Theories about What Happened
It will be a great triumph if my impromptu oxygen apparatus gets to the top. A. C. Irvine
There are three questions at the heart of the mystery of Mallory and Irvine: (1) Did they reach the summit? (2) If not, how far did they get, and by what route? (3) How did they meet their deaths? The article below, Rethinking the Mallory and Irvine Question, attempts to answer the second dilemma. For other theories, please use the links on the left. Whether the pair reached the top depends upon such factors as where they were when seen by Noel Odell at 12.50pm, whether Mallory could have climbed the second step, the amount of oxygen available to the two men, and how far behind their own schedule Mallory and Irvine were when the weather deteriorated at 2pm.
How They Died
How Mallory and Irvine died is as uncertain now as it was in 1924. For many years after 1933, when the ice axe was found, and again after 1999, when Mallory was discovered still roped, a slip on the descent seemed likely to have killed both men, with Irvine’s fall perhaps taking him over the cliff on which Mallory rests. More recently, a different picture is emerging. It may be that the ice axe, the mitten and sightings of Irvine around the two towers on the ridge indicate a trail of distress before Irvine died from exhaustion and exposure. Perhaps the pair had been separated in an accident near the ice axe site, or perhaps Mallory escorted Irvine to the shelter of the towers before descending in search of help, only to slip and die in a fall.
Hence, a number of paradoxes present themselves: How can Irvine have died high and Mallory low on the North Face if Mallory was roped when found in 1999? (Perhaps the rope was cut on purpose because the knot had frozen.) How can relatively minor injuries on Mallory be reconciled to a long fall from the ice axe site? (Perhaps there were other accidents, as suggested by bloodstains on the outside of Mallory’s jacket.) The mystery continues to fascinate.
Rethinking the Mallory and Irvine Question
Did Mallory and Irvine leave the Northeast ridge and climb towards the Couloir?
The conventional wisdom on Mallory and Irvine has them climbing part of the Second Step in the Northeast ridge when Odell saw them moving 'with considerable alacrity' at 12.50pm on 8th June 1924.
Indeed, this was Odell's original impression; but he later decided that it must have been the First Step (not the Second) and maintained this view robustly well into the 1980s.
But the common view was slow to change with Odell, and his initial idea about the Second Step has led eager historians, climbers and enthusiasts to suppose that, by 1.00pm, Mallory and Irvine had unlocked a route to the final pyramid and success on Everest.
It is a hugely alluring prospect, but one made difficult by the fact that Odell remains the only person to have seen Mallory and Irvine on the day in question, and by the compelling argument that he is the best judge of what only he saw.
In looking to fashion Odell's evidence against his own conclusion, great debate has centred on the question of whether Mallory or Irvine had the skill to climb the difficult headwall of the Second Step, which Chinese climbers took over an hour to climb in 1960.
Conrad Anker, who so-nearly scaled the pitch without modern climbing aids in 1999, rated the climb just outside what was thought to be possible for climbers in the 1920s. He went so far as to offer a 'big steak dinner' to anyone who could overcome the obstacle.
(He might have to award himself the prize, mentioned at a lecture in 2002, after his supreme effort last year.)
But this just goes to demonstrate the great interest in the Second Step as a mountaineering and historical enigma supposedly at the heart of Mallory and Irvine's mystery. And yet no hard evidence exists to prove that Mallory and Irvine were ever above the first step.
The trail of clues, which includes their final tent on the North ridge, a mitten, ice axe and oxygen bottle on or just below the Northeast ridge, and Odell's sighting, stops at the First Step. Remaining oxygen apparatus, including the bulky carrying frames and other artefacts, have not been found.
So what if Mallory and Irvine never went beyond the First Step? What if they never crossed the knife-edge ridge between the two steps to arrive at the Second? What if they abandoned the ridge and explored an alternative traverse into the Couloir?
This was the argument picked up by Graham Hoyland at a lecture in London last year. But the argument has rarely been given a full statement, not least because Hoyland's theory had Mallory and Irvine emerging from the Couloir to be seen climbing the so-called Third Step (despite the Couloir route appearing to lead more intuitively onto the North pillar of the final pyramid).
In fact, there are many reasons why the pair might have chosen to explore a route leading them towards (and perhaps into) the Couloir, and this scenario helps to resolve a number of stubborn difficulties in the mystery.
Why choose the Couloir?
The difficulty of the route leading along the ridge to the Second Step should not be under-estimated. Jochen Hemmleb's research papers, together with sincere testimony from many modern climbers, have attested to the technical and psychological challenge of the terrain, which is greatly exposed.
In Mallory's case, it is very important to remember that Irvine was relatively inexperienced in mountaineering and technical rock climbing. And the bulky oxygen apparatus used by the pair would have hindered their movement over such difficult ground. Needless to say, they did not have the benefit of fixed ropes.
More importantly, nor would they have had the reassurance of knowing the route 'went', for nobody had been that way before.
Indeed, perhaps the only reason why modern climbers opt for the ridge between the steps is because it was pioneered by Chinese teams during the long years when they had the North side of Everest more or less to themselves; and it may be fair to say that Chinese climbing intuition in the 1960s was different to attitudes long predominant in the West.
