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U.S. Expedition Hopes to Unravel 62-Year-Old Mystery of Mt. Everest : Cameras of British Duo May Reveal If They Reached Top

An expedition embarked for the Himalayas last week in an effort to answer a question that has prompted controversy among climbers for more than 60 years: Did British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924, 29 years before the ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary? In this first article, expedition leader Andrew Harvard explains how the team will attempt to uncover the secret of the fates of Mallory and Irvine, who disappeared just 900 feet below the summit on a summer day 62 years ago. Progress reports will be filed.

Dark as this night is, I can still see the mountain clearly. I don’t know how the ice and snow up there can pick up so much reflected starlight, but every feature is distinct and the outlines shimmer where the snow gives way to rock below or the sky above.

It was bitter cold when I wrote those lines in the late autumn of 1980. A glow seemed to emanate from Everest. I sat alone on a rock high above the Kangshung glacier, trying to learn more about this great face of the world’s highest peak. I had come there to reconnoiter a new route to the summit on the east side of the mountain, the last face left unclimbed.

Only once before had a mountaineer sat where I was sitting: British climber George Mallory came here looking for a route--any route--to the top of the world in 1921. He had already found what he thought was a way to the summit via the north side, across the East Rongbuk glacier. In 1924, Mallory returned to climb that north face route. Accompanied by Andrew Irvine, an inexperienced climber but a wizard with the rudimentary oxygen equipment of the age, Mallory departed from their tiny camp at 26,800 feet on the morning of June 8, 1924.

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Shortly after noon, a colleague of Mallory’s stationed at a lower camp, Noel Odell, glanced up at the intimidating face of Everest. Odell, now a 94-year-old professor of geology at Cambridge University, said he remembers the moment well. The clouds sheathing the peak momentarily parted and he saw Mallory and Irvine on a rock step less than 1,000 feet from the summit. It was to be the last glimpse of the men.

Unanswered Questions

Sitting on that rock, I pondered the questions that have haunted climbers ever since the British mountaineers disappeared. Had Mallory and Irvine succeeded in reaching the 29,028-foot summit? They would have done so 29 years before the celebrated ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. And could film in the pocket cameras Mallory and Irvine carried prove they were the first to stand on top of the world? These questions, which have nagged me for six years, are the reasons I have returned to the mountain with 12 other climbers and the man who has inspired renewed interest in solving the mystery, Tom Holzel of Boston.

Our expedition will be the first using modern equipment, including a new oxygen system developed by Holzel, to search the steps and crevasses of Everest’s north slope for clues to the fate of the two Englishmen. We will also use metal detectors specially calibrated to home in on the metallic parts of the pocket cameras and oxygen cylinders the two carried.

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The Holzel oxygen equipment, a new closed-circuit system never before used at high altitudes, will permit the searchers to stay at extremely high altitudes longer. With conventional open-circuit tanks, climbers can stay above 27,000 feet for no more than a day before their lungs surrender to the stress of extreme dehydration. Our system, which recirculates exhaled air through a purification element, should allow us to work above that altitude for as long as five days.

But before I elaborate on the current expedition, let me conclude my account of the events that led to its undertaking:

That night in 1980, I felt a sudden kinship with those pioneers of the ‘20s. They had come to Everest clad in tweeds and hobnail boots. With their spirit of adventure, they had carried the 19th-Century drive to seek the “ends of the Earth” into the 20th Century. I could see in my mind’s eye the winding yak trains, the struggling porters, the high and windy camps and, far up the ice slopes, the solitary figures moving slowly until they dropped out of sight above the clouds, higher than any man had climbed before.

I returned to Everest in 1981 and 1983 as part of a U.S. team that completed, on our second attempt, the first ascent of the east face of Everest. But after that night on the glacier, studying a route Mallory had called impossible, I have never really felt alone on the mountain. With me is the sense of the presence of those early men of Everest.

By the end of those expeditions, I had found in my teammate and friend, David Breashears, a similar enthusiasm for the legend of Mallory and Irvine. David is the only American to have attained the summit of Everest twice. At 30, he is considered one of the best climbers in the world. He is also an Emmy-winning cinematographer.

Now, as the summer of 1986 draws to a close, David and I are back on Everest, still close to the legends and histories of the early climbers. We are joined by Holzel, who has spent 16 years researching the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine and is considered the foremost authority on the subject.

