The great Everest mystery: 100 years of the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine

Members of the 1924 Everest Expedition, including Andrew Irvine (top left) and George Mallory (standing next to Irvine. (Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
Members of the 1924 Everest Expedition, including Andrew Irvine (top left) and George Mallory (standing next to Irvine. (Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)


On 8 June 1924, mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared while trying to climb Mount Everest for the first time. Lounge brings you their story

On 8 June 1924, two Englishmen, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, left Camp VI (26,800ft), the highest camp of the British 1924 Everest expedition, to make an attempt for the summit of Mount Everest via the mountain’s north face and north-east ridge route. On the same morning, another British climber, Noel Odell, was making his way up from Camp IV to Camp VI. Odell, a geologist, was collecting fossils from the slopes of Mount Everest.

In Edward Norton’s The Fight for Everest: 1924, Odell recalled that “rolling banks of mist" were sweeping across the mountain and covering the north face, though the wind “did not attain its usual boisterous degree". Neither the face nor the summit ridge could be seen clearly by Odell. At 26,000ft Odell decided to climb a 100ft crag and as he reached the top at 12.50pm, the whole summit ridge and the peak of Everest was unveiled. Odell spotted high above on the ridge, a black spot climbing a rock step, which he at that point identified as the Second Step, one of three rock “steps" leading up to the summit of Everest.

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Soon after, Odell saw another black spot following the first. But before Odell could be sure that the second spot had joined the first, the mist rolled in and blanketed the mountain. The two spots that Odell saw were George Mallory and Andrew Irvine heading for the summit of Everest. Mallory and Irvine were never seen alive again.

Mallory’s body was found on 1 May 1999 by American mountaineer Conrad Anker at around 26,730ft, close to the 1924 British Camp VI. But even today, 100 years after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, the legend of Mallory lives on. Books are being written about Mallory, efforts have been underway for many years now to find Irvine’s body and a camera that he was carrying, because Everest experts believe that the camera will unlock the secret of Mallory’s last climb and one of the greatest mysteries of mountaineering. Did Mallory and Irvine summit Everest on 8 June 1924, a full 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first successful ascent?

The 1924 British expedition. From top left, Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edward Norton, Noel Odell and John Macdonald. Seated, from left, Edward Shebbeare, Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell and Bentley Beetham.
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The 1924 British expedition. From top left, Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edward Norton, Noel Odell and John Macdonald. Seated, from left, Edward Shebbeare, Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell and Bentley Beetham. (Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)

Because it’s there

From the very beginning of climbing in the Himalaya, the British looked upon Mount Everest as their mountain. They had given it a name and established its height. The British obsession with climbing Everest was essentially a redemption for a country which had lost the race for the Poles and to prove the supremacy of the British as a nation of climbers and explorers. World War I had ended in 1918 and many of the climbers who were part of the early Everest expeditions had fought in the war. Death and suffering were no strangers to them.

In the 1920s, mountaineering was a gentleman’s sport and the exclusive privilege of the British upper crust. Officers from the army and alumni from prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge were welcome to join this elite club. Mallory epitomised the gentleman climber with his dashing good looks, Cambridge education and army background pursuing a noble goal to bring glory to his country by summiting Everest.

George Mallory, born on 18 June 1886, studied at Winchester School and Magdalene College in Cambridge. He later became a school teacher at Charterhouse in the county of Surrey, England, teaching English and history. He honed his climbing skills in the Lake District and the Swiss Alps. On 29 July 1914, six days before the start of World War I, Mallory married Ruth Turner in the town of Godalming in Surrey. 

In January 1916, Mallory enlisted and started artillery training. In May 1916, he crossed into France and fought the battle of Somme. From 1916-18 he continued to fight in France, returning to England on short visits to see his wife and children. After the war ended, Mallory returned to England in January 1919 and rejoined his teaching position at Charterhouse. In 1921 he resigned from Charterhouse to join the British Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest.

