Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine

Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine


$22.46 $24.95 Save 10% Current price is $22.46, Original price is $24.95. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780898868500
Publisher: Mountaineers Books, The
Publication date: 09/28/2001
Edition description: Updated
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 8.56(w) x 9.44(h) x 0.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I cannot tell you how it possesses me ...

George Mallory

Jochen Hemmleb opens his eyes and waits for the world to come into focus. He unzips his sleeping bag, rolls over onto the carpeted floor of his one-room apartment on the southern edge of Frankfurt, Germany, and stands.

Hemmleb owns a bed, but it is currently occupied. In neat piles laid out across the bedspread—as well as on the floor, desk, table, floor-to-ceiling shelves, and almost every other horizontal surface in the apartment—are dozens of old photographs, maps, and books. He is not a collector of antiquities. He is, in a sense, a detective.

On this morning, June 2, 1998, he makes a cup of tea with lemon, picks his way across the floor to his desk, powers up his laptop, and receives an e-mail message that will change his life and the history of Everest mountaineering as well.

Jochen Hemmleb is tall and slightly stoop-shouldered, as if he were always carrying a climbing rucksack. He has a strikingly open face, an almost musical voice, and a warm, rather mischievous smile that contrasts sharply with intense blue eyes—eyes that telegraph a seriousness of purpose and maturity far beyond his years. A twenty-six-year-old student at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University completing his final thesis in geology, he is also one of the world's experts on the history of Everest expeditions. Indeed, only a few of the documents stacked about his apartment have to do with his geology thesis; all the rest are about Everest.

Hemmleb has, in fact, one of the largest and most meticulously analyzed and archived private collections of Everest documents in the world. There is no feature of the mountain that he has not virtually committed to memory, no expedition to climb it that he has not scrutinized down to the last detail. But one task possesses him above all others: unraveling the mystery of the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine during the final days of the 1924 British Everest Expedition. The detective has been on this particular case for more than a decade.

He is no armchair mountaineering historian; Hemmleb has been a climber himself since he was a small boy. It is a passion passed down to him by his father. Rudolf Hemmleb was fifty-seven when Jochen was born. He had been a climber for much of his life, but the three children of his first marriage did not share their father's passion and he had to wait for the only son of his second marriage, Jochen, born August 13, 1971, to find a kindred soul. The two of them started climbing together when Jochen was only ten years old and his father nearly sixty-nine. His passion rekindled, the elder Hemmleb climbed until he was well into his seventies.

Jochen never stopped. By the age of eleven, he had climbed his first 10,000-foot (3,000-m) mountain in the Italian Alps. At fourteen, he climbed his first 13,000-foot (4,000-m) mountain, the Zermatter Breithorn in Switzerland. By 1998, he had summited some forty-five 13,000-foot (4,000-m) peaks in the Alps and also climbed in South America, East Africa, and New Zealand.

For Hemmleb, mountaineering was both his salvation and his curse: "Climbing, and the intensity of my enthusiasm for it, which I did not hide, made me an outsider as a schoolboy. It made me different at an age when most boys are only interested in fitting in. Still, it was how I found myself, and the truth was that part of me rather liked not fitting in. As I have grown older, that sense of being different because of climbing, of being outside the mainstream, has persisted, but the wealth of experience I gain from climbing—the impressions, the adventure, the insights—is always proving to me that it is worth it."

It is the sheer intensity of experience that is the great attraction of mountaineering, Hemmleb explains: "During a couple of hours of climbing, you can experience more than you would in a week elsewhere. Your senses are completely alert when you're climbing—hearing, breathing, smelling everything—and you begin to get a glimpse of how deep the feeling of being alive can really become."

As for the dangers inherent in mountaineering, Hemmleb is philosophical: "I don't think climbers climb to risk death; I think they climb to prove to themselves that they are not already dead."

Passion has a price, however; Hemmleb has learned, as other climbers have learned before him, that establishing and maintaining meaningful intimate relationships is difficult. "To an extent," he says, "a part of me is always getting ready to leave again, and that is difficult for a partner to live with."