Sighting of ‘English Dead’

Holzel, chairman of the expedition, is a 41-year-old engineer and amateur climber. After laborious investigations into the physiology of oxygen depletion at high altitudes, and a thorough reading of the lore and testimony that comprises the Mallory and Irvine canon, Holzel predicted in 1971 that Irvine and his Kodak vest-pocket camera could be found on a snow terrace at 27,000 feet. Ten years later a Japanese expedition on the classic route reported the sighting of an “English dead” clad in old climbing clothes at that approximate altitude. “There can be no mistake,” Japanese expedition leader Ryoten Hasegawa said at the time.

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In all likelihood, there are still traces of the Englishmen on the mountain. Their bodies would be preserved in the sub-zero temperatures. Other climbers scaling Everest’s highest ridges have found the remains of a primitive tent, a silver whiskey flask and a flashlight. An old climbing ax was discovered at the 27,600-foot level in 1933. Evidence is strong that at least some of these artifacts belonged to the ill-fated British mountaineers. So there is hope.

Glacier and Ruins

Our team has come to Everest to explore the same route first pioneered by the British in 1922. From the old Base Camp on the glacier above the ruins of the Rongbuk Monastery, we will follow in the footsteps of Mallory and Irvine. We want to reach the summit--no American climbers have reached it by this route--but we want to do something more. We want to explore the legend of Mallory and Irvine.

Three members of our team are American women, and one of them, Sue Giller, 39, was on our 1981 east face trip. Sue has four other major Himalayan expeditions to her credit, including Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and a second trip to Everest. This marks Sue’s third visit to Everest, a record unmatched by any other female climber. In contrast, Mary Kay Brewster, 28, has never been to the Himalayas. She is, however, an accomplished climber who has participated in rescue missions in the Rockies, and is at work on an honors thesis in high-altitude physiology. Catherine Cullinane, 31, is a mountaineering guide in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.

No American woman has ever stood on the summit of Everest. With good weather and conditions, I believe at least one of the women on our team will make it.

We will not be the only expedition on Everest. Another U.S. team will be headquartered less than two miles from our base camp. That group also includes several American women hoping to make it to the summit via the west ridge route. A British team will also be on the mountain, and a joint French-Italian expedition will climb Everest on the south side--the route Hillary took from Nepal.

For our expedition, David will direct the filming of a re-creation of the Mallory and Irvine’s climb to the point where Odell last saw them. They were, Odell wrote, “going strong for the top” late in the day on June 8, 1924.

No one knows which of the various routes from that point to the summit that they took. But speculation has centered on the route that passes over the Second Step, an imposing obstacle at 28,000 feet. It is thought by many to be unclimbable.

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Did Mallory and Irvine, with their primitive equipment, surmount the Second Step? Our climbers will put themselves in Mallory and Irvine’s boots to try to determine their route to the summit.

A Society Favorite

The 1924 climb was Mallory’s third trip to Everest. A favorite of British society, the handsome young man was the best-known climber of his time and was often seen in the company of such members of the Bloomsbury group as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and John Maynard Keynes. He was constantly pestered by the press and, in response to yet another inquiry as to his motives for climbing Everest, said in frustration the now-immortal words, “Because it’s there.”

For the British, conquering the summit was of chief importance. Having lost the race to the North and South poles, the British were obsessed with being the first to reach the top of the “Third Pole"--Everest. And Mallory was their man. The 1924 expedition generated so much international interest that the New York Times carried more than 30 articles on it in the month before its departure.

If our expedition can find a camera in the vicinity of the Second Step snow terrace and develop an image that has been locked away in ice for 62 years, it may prove that at least one of the early English climbers did indeed reach the summit.

Each of the folding Kodak cameras carried by Mallory and Irvine contained 24 inches of cellulose, nitrate-based film, with an emulsion layer of silver halide. A roll of film could take 12 pictures, and each man carried several rolls.

The cameras were among the most durable of their day, but 62 years later, they will be extremely fragile--both photochemically, due to high cosmic (gamma) radiation, and mechanically, due to extreme dehydration. Specialists at the Kodak laboratories in Rochester, N.Y., have been working for three years to figure out the best way to handle the cameras and film if any is discovered. They are convinced that time, weather and ice have not seriously harmed the negatives.

Testing Theories

Whether technical advances and chalkboard planning will help us uncover clues to their disappearance, only time will tell. We will spend the next two months putting the theories to the test.

I have climbed in more than 12 countries, but for the past two years I have been ensconced in a small office on Wall Street, where I work as a lawyer for the Federal Reserve Bank. I was in the midst of a project to help restructure the farm credit-and-loan system when the details of this expedition fell into place. As important as the farm-loan project is, for me there could be no choice.

I took a leave of absence to pursue a journey that is the fulfillment of that vision I had staring through the darkness at the east face of the mountain one cold night in 1980.


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