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Chapter One: Snickers and Tea
I had just sat down to take off my crampons, because the traverse across the rock band ahead would be easier without them. I drank some fluid -- a carbohydrate drink I keep in my water bottle -- and sucked a cough drop. At that altitude, it's essential to keep your throat lubricated.
I looked out over this vast expanse. To the south and west, I could see into Nepal, with jagged peaks ranging toward the horizon. In front of me on the north stretched the great Tibetan plateau, brown and corrugated as it dwindled into the distance. The wind was picking up, and small clouds were forming below, on the lee side of some of the smaller peaks.
All of a sudden, a strong feeling came over me that something was going to happen. Something good. I usually feel content when the climb I'm on is going well, but this was different. I felt positive, happy. I was in a good place.
It was 11:45 A.M. on May 1. We were just below 27,000 feet on the north face of Mount Everest. The other four guys were fanned out above me and to the east. They were in sight, but too far away to holler to. We had to use our radios to communicate.
I attached my crampons to my pack, stood up, put the pack on, and started hiking up a small corner. Then, to my left, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a piece of blue and yellow fabric flapping in the wind, tucked behind a boulder. I thought, I'd better go look at this. Anything that wasn't part of the natural landscape was worth looking at.
When I got to the site, I could see that the fabric was probably a piece of tent that had been ripped loose by the wind and blown down here, where it came to rest in the hollow behind the boulder. It was modern stuff, nylon. I wasn't surprised -- there are a lot of abandoned tents on Everest, and the wind just shreds them.
But as I stood there, I carefully scanned the mountain right and left. I was wearing my prescription dark glasses, so I could see really well. As I scanned right, I saw a patch of white, about a hundred feet away. I knew at once there was something unusual about it, because of the color. It wasn't the gleaming white of snow reflecting the sun. It wasn't the white of the chunks of quartzite and calcite that crop up here and there on the north side of Everest. It had a kind of matte look -- a light-absorbing quality, like marble.
I walked closer. I immediately saw a bare foot, sticking into the air, heel up, toes pointed downward. At that moment, I knew I had found a human body.
Then, when I got even closer, I could see from the tattered clothing that this wasn't the body of a modern climber. This was somebody very old.
It didn't really sink in at first. It was as if everything was in slow motion. Is this a dream? I wondered. Am I really here? But I also thought, This is what we came here to do. This is who we're looking for. This is Sandy Irvine.
We'd agreed beforehand on a series of coded messages for the search. Everybody on the mountain could listen in on our radio conversations. If we found something, we didn't want some other expedition breaking the news to the world.
"Boulder" was the code word for "body." So I sat down on my pack, got out my radio, and broadcast a message: "Last time I went bouldering in my hobnails, I fell off." It was the first thing that came to mind. I just threw in "hobnails," because an old hobnailed boot -- the kind that went out of style way back in the 1940s -- was still laced onto the man's right foot. That was another reason I knew he was very old.
We all had our radios stuffed inside our down suits, so it wasn't easy to hear them. Of the other four guys out searching, only Jake Norton caught any part of my message, and all he heard was "hobnails." I could see him, some fifty yards above me and a ways to the east. Jake sat down, ripped out his radio, and broadcast back, "What was that, Conrad?"
"Come on down," I answered. He was looking at me now, so I started waving the ski stick I always carry at altitude. "Let's get together for Snickers and tea."
Jake knew I'd found something important, but the other three were still oblivious. He tried to wave and yell and get their attention, but it wasn't working. At 27,000 feet, because of oxygen deprivation, you retreat into a kind of personal shell; the rest of the world doesn't seem quite real. So I got back on the radio and put some urgency into my third message: "I'm calling a mandatory group meeting right now!"
Where we were searching was fairly tricky terrain, downsloping shale slabs, some of them covered with a dusting of snow. If you fell in the wrong place, you'd go all the way, 7,000 feet to the Rongbuk Glacier. So it took the other guys a little while to work their way down and over to me.
I rooted through my pack to get out my camera. That morning, at Camp V, I thought I'd stuck it in my pack, but I had two nearly identical stuff sacks, and it turns out I'd grabbed my radio batteries instead. I realized I'd forgotten my camera. I thought, Oh, well, if I had had the camera, I might not have found the body. That's just the way things work.
When I told a friend about this, he asked if I'd read Faulkner's novella The Bear. I hadn't. On reading that story, I saw the analogy. The best hunters in the deep Mississippi woods can't even catch a glimpse of Old Ben, the huge, half-mythic bear that has ravaged their livestock for years. It's only when Ike McCaslin gives up everything he's relied on -- lays down not only his rifle, but his compass and watch -- that, lost in the forest, he's graced with the sudden presence of Old Ben in a clearing: "It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling."