In the early 1920s, Nepal was closed to all foreigners and hence approaching Everest from Nepal was not possible. Tibet offered the only approach to the mountain. The 1921 reconnaissance effort was made possible by the efforts of Charles Bell, the de-facto British India ambassador to Tibet, who convinced the 13th Dalai Lama to allow the expedition to enter Tibet and make the first survey of the country around Mount Everest.

The first goal of the expedition was “to find the mountain", as Mallory put it. The team left Darjeeling on a wet May morning and travelled through the leech-infested and rain-drenched forests of Sikkim and across the Jelep La to the cool and dry confines of the Chumbi valley in Tibet. The expedition then moved north towards Phari and was greeted with azure blue skies and a tremendous view of the peak of Chomolhari across the Tibetan plateau, before swinging west to the fortress of Kampa Dzong, and then south to Rongbuk, a settlement/village at the foot of the north face of Everest.

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The Northeast Ridge of Everest, photographed during the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition.
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The Northeast Ridge of Everest, photographed during the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mallory had his first view of Everest from above Kampa Dzong and promptly fell under the spell of the mountain. He described it as “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world". In a letter to his wife Ruth Mallory, he wrote “.. this is a thrilling business altogether… I can’t tell you how it possesses me and what a prospect it is."

Now that the mountain had been found, Mallory and fellow expedition climber Guy Bullock struggled for several weeks to find a way to climb up to the North Col 23,000ft, a precipitous ledge in the ridge connecting Everest to the neighbouring peak of Changtse, without success. Finally Oliver Wheeler, the map maker of the expedition, sent a sketch to Howard Bury, the expedition leader, showing the approach to the North Col from the East Rongbuk Glacier.

Following Wheeler’s map, Mallory, Bullock and Wheeler reached the North Col on 24 September 1921. This was the high point of the expedition, which also mapped 12,000 square miles of territory in Tibet, forming the base of all future maps of the region.

Fresh from this success, the next year, the British decided to send an expedition to climb Everest, with Mallory back in the team. The 1922 expedition was a landmark, not just for Everest expeditions, but for starting many other debates that continue to dominate Himalayan climbing. One of these was that of climbing Everest by “fair means", without using supplemental oxygen. Members of the expedition had differing views, with Mallory against using oxygen, while George Finch, an Australian climber and chemist, who had worked on the equipment, a firm believer in the efficacy of bottled oxygen.

The 1922 expedition made three summit attempts. The first, led by Mallory and three other climbers, without using supplemental oxygen, reached an altitude of nearly 27,000ft. The second attempt was by climbers George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce usingoxygen, reached an altitude of around 27,300ft, the highest point that anyone had reached, till then.

With the Indian monsoon approaching, and the window for settled weather closing fast, Mallory launched a third and final attempt despite bad conditions and fresh snowfall. Accompanied by three expedition climbers and 13 Sherpas, Mallory started out for the North Col on 7 June from Camp III. At 1.30pm, about 600ft below the Col, there was an ominous sound “like an explosion of untamped gunpowder". In an instant, the entire slope gave way. A huge avalanche thundered down and seven Sherpas died—the first of many tragedies on Everest.

“Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed—why, oh why could not one of us Britishers have shared their fate?" Somervell remarked later. This tragedy ended the 1922 expedition, and shook Mallory to the core. In a letter to Ruth, Mallory wrote, “ The consequences of my mistake are so terrible; it seems almost impossible to believe that it has happened forever and that I can do nothing to make good." After two years of smooth sailing on Everest, Mallory’s “peak fever" had prompted him to make an error of judgement and the expedition paid heavily for it.

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Members of the 1924 expedition with local Tibetan officials.
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Members of the 1924 expedition with local Tibetan officials. (Wikimedia Commons)

Walking off the mountain

In 1923, the British started preparations for the third Everest expedition while Mallory, now a celebrity, spent a significant amount of time that year on lecture tours in the US and England. These long absences from his wife were putting a severe strain on their marriage. If Mallory returned to Everest in 1924, then it would be their sixth parting, including the war years, in eight years. Ruth was extremely uneasy about Mallory going to Everest again, and Mallory himself was unhappy and full of premonitions. He was torn between his love for Ruth and his children on one hand and an obsession with Everest that, he feared, would lead to his doom. He knew that 1924 would be his last chance at climbing Everest. He hoped that by reaching the summit, he could finally reconcile his love for Ruth and his obsession with the mountain.