At the same time, Hemmleb marvels at the depth of his relationships with his climbing partners: "When you know you have to rely on another person for your own safety, and he upon you, you learn a level of trust that simply doesn't exist very often in the normal world. Climbers are an odd combination of opposite characteristics: individualists who have to rely on one another. The bonds of friendship and trust you develop are profound."

It was on Christmas Day 1987 that the then sixteen-year-old Hemmleb's general interest in climbing and the history of Everest expeditions snapped into focus. His parents gave him a newly published book on the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine during the pioneering but ill-fated 1924 British expedition. In a sense, he's never put it down. "I had read about them before, but for some reason now I was hooked," he recalls. "I felt that there was a possibility this mystery could be resolved, and that it was something I myself might be able to do."

There are those, including some of his friends, who think Hemmleb is obsessed with Mallory and Irvine. He confesses to being drawn to unsolved mysteries—real ones, and especially those that have to do with exploration—the kind where there is a story within the story that you can sense but that is not yet known or understood: "In the world of exploration and mountaineering, the question of what happened to Mallory and Irvine was the greatest mystery yet to be resolved. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to solve the mystery. So yes, if that is obsession, I plead guilty."

If Hemmleb is obsessed with Mallory and Irvine, he is in good company. For three-quarters of a century, every climber to approach Everest has felt their presence. Many have reached its summit and looked for evidence of their passing. It is almost as if they half expect that, through some trick of magical realism, the two will simply step out of the mists of the mountain on which they disappeared so long ago.

In George Leigh Mallory's case at least, you can almost believe it possible. Mallory had reached almost mythical status even before he disappeared. A veteran of Britain's two previous Everest expeditions, he was, by all accounts, a climber of exceptional grace and strength even as a young man. His closest friend, the mountaineering pioneer Geoffrey Winthrop Young, was in awe of Mallory's fluidity: "His movement in climbing was entirely his own. It contradicted all theory. He would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve. Whatever may have happened unseen the while between him and the cliff ... the look, and indeed the result, were always the same—a continuous undulating movement so rapid and so powerful that one felt the rock must yield, or disintegrate."

Another climbing partner, Harry Tyndale, said of Mallory: "In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance; so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place ... that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness."

Sir Francis Younghusband, the first chairman of the joint Royal Geographical Society/Alpine Club Everest Committee, describing the process by which the 1921 reconnaissance expedition members were selected, says simply: "... one name was immediately mentioned by the Alpine Club members, and that name was Mallory. There was no question in their mind that he was the finest climber they had."

But as Younghusband himself noted, despite his renown, Mallory did not fit the mountaineer stereotype: "He was then a man of thirty-three, slim and supple if not broad and beefy ... certainly good-looking, with a sensitive, cultivated air ... [but] no one who had not seen him on a mountain would have remarked anything very special in him." Yet when he climbed into eternity on that June day in 1924, he ascended to the zenith of mountaineering legend for the rest of the twentieth century. Quite simply, Mallory was Everest.

Andrew Irvine, in contrast, was a novice. Born to an affluent family on April 8, 1902, in Birkenhead, just across the Mersey from Liverpool, he attended Shrewsbury School as a boy and then went up to Merton College, Oxford, in 1922. Inevitably called "Sandy" because of his blonde hair, he distinguished himself immediately in rowing, becoming Captain of Boats. At twenty-one, when he was selected to join the 1924 Everest expedition, he had grown tall, handsome, square-jawed, and broad-shouldered. Though he had participated in a university-sponsored expedition to Spitzbergen, a frigid Norwegian archipelago in the high Arctic, done some skiing in the Alps, and a bit of climbing in North Wales, he was otherwise inexperienced—"Our Experiment," the 1924 expedition leader called him.

Mallory and Irvine could hardly have been less alike, and yet the two became friends quickly, sharing a shipboard dinner table as they steamed east to India, gradually drawing closer through the course of the expedition: the priest and his acolyte.

There was about both men, as there is about many climbers, an irresistible idealism, an almost childlike innocence. Irvine's diaries reveal an uncomplicated young man of almost unshakable good humor eager to "get a whack at" the mountain. Throughout the expedition, his diaries reveal him to be eager, hard-working, committed to the task before them, and devoted to Mallory.