As I sat on my pack waiting for the others, a feeling of awe and respect for the dead man sprawled in front of me started to fill me. He lay face down, head uphill, frozen into the slope. A tuft of hair stuck out from the leather pilot's cap he had on his head. His arms were raised, and his fingers were planted in the scree, as if he'd tried to self-arrest with them. It seemed likely that he was still alive when he had come to rest in this position. There were no gloves on his hands; later I'd think long and hard about the implications of that fact. I took off my own gloves to compare my hands to his. I've got short, thick fingers; his were long and thin, and deeply tanned, probably from the weeks of having walked the track all the way from Darjeeling over the crest of the Himalaya to the north face of Everest.
The winds of the decades had torn most of the clothing away from his back and lower torso. He was naturally mummified -- that patch of alabaster I'd spotted from a hundred feet away was the bare, perfectly preserved skin of his back. What was incredible was that I could still see the powerful, well-defined muscles in his shoulders and back, and the blue discoloration of bruises.
Around his shoulders and upper arms, the remnants of seven or eight layers of clothing still covered him -- shirts and sweaters and jackets made of wool, cotton, and silk. There was a white, braided cotton rope tied to his waist, about three eighths of an inch in diameter -- many times weaker than any rope we'd use today. The rope was tangled around his left shoulder. About ten feet from his waist, I could see the frayed end where the rope had broken. So I knew at once that he'd been tied to his partner, and that he'd taken a long fall. The rope had either broken in the fall, or when his partner tried to belay him over a rock edge.
The right elbow looked as if it was dislocated or broken. It lay imbedded in the scree, bent in an unnatural position. The right scapula was a little disfigured. And above his waist on a right rib, I could see the blue contusion from an upward pull of the rope as it took the shock of the fall.
His right leg was badly broken, both tibia and fibula. With the boot still on, the leg lay at a grotesque angle. They weren't compound fractures -- the bones hadn't broken the skin -- but they were very bad breaks. My conclusion was that in the fall, the right side of the man's body had taken the worst of the impact. It looked as though perhaps in his last moments, the man had laid his good left leg over his broken right, as if to protect it from further harm. The left boot may have been whipped off in the fall, or it may have eroded and fallen apart. Only the tongue of the boot was present, pinched between the bare toes of his left foot and the heel of his right boot.
Goraks -- the big black ravens that haunt the high Himalaya -- had pecked away at the right buttock and gouged out a pretty extensive hole, big enough for a gorak to enter. From that orifice, they had eaten out most of the internal organs, simply hollowed out the body.
The muscles of the left lower leg and the thighs had become stringy and desiccated. It's what happens, apparently, to muscles exposed for seventy-five years. The skin had split and opened up, but for some reason the goraks hadn't eaten it.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, Jake Norton arrived. Then the others, one by one: first Tap Richards, then Andy Politz, then Dave Hahn. They didn't say much: just, "Wow, good job, Conrad," or, "This has to be Sandy Irvine." Later Dave said, "I started blinking in awe," and Tap remembered, "I was pretty blown away. It was obviously a body, but it looked like a Greek or Roman marble statue."
The guys took photos, shot some video, and discussed the nuances of the scene. There seemed to be a kind of taboo about touching him. Probably half an hour passed before we got up the nerve to touch him. But we had agreed that if we found Mallory or Irvine, we would perform as professional an excavation as we could under the circumstances, to see if what we found might cast any light on the mystery of their fate. We had even received permission from John Mallory (George's son) to take a small DNA sample.
Tap and Jake did most of the excavating work. We'd planned to cut small squares out of the clothing to take down to Base Camp and analyze. Almost at once, on the collar of one of the shirts, Jake found a name tag. It read, "G. Mallory." Jake looked at us and said, "That's weird. Why would Irvine be wearing Mallory's shirt?"
Sometime on the morning of June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out from Camp VI, at 26,800 feet on the northeast ridge. The day before, the porters who had carried gear and food up to the camp in support of the summit bid brought down a note from Mallory, addressed to the expedition cinematographer, John Noel, who was ensconced at Camp III, more than 5,000 feet below.
We'll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won't be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8.0 P.M.
Noel had a 600 millimeter lens that the expedition members used like a telescope to track their teammates' movements high on Everest. All subsequent commentators have assumed, as Odell did on reading the note, that Mallory's "8.0 P.M." was a slip of the pen, that he meant to write "8:00 A.M." In that case, Mallory's estimate of where he would be was exceedingly optimistic, for it was rare in the era of early Himalayan campaigns for a pair of climbers to get off from any high camp before 6:30 in the morning.
