Tenzing climbed that stretch at 150 vert-ft/hr.)</i>

But most tellingly, even modern climbers would be hard-pressed to ascend from the Oxygen Bottle Drop to the Third Step dragging along someone with only a season or so of rock climbing experience, with no fixed ropes, along treacherous and hugely exposed terrain, and then climb the ferocious Second Step--all in three hours. <b>Thus, they could not possibly have climbed fast enough with their last bottle of oxygen to reach the Third Step together at 12:50AM.</b> (So they didnt.)

<b>The Final Descent</b>

Their view from the top of the First Step is an awesome panorama. Irvine takes photos of Mallory, of Makalu glowering 14 miles in the distance and particularly of the NE Ridge leading up to the intricacies of the daunting Second Step. At about this time, Mallorys second bottle of gas depletes. Perhaps he tosses it down the Kangshung face. They turn down and reach the base of the Step at <b>1:30PM.</b>

They are still both wearing their oxygen racks. But Mallory still has Irvines ¾-full bottle on his back. The equipment is valuable and they intend to take it back. Climbing down from the First Step, Mallory shuts off his gas and takes off the facemask. The oxygen mask interferes with downward vision. Both are tired (especially Mallory), but there is no sense of danger or urgency in their situation. At various moments, the clouds open up and they can occasionally spot their C-6 on the North Ridge below. Had they had looked hard they might even have spotted Odell wending his way up to resupply C-6 <i>(A. Note: It has never been clear with what Odell was resupplying them)</i>

<b>The Ice Ax Fall</b>

Then, suddenly, (<b>2:00PM</b>) at approximately the spot where they dropped off their first bottle of oxygen, they become enveloped in a fierce snow squall. They quickly rope up, as much for moral support as for safetys sake.

Mallory leads, (<b>2:15PM</b>) seeking to retrace their ascent route. Although visibility is reduced to only a few yards, the descent is not technical. Mallorys mind is already back at Advanced Base Camp; he is emotionally crushed by this defeat. He has failed once again, and this time finally, to gain the fame he so ardently sought. He slips (<b>~2:30PM</b>).

Irvine sees or feels the tug of the rope. He hurls his ice ax aside and grabs the rope with both hands. Mallorys slip is not serious, but Irvine is also caught off guard. His footing impaired by the loose gravel underfoot on the 30o rock slab and the new layer of snow, he is pulled head-first off his feet. <i>(A. Note: M & I researchers who favor the idea of Irvine lying on the NE Ridge suggest that Irvine did not fall far or at all. They do not say why he would have left his invaluable ice ax behind.)</i>

Aided by Irvines momentary tug, Mallory catches himself, but then the force of Irvines fall pulls him off his precarious perch. They both tumble. The rope catches on a crag and jerks them brutally to a stop - and snaps. Mallory, mostly in a controlled slide is once again able to hold on, but Irvine has been pulled head first and lands hard on a lower ledge. He breaks his neck and comes to a stop jammed into a narrow slot, face up, his feet facing uphill (according to Xus description of Irvines lie).

Mallory, suffering the agony of broken ribs but still fully mobile, strips off his oxygen rig and climbs down to look for his companion. In the blinding snow squall he passes him by, failing to notice his companion wedged motionless in the concealing slot and already covered with a thin layer of snow. Mallory continues to follow the ice ax fall line as best he can. But the lack of visibility in the driving snow makes finding Irvine an impossible task.

<b>Mallorys Broken Foot</b>

Mallorys broken footboth bones were snapped above the ankleprovides us with an important clue. Where did he break it? It is inconceivable that anyone could climb down through the cliffs of the Yellow Band with such a terrible injury. Even conducting an ice ax self-rescue slide is hard to image. How do you hold your leg so the footflopping freelydoes not break completely off? If he was mobile after breaking it <i>Mallory would absolutely have had to splint his foot in order to proceed at all</i>, but there were no signs that he had done so. <b>Thus, he did not break his foot in the controlled part of his descent. Instead, it can only have occurred after he lost control in a second fall.</b>

To recap the evidence of Mallorys broken foot:

1. His foot injury cannot have occurred during the first fall at the Ice Ax site because he could not possibly have climbed down through the Yellow Band with such an injury.

2. He could not have fallen the entire distance from the Ice Ax site to his resting place because his body was not nearly damaged enoughas were the bodies of other (modern) climbers who did fall from that height and who were grotesquely broken up.

3. If he had successfully exited the Yellow Band with an unbroken foot, he would immediately have angled over to the North Ridgean easy hikeand not fallen to where he was found.

4. If he had broken his foot upon exiting the Yellow Band and been in control, he would have had to splint it in order to continue, but there is no evidence of that.

5. Ergo, Mallory must have fallen out of the Yellow Band to the top (~8300m) of the 8200m snow terrace, which resulted in an uncontrolled slide and tumble down its entire length to where he was found at 8165m. At some point in that fallprobably near the end, below the snowpack--his foot caught between two rocks and snapped.

<b>Mallorys Death</b>

The upper reaches of the Yellow Band offers many ledges to use as a descent path. It is this route that I believe Xu took when he described his own solo return by a more direct route. The 1960 Chinese had studied and followed the Norton/Harris Route diagonally through the Yellow Band. But at the bottom of the Band the cliffs become abruptly steeper (See Image 3). Here Mallory slips once again, but this time he is not able to catch himself. (<b>3:30PM</b>).