Mallory knew that 1924 would be his last chance at climbing Everest. He hoped that by reaching the summit, he could finally reconcile his love for Ruth and his obsession with the mountain.

However, as anthropologist and Mallory biographer Wade Davis observed in his 2011 book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, “The mountain had become him, and he the mountain, not only in the minds of the British public but within his own." Mallory gave a hint to his obsession with the peak when he famously quipped, when asked before the expedition why he wanted to summit Everest, “Because it’s there."

On 29 February 1924, the SS California sailed from Liverpool, carrying the expedition to India. Ruth saw Mallory off at the pier, waving to him until the steamer was out of sight.

The 1924 team was led by General Charles Bruce (he had led the previous expedition too) and had a number of climbers from the earlier expeditions, including Howard Somervell, John Noel, Edward Norton and Geoffrey Bruce. The newcomers were Noel Odell, Andrew Irvine, Bentley Beetham, Edward Shebbeare and John Hazard. Major Hingston was the expedition doctor.

On 13 April, while on the Tibetan plateau, Charles Bruce fell ill with malaria and returned to Darjeeling. Norton assumed leadership of the expedition and Mallory was promoted to climbing leader. Mallory immediately sat down to make the climbing plan and the teams for the summit bid. It was decided that Norton and Somervell would make the first attempt without supplemental oxygen, followed by Mallory and Irvine using oxygen. Mallory chose the inexperienced Irvine as his partner primarily due to the latter’s skill with the oxygen equipment.

Mallory wrote to Ruth on 24 April from Shegar Dzong, “.. the whole plan is mine... and my part will give me, perhaps, the best chance of getting to the top. It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shan’t get to the top; I can’t see myself coming down defeated."

The team took five weeks to reach the Rongbuk Glacier from Darjeeling and arrived at Base Camp on 29 April. However the inclement weather with snow storms and blizzards, far worse than in 1922, made climbing and setting up camps very difficult. The target for the expedition to reach the summit was 17 May, but by the 11th, the team had not even reached the North Col.

On 19 May, with the expedition running two weeks behind schedule, Mallory, Somervell and Norton headed up from Camp III for the Col and by 2.30pm had reached an ice shelf below the summit, where they dumped their supplies and headed down. On the way Mallory fell 10ft into a crevasse, and was saved by his ice axe getting wedged. None of his climbing partners were in sight and luckily he managed to get himself out.

Bad weather struck again, with gale force winds and blizzards, and four porters marooned on the North Col had to be rescued by Mallory, Norton and Somervell.

On 27 May, Mallory wrote his final letter to Ruth. “Darling I wish you the best I can—that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this—with the best news… It is 50 to 1 against but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud."

A page of the final letter written by George Mallory to his wife Ruth.
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A page of the final letter written by George Mallory to his wife Ruth. (AP)

On 4 June, Norton and Somervell set off for the final push to the summit, from the summit camp, Camp VI, at 26,800ft. Without using supplemental oxygen, their progress was slow, and at about 28,000ft, Somervell, who was suffering from a hacking cough, sat down on a rock and asked Norton to proceed alone. Norton managed another hour of climbing. High up in Everest’s “Death Zone", Norton was suffering from hypoxia, and was nearly snow blind after he had removed his googles to see better. He decided to retreat from 28,126ft, the highest that anyone had climbed without supplemental oxygen. It would remain an altitude record till 1978.

It was now Mallory and Irvine’s turn. On 6 June, at the North Col, Odell took a photograph of Mallory and Irvine setting out for the summit. “The party moved off in silence as we bid them adieu," Odell would later write. It was a sombre moment. They reached Camp V in good time and Mallory sent down a note to Noel asking him to look for them either crossing the rock band or going up the skyline at 8pm (he had meant 8am). To Odell, he wrote “...we’ll probably go on two cylinders—but it’s a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job!"