The 1924 expedition was the third of three attempts -- all British -- on the world's highest mountain; it followed a thoroughgoing reconnaissance in 1921 and a nervy assault the year after. Only Mallory had been a member of all three expeditions. Yet the weather in May 1924 had proved atrocious, defeating a very strong team's best efforts even to put themselves in position for a summit thrust. Later the tea planters in Darjeeling would aver that for at least the previous twenty years, "no such weather had been known at this season."
Then, with the climbers' hopes all but extinguished, the mountain had laid a spell of grace upon them, giving them day after day of fine weather, although the men woke each morning dreading the onset of the inevitable monsoon, which, normally arriving around June 1, would enfold the Himalaya in a four-month miasma of heavy snow.
As Mallory and Irvine closed their canvas tent and headed along the windswept ridge, they were full of a bursting anticipation. Only four days before, their teammate E. F. "Teddy" Norton, at the end of a gallant effort, had reached 28,126 feet -- the highest anyone had ever climbed -- before turning back a mere 900 feet below the summit. Norton had made his gutsy push without the aid of bottled oxygen. Mallory and Irvine were breathing gas, and though Mallory had initially been a skeptic about its efficacy, on the 1922 expedition he had learned firsthand that climbers aided by oxygen high on Everest could easily double the climbing speed of those without.
On the 1924 assault, as he had during the two previous expeditions, Mallory had proven himself the strongest and most ambitious climber. By now, his personal obsession with Everest had cranked as tight as it could be wound. In a letter to his wife, Ruth, written six weeks before from Chiblung, on the approach to Everest, he had predicted, "It is almost unthinkable...that I shan't get to the top; I can't see myself coming down defeated."
If his twenty-two-year-old companion was daunted by Mallory's hubris, he gave no indication of it. In his diary only four days before his own attempt, awaiting the outcome of Teddy Norton's bold summit bid with teammate Howard Somervell, Irvine had written, "I hope they've got to the top, but by God, I'd like to have a whack at it myself."
Ever since 1924, observers have wondered why Mallory chose Irvine as his partner for the second summit attempt, rather than the far more experienced Noel Odell, who had rounded into incomparable form at high altitude during the preceding week. Irvine had very little climbing experience, with only an exploratory outing in Spitsbergen under his belt. (In a letter to Ruth, Mallory had voiced a qualm, "I wish Irvine had had a season in the Alps.") But on Everest, the Oxford undergraduate had proved to be tougher than several of his more seasoned comrades, an uncomplaining worker, and a delightful companion. He was also something of a mechanical genius, who had taken apart the oxygen apparatus in the field and rebuilt it in a lighter and more efficient form. And since oxygen would be the key to Mallory's all-out dash for the summit, it made sense to have Irvine along.
That day, June 8, 1924, among the rest of the team, only Odell, climbing solo up to Camp VI in support of the summit duo, was high on the mountain. A professional geologist, he had chosen the day to wander in zigzags up the north face, looking for unusual formations. By late morning, he was swimming in a private ecstasy, for there, in one of the most barren places on earth, he had discovered the first fossils ever found on Everest.
At 12:50 in the afternoon, Odell mounted a small crag around 26,000 feet just as the clouds abruptly cleared. Squinting upward, he was treated to the brief vision that has beguiled and tantalized all Everest students since. As Odell later wrote:
I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then climbed to the top of the step....I could see that they were moving expeditiously as if endeavouring to make up for lost time.
Then the clouds closed over the scene. Odell climbed on to Camp VI, where he found, to his mild alarm, pieces of oxygen equipment strewn about the tent, suggesting that Irvine had perhaps made some desperate last-minute adjustment to the apparatus. And Odell was disturbed that he had seen his pair of friends still well below the summit pyramid at almost 1:00 p.m., or five hours after Mallory's blithe prediction. An afternoon snow squall cleared, but now Odell could see no signs of human presence on the upper ridge, bathed in warm sunlight. He scrambled some 200 feet above the camp, whistling and yodeling in case Mallory and Irvine should be nearing it on their descent. Then, with a heavy heart, Odell headed down the mountain, as Mallory had ordered him to, for the small tent at Camp VI could not hold three climbers.
During the next two days, in an astonishing performance, Odell climbed first to Camp V, then alone all the way back up to Camp VI. When he found the tent exactly as he had left it on June 8, he knew the worst. He laid two sleeping bags in the snow in a figure T -- the prearranged signal to a teammate watching below that all hope was lost.