This second fall onto the top of the 8200 Snow Terrace continuing in an uncontrolled slide explains why, once out of the Yellow Band, Mallory did not immediately angle over to his C-6 on the North Ridge which was an easy traverse. It would have been essential to get back at least to the shelter of their C-6, and the known route of the North Ridge. Then Mallory might conceivably have attempted to continue a descent to C-4 the same day in order to marshal a rescue attempt. Odell once glissaded that entire distance in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Had Mallory not fallen the second time, he would have reached C-6 just about the time Odell was preparing to leave!

He falls to the snow layer on top of the 8200m snow terrace and begins an uncontrolled tumble. Desperately, he attempts an ice ax self-arrest, but on the thin snow layer his ax strikes rock and kicks back plunging into his forehead. Instantly rendered unconscious or dead, his body bounces and slides, landing once on his shoulder and dislocating it. At one point his foot jams between rocks and nearly breaks offbut the break slows him down. Finally, he tumbles onto the edge of a 2-foot high rock near the lip of the Snow Terrace which brings him to an abrupt halt lying face down on top of it. He is found there by Wang 51 years later.

On the next day, the 9th, the weather was very windy and bitterly cold. Odell was able to struggle up only to C-5. The day after, June 10th, he arrived alone at C-6. After climbing a 100 yards or so above the solitary tent, in the time available under the prevailing conditions, I found it impossible to extend my search. (<i>Fight, pg138.)</i>. Thus ended the first brief, heroic search mission for Mallory & Irvine.

<b>Xu Jings Testimony</b>

Veteran Mountain Guide Eric Simonson who led the 1999 expedition that found Mallorys body, and German researcher Jochen Hemmleb, who inspired the search, interviewed Xu Jing in Beijing in 2001.

Xu was the climber on the 1960 Chinese expedition to Everest who came across the body of an old mountaineer on his descent from the First Step. Hemmleb describes receiving this revelation thusly:

<i>Suddenly Xu rose in his chair, pressed his outstretched palms against his sides and his eyes widened to a fearsome stare. It was an expression of such intensity and had come so unexpectedly, it made me shudder. But still neither Simonson not I were prepared for the translation of Xus words.

At that time, he lookedthere is a body, 8200 meters high, one bodyin a sleeping bag. That person is frozen there.

Simonson looked at me in disbelief. Did he say he found a body?
Later Xu demonstrated the location by opening a book and pointing to the top of the pages. Then he ran his finger down the gutter, saying that the body was lying in a concave hollow or gully running down from the ridge crest. Again, he mentioned that the body was in a sleeping bag, but most of the bag was rotted away. The altitude, he now said, was 8300 meters (27,230 feet) </i>From<i> Detectives on Everest, p 183.</i>

However, contrary to popular belief, Xus revelation was not the first time the discovery of this body had been described. And he can certainly be forgiven for not remembering as clearly now, 41 years later, as what was remembered only a few years after the event. (It is odd, though that he forgot that his discovery of Irvine was common knowledge among the Chinese climbers at the time.)

<b>Fortunately, there is a far more contemporary source</b> than the 41-year span of Xus muddled memory:

In 1965, only five years after the Chinese Everest expedition in which Xu spotted a body, [1960 Everest summiter] Wang Fu-chou gave a lecture at the Geographical Society of the USSR in Leningrad. While describing the expedition, Wang Fu-chou made a sensational remark:

<i>At an altitude of about 8600 meters we found the corpse of a European. The hall burst into an uproar with the icy echo of the 1920s tragedy breathing over the seated audience of mountain climbers.

Why do you think it was a European? This was the first question asked when the speech ended. The answer combined the wisdom of the East with military brevity:

He was wearing braces.

(A. Note: Translated from the Russian by Tamara von Schmidt-Pauli of Primary language Services (Boston) from http://www.alpklubspb.ru/ass/a94.htm . Braces is the British term for suspenders, that is: suspenders - adjustable straps or bands worn over the shoulders with the ends buttoned or clipped to the waistband of a pair of pants to support it.)</i>

Thus, we not only have a much earlier version of Xus discovery, but one that seems to point unequivocally to Irvine (See photo above). This earlier description of the discovery also avoids the red herring of the sleeping bag, which is likely Xus conflation of Maurice Wilsons body, discovered a number times below the North Col, and wrapped in a sleeping bag.

As in all conversations with the Chinese climbers, they never really seemed to know how high they were in meters. They were all over the map on recalling the location of the body. 8600m would be right at the Second Step, an impossibility because that area has been intensely climbed for years. The 8200m once given by Xu is also unlikely because no part of the NE Ridge drops below 8400m on the North Face, and Xu insisted that the body was on or near the crest of the NE Ridge.

All we know for certain is that both Xu and Chhiring saw an old body somewhere in the Yellow Band. Now it is up to the next Conrad Anker to go and find him.

<i>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 in April, 2009 Tom Holzel thoroughly analyzed all clues, testimonies and high-resolution orthophotographic prints, to come up with a probable location of Irvines body. </i>

#Mountaineering #feature

<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).