Mallory was a far more complex character. Born on June 18, 1886, in Mobberley, Cheshire, he was the first son of the rector of the parish and, by all accounts, "climbed everything that it was at all possible to climb"—trees, downspouts and roof lines, the roof of the church, cliffs at the seaside. He attended Winchester College, distinguished himself primarily in sports, and caught the eye of a young tutor, R. L. G. Irving, who introduced him to climbing and eventually took young Mallory and one or two of his classmates climbing in the Alps.

From the beginning, it was clear climbing meant more to Mallory than simply "a ripping good day in the hills." After summiting Mont Blanc, he wrote, "It is impossible to make any who have never experienced it realize what that thrill means. It proceeds partly from a legitimate joy and pride in life."

After Winchester, Mallory went on to Magdalen College, Cambridge, where he was a middling student and, like Irvine at Oxford some years later, became Captain of Boats for Magdalen. But it seems clear that it was his informal education in the company of Cambridge's young intellectuals that most shaped his character during these years. He joined the left-leaning Fabian Society and counted the poet Rupert Brooke and several younger members of the "Bloomsbury Group," including Lytton Strachey and the artist Duncan Grant, among his friends. Stunningly handsome but not quite their intellectual equal, Mallory nonetheless gained the respect of this notoriously flamboyant crowd because of his principled idealism. Describing one heated philosophical debate, a longtime friend said, "[George] would not budge from his position that it might and must be necessary to alter the letter of principles to suit fresh facts ... but that the spirit informing them would remain the same. There was a right, and if you wanted you could find it, and it was supremely important." Though they kidded him for both his idealism and prudishness, his friends remained close and loyal to him long after he left school, became a teacher at Charterhouse School, and married the lovely and intelligent Ruth Turner, the daughter of an architect in Godalming, south of London, where Charterhouse was located.

This passion for clarity, for what is right and good, this striving for certainty, is something Jochen Hemmleb understands. He sees it in most climbers, and he sees it in himself. "Difficult and dangerous as it may sometimes be," he explains, "there is a purity and simplicity inherent in climbing. I think the reason mountaineering has become popular in recent years is that climbing feeds an emotional need: a climb has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a clear purpose—getting to the summit and dealing with the intricacies of the route and the sense of exposure—and it has a clear outcome—you reach the summit or you do not. It is not vague or uncertain or equivocal, like so much of modern life. And it is more than just a physical challenge; it is an intellectual and emotional challenge as well. You reach a high point not just topographically but emotionally. Nothing epitomizes the idea of accomplishment and the satisfaction one gets from it better than climbing to the top of a mountain."

Between 1987 and 1993, Jochen Hemmleb quietly built his Everest archive, collecting magazine articles, newspaper accounts, climbing journals, books, and expedition reports, and corresponding with climbers. "There were plenty of occasions," he recalls, "when I willingly cut back on food and other expenses in order to be able to afford some early expedition report from a rare book dealer."

Then, in late 1994, Hemmleb learned that the year before, the British climber Jon Tinker had found a new and shorter route from Camp VI on Everest's North Face to the Second Step on the mountain's Northeast Ridge. "That gave me the idea that Mallory and Irvine might have used a different approach to the summit ridge than historians had previously assumed. The more I thought about this, the more I realized it was time for me to begin making contributions of my own to the debate. The irony is that I have since disproved my own original theory, but that was the beginning nonetheless. I wrote and circulated my first research paper and realized I had moved from being a student of the Mallory and Irvine mystery to its detective."

It was not a mystery without clues. The first clue, of course, was that 1924 expedition member Noel Odell had actually seen Mallory and Irvine surmount the Second Step, just 800 feet (250 m) from the summit, at 12:50 P.M. on the day they disappeared. Or had he? He was unequivocal in his first dispatch from Tibet, but after he returned to England, where a largely uninformed debate raged as to what had happened to the disappeared climbers, he became less certain whether he had seen them on the Second Step or the much lower First Step. Which account was right?

Then, in 1933, another unsuccessful British expedition found Andrew Irvine's ice ax at 27,760 feet (8,460 m), a few hundred feet down the crest of the Northeast Ridge from the First Step. Many people concluded that the ice ax marked the spot of a fatal fall, perhaps after dark as the benighted climbers descended. But had it been dropped, or simply placed there? On the way up or on the way down?