During the seventy-five years after the 1924 expedition retreated from the mountain, only two further pieces of hard information cast any light on the mystery of Mallory and Irvine's fate, but each was as tantalizing as Odell's vision of the twin figures outlined against the sky. In 1933, on the first expedition to Everest after Mallory's, Percy Wyn Harris found an ice axe lying on a rock slab, 250 yards short of what had come to be called the First Step -- thus considerably below where the pair had been at the time of Odell's 12:50 sighting. Plainly the axe belonged to either Mallory or Irvine, but as a piece of evidence, it was maddeningly ambiguous. Had one of the climbers dropped it during the ascent? Or had it been deliberately laid aside, as unnecessary on the mostly rocky terrain that stretched above? Or, more ominously, did it mark the site of a fatal accident on the descent, as one man dropped the axe to make a futile effort to belay his falling partner?
From 1938, the year of the last British prewar expedition, to 1960, when a Chinese team claimed to make the first ascent of Everest from the north, the Tibetan side of the mountain went virtually unvisited. It was not until 1979 that China first granted permission to foreigners to approach the mountain through its "province" of Tibet. That year, the second tantalizing clue to Mallory and Irvine's demise came to light.
The climbing leader of a Sino-Japanese expedition, Ryoten Hasegawa, had a provocative conversation with one of its Chinese members, Wang Hongbao. Wang told Hasegawa that four years earlier, in 1975, during the second Chinese attack on Everest, he had gone out for a short walk from Camp VI, near 27,000 feet. Within twenty minutes of leaving his tent, he had come across the body of a fallen climber. It was, he insisted, "an old English dead." The man's clothes had turned to dust and blown away in the winds of the decades. He was lying on his side, and one of his cheeks had been pecked away by goraks.
Between Hasegawa's Japanese and Wang's Chinese, the conversation took place in a linguistic muddle. Hasegawa wondered whether the dead man could have been a Russian from a long-rumored (and now debunked) secret 1952 attempt, on which six climbers were supposed to have died; but Wang vigorously demurred, repeating "English, English!"
Hasegawa realized that the body might well have been that of Mallory or Irvine. But before he could question Wang further, only a day after sharing his startling confidence, the Chinese climber died when he was avalanched into a crevasse, leaving a profound enigma in his wake.
During the last two decades, scores of expeditions have attacked Everest from the north. All of them have kept their eyes peeled for any further sign of the lost climbers, to no avail. An American mountaineer-historian, Tom Holzel, became obsessed with the puzzle, and after extensive research and inquiry, narrowed down the area of search to a large quadrangle on the north face, below the ridge route Mallory and Irvine had essayed. In 1986, Holzel organized the first expedition with the goal of systematically searching for the vanished pair. The team included such first-rate climbers as David Breashears, Sue Giller, and Dave Cheesmond, but terrible weather thwarted their efforts to go higher than 26,100 feet -- nearly a thousand feet below Holzel's search zone. (In retrospect, it would become clear that a search in the autumn season, such as the 1986 team conducted, was doomed to failure because of the vast quantities of snow the summer-long monsoon inevitably dumps.)
Before the expedition, Holzel had synthesized all his research in a house-of-cards hypothesis that he laid out in the concluding chapter of First on Everest: The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine (co-authored with Audrey Salkeld). According to Holzel, Mallory and Irvine faced the realization that they would run out of bottled oxygen well below the summit. Mallory was, in Holzel's view, the stronger climber, Irvine perhaps intimidated by a challenge well beyond any he had previously faced. In any event, Irvine gave his remaining gas to his partner, then descended as Mallory headed solo for the summit.
Carried away by his own theorizing, Holzel wrote as if recording solid history, not educated guess:
Splitting up at 1 P.M., Mallory quickly raced up the final pyramid of Everest's summit. Irvine returned past the First Step and started his descending traverse of the North Face slabs....Perhaps after numerous small slips, each caught in time, Irvine lost control as both his feet shot out from under him. Turning to catch himself with his ice axe, it wrenched out of his exhausted grip. He tumbled 1,000 feet to the snow terrace below.
Holzel was further convinced that Mallory reached the summit, only to die of hypothermia in the bivouac he could not have avoided, or in a fall, perhaps all the way to the Rongbuk Glacier.
In the years after 1986, most informed observers questioned Holzel's assertion that Mallory had made the summit. But the notion of the two climbers splitting up, with Irvine dropping his axe and slipping to his death on the north face, came to be a kind of received wisdom. The body that Wang Hongbao had found near Camp VI, then, had to be Irvine's. It was for this reason that all five searchers last May, as they stared at the "marble statue" lying frozen face down in the scree, assumed they were looking at Sandy Irvine.
To settle for good the all-important question of whether Mallory and/or Irvine reached the summit in 1924, only two possibilities loom. The first is that some relic -- a piece of gear, a keepsake, or a note unmistakably belonging to one of the men -- might be found on or near the top. But the hundreds of successful summitteers over the last forty-six years have never found anything of that kind. (Looking for traces of predecessors in 1953, Edmund Hillary peered down the north ridge and declared it unclimbable.)