It is not known at what time the two climbers left Camp VI on the 8 June, but sunrise on Everest was at 4.45am so it would probably be after that, maybe between 5am and 7am.

At 2pm a fierce storm hit the upper reaches of the mountain and it started to snow heavily as Odell reached Camp VI. Despite the snow, Odell climbed another 200ft in the hope of spotting Mallory and Irvine again, but clouds covered the mountain. In accordance with Mallory’s instructions, Odell left Camp VI at 4.30pm and headed down to the Col. The entire north face and the upper section of the north ridge was now bathed in sunshine, but there was no sign of the two climbers.

On 9 June, with no further news, Odell set off again at midday with two porters to search for the missing climbers. He found that Camp V had not been slept in. The next morning, despite the inclement weather, he pushed on to Camp VI and found that the tent poles had collapsed in the wind but things were otherwise just as he had left them.

Fearing the worst, Odell then pushed on further for a few hours, a lone climber on the huge north face searching for his friends. Odell said, “the mighty summit… seemed to look down in cold indifference on me… and howl derision in wind gusts at my petition to yield up its secret—the mystery of my friends." As the weather was worsening, Odell decided to retreat. Mallory and Irvine were gone.

The price of obsession

On 19 June, Ruth Mallory received a telegram from Arthur Hinks, the secretary of the Mount Everest Committee who managed all the British Everest expeditions from 1921-53. She had hoped that it would announce the success of the expedition. Instead she read, “…your husband and Irvine killed last climb… heartfelt sympathy..." Mallory’s daughter Clare recounts how Ruth gave this news to the three children. “She lay between us and told us this bad news," Clare said, “We all cried together."

Amidst the tragedy, members of the expedition and other contemporaries, were still fixed on ascertaining if Mallory had summited. Many of them, including Odell, believed that Mallory had reached the summit. Geoffrey Winthrop Young, one of Mallory’s mentors, said, “Difficult as it would have been for any mountaineer to turn back with the only difficulty past—to Mallory it would have been an impossibility… my own opinion is that the accident occurred on the way down and if that is so, the peak was first climbed because Mallory was Mallory." In referring to the “only difficulty", Young meant the Second Step, thought to be the final mountaineering challenge on the north face, before a gradual walk up to the summit.

The North Face of Everest, seen from the Tibetan Plateau.
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The North Face of Everest, seen from the Tibetan Plateau. (Getty Images)

When the British returned to Everest in 1933, climber Percy Wynn Harris found an ice axe at an altitude of 27,760ft, near the First Step. From the notches on the axe it was identified as Irvine’s and it was located possibly at the scene of an accident where Mallory had fallen. The ice axe was retrieved and brought back to London.

In 1936, another British climber, Frank Smythe, wrote in a letter to Edward Norton that he had seen a body on the mountain. “I was scanning the face from base camp through a high-powered telescope last year," his letter read, “when I saw something queer in a gully below the scree shelf. Of course it was a long way away and very small… this object was at precisely the point where Mallory and Irvine would have fallen had they rolled on over the scree slopes." The body which Smythe saw was in all likelihood that of Mallory.

In 1960, seven years after Norgay and Hillary’s Everest summit from the Nepalese Southeast Ridge, a Chinese team made the first ascent of Everest from the Tibet side. Many years later, in 2001, the deputy leader of the Chinese expedition, Xu Jing, said that as he was descending through the Yellow Band (a distinctive layer of rocks high up on Everest’s north face), he saw a body in a crevasse at around 27,200ft, close to where Irvine’ s ice axe had been found. If true, the body was probably Irvine’s.

Reports of Mallory and Irvine’s remains kept coming through the following decades. In 1975, a Chinese climber named Wang Hong-bao stumbled across “an English dead" at 26,570ft. Wang reported the find to his climbing partner shortly before being swept away by an avalanche himself.

