Long time contributor to ExplorersWeb, American researcher and climber Pete Poston's classics include a 5-part series about and an interview with mountaineering legend Chris Bonington, another series special 50 years of silence - Lino Lacedelli confess the truth about K2 conquest and Walter Bonatti and Chomolungma Nirvana - the Routes of Mount Everest.
In a 5-part series co-written with Jochen Hemmleb, Pete Poston also compiled The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate and with another Everest season around the corner, Pete revisits the Mallory & Irvine Everest mystery in this 2-part special with a final editorial about the politics surrounding the search.
The series follow last year's highly popular contribution by another Everest researcher who, after studying aerial images taken at 8200m, believed he had spotted Mallory's climbing partner. "Now all we need is some boots on the ground to prove it one way or the other - and bring back Irvine's folding Kodak camera," Tom Holzel wrote at ExWeb back then.
After a few secretive teams failed the search last May the quest continues with Pete's input bound to add to the excitement.
Why Andrew Irvine Will Not Be Found in a Sleeping Bag!
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.
For all you Mallory and Irvine fans out there, you know that in 1960 there was a sighting of an old body high up on the North Face of Mount Everest. The sighting was by a very credible witness - Xu Jing, Deputy Director of the 1960 Chinese Expedition that was the first to climb Mallorys route to the summit. If true, this body can only be that of Andrew Irvine, who perished with George Mallory back in 1924.
Xu Jing has maintained throughout a series of interviews (except the 2005 EverestNews.com interview) that he saw this old body inside of a sleeping bag, with only a blackened face peeking through.
Nobody thought much about this, thinking that maybe Xu Jing actually saw Irvines jacket with his hand-stitched zippers. Or maybe he was confusing it with Maurice Wilsons bag, whose body had been discovered earlier below the North Col.
It seemed highly doubtful that the extra weight of a sleeping bag was taken in addition to the bloody load of the oxygen sets they were carrying.
Extra sleeping bags on Mallorys provisions list
In Jochen Hemmlebs new book Tatort Mount Everest: der Fall Mallory , he discusses a discovery - originally made by a researcher named Bill Lougheed that Mallory had jotted down on his provisions list some extra sleeping bags and mattresses, even though its known from the literature that the upper camps were already fully stocked.
Using the vernacular of the time two sahib bags, two mattresses, and a coolie bag are found on Mallorys provisions list. But given Lougheeds discovery, why would Mallory put them on the list then? Extra warmth at Camp VI? For an emergency? Bivouacking? If true, this would radically change our understanding of Everests greatest mystery.
I dont think they did (and neither does Lougheed), but proof is a completely different matter since you cant prove a negative. Its an amazingly slippery subject, where contradictions and ambiguities abound, depending on whos account youre reading, and what the phase of the moon is.
What did Mallory say he was going to do?
Lets just start with what Mallory himself wrote in letters home to his wife Ruth.
We already know what Mallorys summit plans were - in a letter dated April 24 - while in Shekar Dzong - he writes these oft-quoted lines:
We shall be starting by moonlight if the morning is calm and should have the mountain climbed if were lucky before the wind is dangerous.
My plan will be to carry as little as possible, go fast and rush the summit. Finch and Bruce tried carrying too many cylinders.
These are the most definitive statements concerning Mallorys plan of attack we have. Mallory was already concerned about climbing with oxygen and the bloody load it represented.
The obvious weight considerations
According to Mallorys provisions list, a sahib bag plus mattress weighed 10 pounds. Splitting the difference, lets say just the bag weighed 5 pounds. We also know that the modified oxygen rig weighed about 20 pounds with two cylinders. Adding 5 pounds of personal gear including a thermos and cameras, their loads would have been about 30 pounds.
Obviously not the light, fast rush Mallory was planning!
And theres an additional minor consideration - how could they carry the bags? Could they have tied them onto the oxygen rig, like the gear that can be seen in the North Col photo?
Possible of course, but what a hassle when negotiating tricky rock sections, or changing oxygen cylinders they already knew how unwieldy the oxygen rigs were after practicing with them at Shegar Dzong.
Wouldnt Mallory have told Norton about a planned bivouac?
Norton and Mallory talked about Mallorys new oxygen-assisted plan on June 4th, when they shared a tent that evening in Camp IV on the North Col after Norton and Somervells epic attempt.
Can you imagine the conversation they would have had if Mallory had brought up this sleeping bag plan? "Right, Teddy, we're going to take sleeping bags to bivvy in, and go for it!"
After a moment of shocked silence, Norton's reply would undoubtedly have been, "What? Are you bloody mad?"
Norton understood that safety was first, and one way to be safe was to travel light. He understood that every ounce counted - even limiting the number of nails in his boots to save weight!
More clues why were torches left behind?
Another consideration regarding sleeping bags is the fact that in 1933, after stumbling on the remains of Mallory and Irvines high camp, a climbing party found working torches inside the tent, a folding candle lantern, and some magnesium flares. Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Mallory the scatterbrain forgot them and left them behind.