The other possibility touches on the kind of wild surmise normally found only in the pages of Conan Doyle. We know that Mallory carried a Kodak Vestpocket camera. If the camera could be found, and the film, deep-frozen since 1924, could be developed, a photo clearly taken from the summit -- an image of such mountains as Ama Dablam or Lhotse, for instance, invisible from anywhere on Everest's north face -- would clinch the case. (In 1897, a three-man Swedish expedition led by Salomon Andrée, attempting to balloon to the North Pole, vanished in the Arctic. Thirty-three years later, the men's bodies were found on remote White Island. The pictures in the men's camera, perfectly preserved, delivered a vivid testament to the trio's last days and to the mishaps that doomed them.)
During the last few years, a young German graduate student in geology has taken up the quest where Tom Holzel left off. Jochen Hemmleb, twenty-seven, is a climber of modest abilities, but a researcher whose obsession with detail puts even Holzel's in the shade. A self-professed disciple of the English writer Audrey Salkeld (who is the world's leading authority on Mallory), Hemmleb became fascinated with the 1924 saga. From a single, mediocre photo published in a quirky book celebrating the 1975 Chinese expedition, Hemmleb figured out that that year's Camp VI had been pitched in an entirely different place from nearly all other expeditions' Camp VI. Studying background details, Hemmleb thought he could extrapolate the likely location of the fugitive camp. A search, then, for the body Wang Hongbao had found ought to focus on all terrain within a plausible twenty-minute stroll of that camp.
In 1998, Hemmleb got in touch with Mount Rainier guide Eric Simonson, who had climbed Everest from the north in 1991. Soon infected with the German's enthusiasm, Simonson put together a climbing team and a network of sponsors. Most of his teammates were fellow Rainier guides, but at the last moment, he snagged a genuine star in Conrad Anker, whose record of cutting-edge first ascents on remote mountains ranging from Patagonia to the Karakoram can be matched by only two or three other Americans. The BBC and NOVA agreed to co-produce a film about the expedition, and a Seattle-based Web site, MountainZone, signed on to cover the team via daily Internet dispatches from Base Camp.
Most observers, however, viewed the expedition as something of a boondoggle -- one more stratagem, like campaigns to raise money for medical research or to clean up other expeditions' trash, to finance an expensive outing on the world's highest mountain. Even if Simonson and Hemmleb's motives were sincere, after all the expeditions that had crisscrossed the northern slopes of Everest over the years, the chances of finding something new from the 1924 expedition seemed infinitesimal.
Anker himself, in the middle of a month-long jaunt among unclimbed towers in Antarctica in 1997, had vocally derided the Everest circuses of recent years. In March 1999, on the eve of his departure for Nepal, one of Anker's friends invited him to dinner.
"What are you up to, Conrad?" the friend asked over coffee.
"I'm off for Tibet. A little high-altitude trekking."
"Kailas?" The friend named the famous holy mountain, object of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimages.
"No, a little higher," said Anker sheepishly. "I'm going to Everest."
Our first priority was to look for traces of Mallory and Irvine. Most of the guys wanted to go to the summit, but Eric Simonson -- "Simo," as we call him -- emphasized that the search was the primary reason we had come to Everest.
It wasn't until April 30 that we had camps in place and ropes fixed and were ready to conduct the search. Fixing ropes entails securing small-diameter cords most of the way up the route; these ropes, left in place throughout the expedition, serve as safety lines and make both ascent and descent quicker and easier.
One thing that gave us a lot of hope was that the snowfall the previous winter had been extraordinarily light. Even peering out the windows of our jet as we flew into Kathmandu, we could see that the mountain was as bare as it ever gets. When we reached Base Camp, Simo, who'd been on six previous Everest expeditions, couldn't believe the conditions -- the mountain was the driest it had been in living memory. And all through April, we got really good weather. If ever a season was ideal for a search, it was in the spring of 1999.
At 5:15 on the morning of May 1, just as it was getting light, the five of us -- Andy Politz, Tap Richards, Jake Norton, Dave Hahn, and I -- headed out from Camp V, at 25,600 feet. There was a pretty stiff wind, and most of the going in the early hours was in the shade, so it was quite cold. We followed the regular route up to Camp VI, at 27,000 feet, getting there about 10:30.
I'd decided not to use oxygen. I wanted to know how my body would perform at that altitude. Dave, whom I'd climbed with in Antarctica, was a little upset with me. He thought I'd be more efficient if I was sucking gas. But as it was, I got to Camp VI before he did. So he said, "Well, I guess you don't need that stuff."