Finally, on 1 May 1999, climber Conrad Anker, a member of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, found Mallory’s body face down on some rocks at an altitude of around 26,700ft, not far from the 1924 Camp VI. The climber’s back was like white alabaster with his body embedded in the rocks of Everest, his hands stretched out as if trying to arrest a fall. George Mallory had become one with his greatest obsession.

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It was concluded that Mallory had fallen after dusk (as his snow goggles were in his pocket), while descending. Of Irvine and the camera there was no sign. Significantly, the photograph of Ruth that Mallory had planned to leave on the summit was not found on him, leading to more speculation that Mallory had indeed summited and had left the photo on top.

From 2001-18, there were several attempts to search the mountain and find Irvine but they drew a blank. Finally in 2019, National Geographic sent a final expedition to search for Irvine’s remains. The possible location of Irvine had been extensively studied through satellite imaging of the north face. “There was nothing there," reported expedition climber Mark Synott when he reached the spot.

A bonfire of vanities

At the time of writing, this May, there are more than 400 paying climbers, and possibly an equal number of supporting Sherpas at the Everest Base Camp in Nepal’s Khumbu Glacier, preparing for their summit attempt. Many of these clients have paid $60,000 (around 50 lakh) or more for a chance to stand on the summit. The route-laying Sherpas of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall—dubbed the Icefall Doctors—have opened the route for the year, and are maintaining it for the client climbers. The elite team of Sherpas are fixing guiding ropes all the way from the Base Camp to the summit, which mountain guide Scott Fischer, who lost his life in the infamous 1996 Everest disaster, called “the yellow brick road".

This May, there were more than 400 paying climbers, and possibly an equal number of supporting Sherpas at the Everest Base Camp in Nepal’s Khumbu Glacier, preparing for their summit attempt. Many of these clients paid $60,000 or more for a chance to stand on the summit.

At Base Camp, large dome tents have been converted into luxury lounges with plush sofas and cappuccino machines. High-speed Wi-Fi, satellite phones and film screenings in the evenings keep the climbers engaged as they wait for their turn on the mountain. One hundred years ago, Everest climbers survived on tins of bully beef and Kendal mint cake, writing letters home in candlelight. The obsession remains the same, it’s just that the hubris has heightened.

In the past 100 years, as Everest has become unimaginably commercialised, there has been a sea change in the ethics and ethos of mountaineering on the mountain. These days, commercial clients use helicopters to return to Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar for a few days’ rest in between their acclimatisation climbs. This year on Annapurna I, client climbers took helicopters from Camp III on their way after summiting the peak, all the way to Kathmandu.

A human traffic jam on Everest in 1921.
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A human traffic jam on Everest in 1921. (AFP)

The problem of human traffic jams on the final summit ridge of Everest has made news for the last few years. Climbers stand in line for hours using up precious oxygen waiting to get to the summit. Reports of oxygen bottles, cached on the higher slopes of Everest, being stolen by competing companies further adds to this sordid tale of cut-throat obsession with standing on the highest point on Earth. Climbing Everest is no more about mountaineering in the true sense, it is a multimillion-dollar business.

One hundred years after an epochal moment in the history of mountaineering, we are still unable to answer the question which was put to Odell in 1924, in the wake of Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance. Odell said, “Has Mount Everest been climbed? It must be left unanswered for there is no direct evidence. But bearing in mind all the circumstances… and considering their position when last seen, I think there is a strong probability that Mallory and Irvine succeeded. At that I must leave it."

Looking back, one cannot but marvel at the exploits of these Everest climbers of the 1920s in their hob-nailed boots, Shetland pullovers, Donegal tweed jackets and rudimentary oxygen systems climbing above 27,000ft in inhospitable terrain and gale force winds. Their indomitable spirit, quest for exploration and their climb into the unknown, when you could walk off the map, remains a stark contrast with what is being called mountaineering today. A century later, despite these sweeping changes, Mallory’s words still ring true. “Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves."

Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based trekker, photographer and co-author ofEverest: Reflections on the Solukhumbu.

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