In 1960, a Chinese expedition was rumored to have found a wooden tent pole and length of rope on the slabs of the North Face below the Second Step during a reportedly successful summit bid. If the rumor was true, it could only have been left by Mallory and Irvine; no subsequent expedition had left equipment behind that high. But given Chinas reluctance to communicate with the West in 1960, it was never clear where, precisely, the Chinese expedition had found the artifacts. Indeed, for many years western climbers were skeptical about whether the Chinese had summited at all. (See "No Matter of Doubt—The 1960 Chinese Ascent of the North Ridge" in Appendix 1, Everest North Side: Resolved and Unresolved Mysteries.)

In 1979, Wang Hongbao, a Chinese climber helping a Japanese reconnaissance expedition on the North Face, indicated to Japanese climber Yoshinori Hasegawa that four years earlier on another Chinese expedition, he had found an "English dead" at 26,575 feet (8,100 m) just a short walk from the 1975 expedition's Camp VI. By means of hand signals, Wang, who did not speak Japanese, made it clear that the clothes on the body were very old and disintegrated when touched. But Hasegawa learned no more; Wang died in an avalanche the next day. Irvine's ice ax had been found above, but in the general vicinity of the presumed location of Camp VI. Had Wang found Irvine?

In 1991, American commercial expedition leader Eric Simonson had stumbled across an old oxygen bottle just below the First Step. He didn't think much of it at the time, but later it occurred to him that it might have belonged to one of the early British expeditions. Had it been left behind by Mallory and Irvine in 1924?

Far from clarifying the mystery, this accumulation of clues only deepened it. Hemmleb studied the historical accounts and contemporary theories to determine which pieces of the Mallory and Irvine puzzle were relevant, how—or even whether—they fit together, and what story they told. But the pieces didn't fit.

"Finally, I came to believe that little was to be gained from reviewing and revising the old material, and more was to be gained by looking for new information and taking a fresh look at old data in that context. I had, after all, been studying for some years to be a geologist, so I decided to take the scientific approach: start from ground zero. I looked at the old raw data without its accompanying interpretations, just as if no work had been done on it before, and tried to find out whether I could gain a new perspective that way."

More importantly, Hemmleb began to shift his attention from picking apart historical accounts to poring over photographs taken by previous expeditions and comparing them with the most detailed maps available of the North Face and Northeast Ridge. He was, in the vocabulary of climbers, searching for a new route.

In the fall of 1997 and the spring of 1998, Hemmleb published the findings of this new research on the Internet website Immediately, a lively debate began in the website's forum section, and a number of people contacted him by e-mail. He was gratified by the response, but few of the contacts were from other historians.

Then, on June 2, 1998, Hemmleb received an e-mail from someone who, like him, had been studying North Face expeditions for years and had been "particularly interested in the British prewar expeditions." The e-mail was from an American named Larry Johnson. "I gave him a rather standard response," Hemmleb recalls, "and for some reason mentioned that I hoped someday to make a trip to Everest to search for Mallory and Irvine. Then I thought nothing more about it."

In early 1998, Larry Johnson was the marketing director of a small, independent publisher of nonfiction books based in Pennsylvania. A then fifty-one-year-old self-confessed "armchair historian" of the Mallory and Irvine mystery, he had been connected to the Internet for only a few weeks when a friend mentioned and he found Hemmleb's research papers.

Like Hemmleb, and for that matter Mallory, Johnson had gotten involved in climbing early. "Back in 1959, when I was only twelve, I read a book by James Ramsey Ullman called Third Man on the Mountain, a 35-cent pocket book about a fictional mountain guide on a mountain modeled after the Matterhorn. Somehow, I was attracted to climbing—which was pretty amazing when you consider that in those days I was so afraid of heights you couldn't get me up a 5-foot stepladder."

With some friends, Johnson formed a climbing club and they slowly "learned the ropes." Before long, the concentration and exhilaration of technical climbing overcame his fear of heights. "Over the years," he explains, "I've climbed both rock and ice, mostly in the east. But I've also climbed in Wyoming's Grand Tetons and independently summited both Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in the Cascades."