Dave and Andy had both climbed Everest before from the north. Andy had been on the mountain four previous times. But I'd never been this high before. The highest I'd ever been was 24,000 feet, on an unsuccessful expedition to Annapurna IV. The highest summit I'd reached was Latok II, in the Karakoram, about 23,300 feet.
From Camp VI, we started traversing to the right, or west, toward the search zone that Jochen Hemmleb had identified. He had made a circle on the map that covered all the ground he thought was within a likely twenty-minute walk of where he thought the Chinese Camp VI had been in 1975. Simo estimated the size of that area as equal to twelve football fields. There was no way the five of us could completely cover that ground in one day. I actually thought of what we were undertaking as a kind of reconnaissance. As we headed out there, I thought, It's just good that we're here to look. No one has ever searched this high before.
Jochen had given us what he called the "research manual" -- it was an eight-page, spiral-bound, laminated notebook telling us how, why, and where to search. Initially we had all these grand ideas about how we'd cover the ground. We'd hike to a high point, spread twenty yards apart, and head downhill. But when you get to 27,000 feet, you're in a different world. Your mind needs oxygen to work, and there isn't much oxygen up there.
Pretty early Jake found an oxygen bottle with blue paint on one end. He got on the radio to Jochen at Base Camp and described the cylinder, and Jochen was able to verify that it was a Chinese '75 bottle. So we knew we were in the right vicinity.
Meanwhile I'd started to drift out of earshot of the others, lower and farther right. Jochen had located the Chinese Camp VI higher than I thought it was likely to have been. I was using my mountaineer's intuition, not the research manual. I thought, Now where would I pitch a camp on this part of the mountain? I was coming at it fresh -- I hadn't overanalyzed, projecting preconceived "facts" onto reality.
Also, I was skeptical about the "twenty-minute stroll." Your sense of time at altitude goes haywire. You can say, "Okay, I'll see you in forty-five minutes," but up there you don't even realize how time slips away. And there was another question -- just how strong was Wang Hongbao? Some of his Tibetan teammates could really cruise at 27,000 feet. Who knows how far Wang might have gone in twenty minutes?
I walked down and right, over a little crest of an ill-defined rib. Then, about 11:00 A.M., looking down, I saw the first body. He had on a purple suit. I walked up closer to check him out. He was lying head downhill, almost hidden on the downhill side of a rock. His legs were obviously broken or dislocated. He was pretty beat up -- he'd taken a long fall. His right arm was stuck straight out, as though he were waving. We would later nickname him "the Greeter." With his plastic boots and metal ascender, he was obviously modern.
The goraks had eaten away his face. There was just the skull. It was very macabre.
I realized right away that the Greeter wasn't who we were looking for; but all the same, there was a lot of information there. One of his boots was off. I think that's common -- when people really accelerate in a fall, the boots can get whipped off, because you don't lace them too tight at altitude, for fear of cutting off circulation. And it was significant that his head was downhill. I'd had several informal chats with other mountaineers, asking them what the dead bodies they had found on mountains all over the world looked like. Almost invariably, the head was downhill. Why that might be, I'm not sure. Perhaps the upper torso and head are denser than the rest of the body, and if you carry a pack, that makes you even more top-heavy.
As I looked at the Greeter, I realized I was in a natural catchment basin. I asked myself, Why did he stop right here, on the downhill side of this rock? The ridge I was on had a lot of rock snags and outcroppings, places where a body would naturally come to rest. It's like a river, with eddies downstream from boulders. Or avalanches in winter, which I've been studying as long as I've been climbing -- how they take out certain trees and don't take out certain other ones, according to their run-out tracks and deposition zones. There's no way to analyze all the forces on a mountain rationally; it has to be intuitive. The more experience you have, the more you absorb on a subconscious level.
So I kept traversing right, exploring this catchment basin. In the back of my mind, I wanted to look into the Great Couloir, which is way beyond Jochen's search zone. I wanted to see the route by which Reinhold Messner had made his astounding solo, oxygenless ascent of Everest in 1980. On this standard-setting climb, Messner had to scale, 250 yards farther west, the same cliff bands that form the Second Step. How had he unlocked the north face? My curiosity drew me westward.
By now my partners were still in sight, but they were tiny -- they were at least 500 yards away. About 11:30, Andy came on the radio. He said, "Conrad, what are you doing way out there? We need to be more systematic."
I answered, "I'm just looking around. I want to see what this is all about." Even as Andy was talking to me, I'd spotted another body, a fair distance away, a hundred feet below. This guy had on a blue suit so faded it looked gray. Almost all the color had gone out of the fabric, so I was thinking, He could be really old. He could be it.