But this begs the question: why wouldnt Irvine remember? Preparing in the morning to leave, if they were prepared for a bivouac by taking the bags, surely torches would be taken, too, since they would have been crucial for finding their way down, or signaling for help.
Just based on the reasons so far, it seems highly unlikely to me there was any serious consideration of bringing the bags along, and that the inclusion of them on the list is because in the initial stages of planning, they were added, but later found to not be needed.
But since the advocates of this theory have investigated the movement of equipment up the mountain, a detailed look at the supply logistics of the higher camps will undertaken next. But first a little background.
The Revised Summit Plan
The 1924 Expedition entertained high hopes that they would climb the mountain this time. They had plenty of climbing talent and high-altitude experience from previous expeditions, yet suffered from the worst luck imaginable when an extended period of atrocious weather, illnesses and porter deaths put an end to the first attempt on the mountain.
The original plan of attack was for a simultaneous assault, with one party using oxygen while the other did not. The oxygen party would leave from Camp VI - at the same time the other left from Camp VII (never actually established) - the two groups hopefully meeting on the summit. An ambitious plan that had Mallory in high hopes of getting him to the top.
But after all the bad weather and the exhausted condition of the climbers and porters, the original plan could not be supported logistically any more, so the expedition came up with a last-ditch effort. Now there would be two oxygen-less summit attempts, the second following the first one camp behind, replacing equipment the first pair took up with them as they ascended. That way, the total amount of supplies necessary to stock the higher camps would be reduced.
The first attempt
Following this new plan, Camp V was established by Mallory and Bruce, and it contained two Meade tents one for the climbers and one for the four porters. We know this with certainty because the two tent emplacements continue to be used to this day!
But the first attempt failed after Mallory and Bruces porters lost heart under the relentless wind that had sapped their strength the day before, and which showed no indications of getting any better the next morning. There was nothing else for Mallory and Bruce to do but dejectedly go down in defeat.
Was it four or two?
According to an Appendix in the expedition book The Fight for Everest, 1924 (FFE) , the higher camps were to contain two sleeping bags per climber. Im going to argue in Part 2 that this was actually a suggestion, but for now will examine what was actually taken and compare it to the Appendix later.
Did Mallory and Bruce carry two bags per Sahib to Camp V, instead of one each? If so, then they would have to be replaced by Norton and Somervell climbing one day behind. What do they say about the number of tents and sleeping bags they carried up to Camp V?
Sleeping bag bookkeeping
Heres what Norton writes on p.102 of FFE -
The morning of June 2 broke fine, and by 6:30 Somervell and I were off with our little party of six porters. The reader will understand that Mallory and Bruce were to have established Camp V overnight; this morning they should have been heading up the North Ridge for Camp VI, carrying with them the tent and sleeping bags in which they had slept the night before.
Norton then goes on to be more specific as to the number of bags and tents -
Our loads, therefore, must comprise one 10-pound tent, two sleeping bags, food and "meta" (solid spirit) for ourselves for a possible three nights and for the porters for one.......
So there you have it, only one bag per climber was taken. If you continue to argue that everyone had two each, then in order to have four bags per climber with Norton and Somervell only carrying two bags - then Mallory and Bruce would have had to have taken six bags to Camp V. Obviously this is absurd.
But theres more.
Two porters are sent back down
When Norton and Somervell encountered the descending Mallory and Bruce, Norton writes in FFE about a sudden change of plans
As Camp V had been left standing with tents and bedding destined to go higher that morning, Somervell and I were able to detach two of the porters who had accompanied us so far, to return with the descending party.
This seems to say that the tent and two sleeping bags they were carrying were sent down with the two porters, since they could now use those left behind at Camp V. It didnt matter if this left Camp V deficient in bags after they left, because no third assault was planned at this point.
Could this be the explanation for the extra bags and mattresses on the provisions list?
No, Somervell sets the record straight, writing in his book After Everest: The Experiences Of A Mountaineer And Medical Missionary , how he and Norton were actually left with an extra tent and sleeping bags at Camp V
We found the two tents all right, pitched close to the place where we had put them in 1922, and, having with us an extra tent and bedding, we settled down to as near an approach to a comfortable evening as one can expect at 25,000 feet.
The extra tent and bags were subsequently carried up to Camp VI the next day, leaving the entire mountain stocked with bedding as Norton wrote.
So what was taken down by the porters? Extra porter rations? The additional Unna cooker and meta? Is that why these appear on Mallorys list?
Next in Part 2
Having established in Part 1 the documented movement of supplies up the mountain, its necessary to compare it to the official expedition account as summarized in Appendix E of FFE. Doing this will establish that the Appendix is more of a suggestion rather than documentation.
I also come up with an indirect argument why the extra two bags werent taken. Im going to pull a Sherlock Holmes, and figure it out by examining whats not been found, and thats coming up in Part 2.
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
In links section below images.
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