It was while he was still in high school that Johnson read another Ullman book, Tiger of the Snows, a biography of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who summited Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953. "That's when I first learned the story of Mallory and Irvine, and it captivated me completely. Here I was, a kid living basically in the middle of a famous Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and I became fascinated by this small piece of history that had occurred halfway around the world. I don't know whether it was something about the late Victorians and the way they sought out adventure, but I was drawn to it; from then on, I studied everything about that period I could get my hands on."

Johnson kept at the Mallory and Irvine mystery even as he began his career in publishing and started a family. "I drifted away from it from time to time over the years, but I kept coming back; I couldn't let it go. When I finally stumbled upon Jochen's work on the Internet, I realized it was completely new and incredibly thorough and detailed. I really felt I had to respond."

Johnson's June 2, 1998, e-mail to Jochen Hemmleb was the first in what immediately became a daily exchange. By the time the week was out, they were exploring the possibility of joining a commercial expedition to Everest's North Face to conduct a search the next year, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1924 British Everest Expedition and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.

Hemmleb already had what he hoped was an ace in the hole. A few months before the fateful June 2 e-mail from Johnson, Hemmleb had learned from the eminent Everest historian Audrey Salkeld that British Broadcasting Corporation film producer Graham Hoyland, an Everest climber himself, was trying to persuade the BBC to support an expedition to create a documentary film to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary. Hoyland's interest in the Mallory and Irvine mystery was more than just professional: the grandnephew of another 1924 Everest expedition veteran, T. H. Somervell, he wanted to recover the camera his granduncle had lent George Mallory on summit day.

Hoyland had in mind piggybacking his search on a 1999 expedition to Everest's north side that was being organized by Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience, a commercial expedition organizer, and he invited Hemmleb to participate in his proposed project. But for a college student and climber who was not exactly a household name, finding sponsors to cover the cost of participating would be no small challenge. Nonetheless, Hemmleb stayed in contact with Hoyland and a relationship grew. Only a few weeks after Hemmleb had first been contacted by Johnson, all three were talking about a joint expedition.

Though he was certain of Graham Hoyland's personal commitment, by July 1998 Hemmleb began to have misgivings about whether the BBC itself was committed to mounting an expedition. Hoyland was being circumspect about who the other expedition members might be and vague about the degree to which the BBC actually supported the idea. The fact that he was adamant that Johnson and Hemmleb not mention the BBC in their fund-raising efforts suggested to Johnson and Hemmleb that Hoyland did not yet have the BBC's approval for his proposal. In an e-mail to Johnson, Hemmleb wrote, "As far as I can see it at the moment, there is still a great deal of uncertainty concerning the members of the BBC project. Sometimes I find myself contemplating the idea of rigging up a separate team and going independently."

A few days later, that was exactly what they began doing.

From Ghosts of Everest : The Search for Mallory & Irvine, by Jochen Hemmleb, et al. c October 1999 , Jochen Hemmleb, et al used by permission.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If people love a good mystery, what's going to happen when they get hold of a GREAT mystery. It gets real hard to put this book down is what happens. Well written. Well thought out. Not so technical that you can't come to grips with it. In fact, that's sort of a problem; it grips you like a climber holding onto the mountain
Jen42 on LibraryThing 20 days ago
This is a fascinating story, and it very much got me interested in stories of Everest - I recommend reading Conrad Anker's book "The Lost Explorer" in tandem with this one - I think it balances the picture of Mallory's death and whether he made it to the summit or not.
FireandIce on LibraryThing 20 days ago
On June 8, 1924 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared high on Mt. Everest. Ever since that day two mysteries have surrounded these Everest pioneers: Did they make it to the summit? and What happened to them? In 1999, seventy five years after they vanished, a team of expert climbers and one obsessed graduate student set out to answer those questions. This fantastic account of the Mallory and Irvine Research expedition meticulously documents the search and, most importantly, the findings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gave me the clearest views of the northslope of Everest and clarified all the cofusion I had about what was involved in the final portion of the climb. The finding of Mallory's body and pictures of it were most interesting and solved a 75 year old mystery. This book provided much nformation on how one gets to the 'north face' of Everest and how the various camps are located. All in all, I found it fascinating.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great book to read and it also has some great photos.