So I down-climbed to the body. He'd come to rest on the last terrace before a big cliff band. As I got close, I saw that he had on orange overboots with clip-on crampons, so I knew he was modern too. Again, he was lying head downhill, folded in half, his arms and legs at unnatural angles, as if he'd cartwheeled a long, violent way, like a rag doll. I couldn't see his face.
The second body made it all the more obvious that I was in a catchment basin. Looking up the slope, I could see how the natural forces of the mountain had moved the bodies. Now I started traversing back east toward the other guys, along the top of this cliff band. It was steep enough so that if I fell, I wouldn't be able to self-arrest, but it was terrain I felt at home on. Sort of four-wheel-drive scrambling.
Then I sat down to take off my crampons, hydrate, and suck a cough drop. As I started off again, within a couple of paces I caught sight of the shreds of blue and yellow fabric. And then, scanning right, that patch of alabaster. The body that wasn't modern.
We didn't have all that much time to work. We'd agreed on a tentative turnaround hour of 2:00 P.M., to get back to Camp V while it was still daylight, and by the time we started excavating, it was past noon. There were clouds below us, but only a slight wind. As one can imagine, this was hard work at 26,700 feet (the altitude of the body, as I later calculated it). We had taken off our oxygen gear, because it was just too cumbersome to dig with it on.
Because the body was frozen into the scree, we had to chip away at the surrounding ice and rock with our ice axes. It took some vigorous swings even to dislodge little chunks, the ice was so dense. We were all experienced climbers, we were used to swinging tools, so we did the chipping pretty efficiently; only once did a pick glance off a rock and impale the man's arm. As we got closer to the body, we put down our axes and started chipping with our pocketknives.
We were so sure this was Sandy Irvine that Jake actually sat down, took a smooth piece of shale in his lap, and started to scratch out a tombstone with Irvine's name and dates, 1902-1924. But then we found the "G. Mallory" tag on the collar, and shortly after, Tap found another one on a seam under the arm. It read, "G. Leigh Mallory." We just stared at each other, stunned, as we realized this wasn't Irvine. We had found George Mallory.
As we excavated, Tap chipped away on his left side, Jake on his right. I did mostly lifting and prying. Dave and Andy took pictures and shot video.
It was good fortune that George was lying on his stomach, because most of the stuff you carry when you climb is in the front pockets, so it had been protected by his body for seventy-five years. It may seem funny, or even pretentious, but we referred to him as "George," not as "Mallory." All through the weeks before, we'd talked about Mallory and Irvine so much that it was as if we knew them, like old friends; they had become George and Sandy.
We left George's face where it was, frozen into the scree, but once I could lift the lower part of his body, Tap and Jake could reach underneath him and go through the pockets. The body was like a frozen log. When I lifted it, it made that same creaky noise as when you pull up a log that's been on the ground for years.
It was disconcerting to look into the hole in the right buttock that the goraks had chewed. His body had been hollowed out, almost like a pumpkin. You could see the remains of seeds and some other food -- very possibly Mallory's last meal.
We didn't go near George's head. We moved the loose rock away from it, but we didn't try to dig it out. I think that was a sort of unspoken agreement, and at the time, none of us wanted to look at his face.
Of course we were most excited about the possibility of finding the camera. Jake even thought for a minute he'd found it. George had a small bag that was lodged under his right biceps. Jake reached in there, squeezed the bag, and felt a small, square object, just about the right size. We finally had to cut the bag to get the object out, and when we did, we found it wasn't the camera after all, it was a tin of beef lozenges!
The clincher that it was Mallory came when Jake pulled out a neatly folded, new-looking silk handkerchief in which several letters had been carefully wrapped. They were addressed to Mallory. On the envelope of one of them, for instance, we read, "George Leigh Mallory Esq., c/o British Trade Agent, Yalung Tibet."
Besides the letters, we found a few penciled notes in other pockets. As we found out later, they were all about logistics, about bringing so many loads to Camp VI, and so on. We read them carefully, hoping Mallory might have jotted down a note about reaching the summit or turning back, but there was nothing of the sort.
One by one, Jake and Tap produced what we started calling "the artifacts." It seemed an odd collection of items to carry to the summit of Everest. There was a small penknife; a tiny pencil, about two and a half inches long, onto which some kind of mint cake had congealed (we could still smell the mint); a needle and thread; a small pair of scissors with a file built into one blade; a second handkerchief, well used (the one he blew his nose on), woven in a red and yellow floral pattern on a blue background, with the monogram G.L.M. in yellow; a box of special matches, Swan Vestas, with extra phosphorus on the tips; a little piece of leather with a hose clamp on it that might have been a mouthpiece for the oxygen apparatus; a tube of zinc oxide, rolled partway up; a spare pair of fingerless mittens that looked like they hadn't been used.
Two other artifacts seemed particularly intriguing. Jake found a smashed altimeter in one pocket. The hand was missing from the dial, but you could see that the instrument had been specially calibrated for Everest, with a range from 20,000 feet to 30,000 feet. Inscribed on the back, in fine script, was "M.E.E. II" -- for Mount Everest Expedition II. And in the vest pocket, we found a pair of goggles. The frames were bent, but the green glass was unbroken. It was Andy who came up with the possible significance of the goggles being in the pocket. To him, it argued that George had fallen after dusk. If it had been in the daytime, he would have been wearing the goggles, even on rock. He'd just had a vivid lesson in the consequences of taking them off during the day, when Teddy Norton got a terrible attack of snow blindness the night after his summit push on June 4.
As we removed each artifact, we put it carefully in a Ziploc bag. Andy volunteered to carry the objects down to Camp V. To some people, it may seem that taking George's belongings with us was a violation. We even had a certain sense that we were disturbing the dead -- I think that's why we had hesitated to begin the excavation. But this was the explicit purpose of the expedition: to find Mallory and Irvine and to retrieve the artifacts and try to solve the mystery of what had happened on June 8, 1924. I think we did the right thing.
As interesting as what we found was what we didn't find. George had no backpack on, nor any trace of the frame that held the twin oxygen bottles. His only carrying sack was the little bag we found under his right biceps. He didn't have any water bottle, or Thermos flask, which was what they used in '24. He didn't have a flashlight, because he'd forgotten to take it with him. We know this not from Odell, but from the 1933 party, who found the flashlight in the tent at the 1924 Camp VI.
And we didn't find the camera. That was the great disappointment.
It was getting late -- we'd already well overstayed our 2:00 P.M. turnaround. The last thing we gathered was a DNA sample, to analyze for absolute proof of the identity of the man we'd found. Simonson had received approval for this procedure beforehand from John Mallory, George's only son, who's seventy-nine and living in South Africa. I had agreed to do this job.
I cut an inch-and-a-half-square patch of skin off the right forearm. It wasn't easy. I had to use the serrated blade on Dave's utility knife. Cutting George's skin was like cutting saddle leather, cured and hard.
Since the expedition, I've often wondered whether taking the tissue was a sacrilegious act. In Base Camp, I had volunteered for the task. On the mountain, I had no time to reflect whether or not this was the right thing to do.
We wanted to bury George, or at least to cover him up. There were rocks lying around, but not a lot that weren't frozen in place. We formed a kind of bucket brigade, passing rocks down to the site.
Then Andy read, as a prayer of committal, Psalm 103: "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth./For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone..."
We finally left at 4:00 P.M. I lingered a bit after the other four. The last thing I did was to leave a small Butterfinger candy bar in the rocks nearby, like a Buddhist offering. I said a sort of prayer for him, several times over.
The other guys traversed back to Camp VI to rejoin the normal route down to V, but I saw that I could take a shortcut and go straight to V. I got there at 5:00 P.M., the others forty-five minutes to an hour later.
Dave and Andy were in one tent, Tap, Jake, and I in the other. Dave said later that it was only back in Camp V that what we'd done really began to sink in, that his emotions spilled out, that he was filled with satisfaction and amazement.
We had some food and tried to sleep. I was pretty tired -- it had been a twelve-hour day. I slept soundly for a couple of hours, then I woke up. I was on the downhill side of the tent, getting forced out of the good spot. The wind kept blowing. The rest of the night, I couldn't sleep. Just kept tossing and turning. It was miserable.
In my sleeplessness, I kept reviewing the day. Despite the broken leg and the gorak damage, at George's side I had experienced a powerful feeling that he was at peace with himself. As
I had sat next to him, I thought, This man was a fellow climber. We shared the same goals and aspirations, the same joys
and sorrows. Our lives were motivated by the same elemental force. When I thought of what a valiant effort George had made, to climb this high on the north side of Everest in 1924, given the equipment and clothing of his day, I was flooded with a sense of awe.
And already, my mind was turning over the implications of what we had found. It seemed unlikely that it was Mallory whose body Wang Hongbao had discovered in 1975. His description -- of a man lying on his side, with one cheek pecked out by goraks -- was too different from what we had seen. So if Wang had found Irvine, where was he? Did the broken rope mean that the two men had fallen together? In that case, was Irvine's body nearby? And what were the chances that the camera lay with Irvine? Already I was anticipating our second search.
I knew we'd made a major find, but the full impact of it didn't hit me until we went on down the mountain. Despite our radio silence and our cryptic coded messages to each other, by the time we reached Base Camp two days later, the whole world was buzzing with the news that we'd discovered George Mallory.
Copyright © 1999 by Conrad Anker and David Roberts