Indeed, support for a route that dropped down from the ridge and traversed below the Steps comes from an important quarter: All of the pre-war British climbing parties developed an adherence to what was then known as the 'Norton' traverse towards the Couloir.
Norton himself made his extraordinary climb only a few days before Mallory and Irvine's final effort. His thinking was rewarded with relative success, for he climbed higher than anyone had been before, setting a record not broken until 1953.
The point is clear and twofold: not only was the Norton traverse a 'known quantity' back in June 1924, but its logic was persuasive to subsequent climbing parties (in 1933) which were faced with a similar choice between the Northeast ridge and the Couloir.
And it is revealing of the thinking of the age that, in situ, every climbing party sided with Norton over Mallory's original idea of following the ridge as far as the Second Step.
So, in addressing the Mallory and Irvine question, we must challenge the lazy bias in favour of a continuation over the ridge, for this pre-disposition is formed by much later knowledge, habits and preferences which would have been alien to the pair in 1924.
The first climbing party of 1933 is especially illustrating, because their decision to reject the ridge between the steps was shaped by a lack of knowledge they would have shared with Mallory and Irvine (but not modern climbers).
From their position a little below the First Step, Wager and Wyn-Harris were wary of taking the ridge route. Their decision to traverse through the 'grey band' was partly influenced by the hope of reaching the base of the Second Step directly from below.
(They attempted this, but were not to know that such a climb is only possible in the thickest of post-monsoon snow conditions: the 'OTT' deviation.)
In other words, Wager and Wyn-Harris thought they were keeping their options open. When they realised that the ridge was no longer within reach, they continued into the Couloir. It is hardly a flight of fancy to suppose that Mallory and Irvine did the same thing.
A final piece of revisionism should be added, for the question of whether Mallory or Irvine could have climbed the Second Step is often addressed without regard to the context of any decision which might have placed them in position to try.
The question is not simply whether Mallory and Irvine were capable of climbing the Second Step 'in extremis', but rather whether the Step offered a sufficient margin of probability to justify the risk and commitment of making the crossing along the ridge.
What is more, any decision to attempt the Second Step could only have taken place after a cool assessment of the chances of both men descending successfully by the same route; and yet this would have been highly uncertain from Mallory's vantage point on the First Step.
In summary, when viewed through the eyes of Mallory and Irvine and not modern climbers, there is much to dissuade climbers from continuing along the ridge in the direction of the Second Step.
The alternative option leading towards the Couloir had offered Norton some success a few days previously and might have left open the possibility of rejoining the ridge later on. It must have been an attractive possibility.
(And where Norton had been worn down by the exertions of the climb, Mallory and Irvine had the perceived advantage of oxygen.)
Joining the dots
The Couloir theory's major advantage over other scenarios for Mallory and Irvine is that it helps to explain two difficult problems in the mystery: the limited injuries and pacific posture found on Mallory in 1999 and their missing equipment.
In each case, my argument is that, by changing their route mid-climb, the pair ended up on a very different part of the mountain than they originally intended, and it made sense to return speedily to camp six by a different route.
Indeed, having climbed to the First Step and then traversed under the Second Step towards the Couloir, Mallory and Irvine would have covered a lot of ground without gaining much additional height. Fair enough on the ascent; but on the way down most climbers would hope to lose altitude as quickly as possible (especially on the edge of Everest's 'Death Zone').
Mallory and Irvine, having reached the Couloir (or having later descended by it) are quite unlikely to have made the traverse back to the First Step when a more direct return to camp was available to them along Norton and Somervell's route some five hundred feet or so beneath the crest of the ridge.
This was the calculation of the 1933 climbers who found themselves in the same situation: they were tempted by the possibility of losing height quickly, but ultimately had to retrace their steps to arrive at their top camp (much closer to the Northeast ridge than in 1924).
Wager and Wyn-Harris were also keen to recover Irvine's ice axe, which they saw on their ascent, while Smythe was obliged to return along his earlier route in order to meet up with Shipton, who had dropped out of the climb.
But Mallory and Irvine's case was different: they had no reason to return via the base of the First Step.
(Concerned with losing height as quickly as possible, and perhaps fearful of the impending monsoon, Mallory might even have considered the possibility of skipping out camp six and joining up with Finch and Bruce's 1922 route at the 'eagle' snowfield.)
If the 1924 pair did adopt something like the Norton route before at least one of them fell, they might have been considerably lower on the North Face than during their ascent. Hence, this scenario could help to explain Mallory's 'limited' injuries and 'pacific' posture, as discovered in 1999. But this requires further revisionism.
The conventional wisdom for many years prior to Mallory's discovery in 1999 was that the pair must have suffered a slip at the ice axe site just below the crest of the Northeast ridge and approximately 250 yards east of the First Step. Why else would the ice axe have been abandoned by the climbers, if not placed down or flung to one side during an incident?
When Mallory's body was found approximately in line with a fall from the ice axe site, as predicated by Tom Holzel and others, this was taken by many as proof of the theory. But the scenario was never entirely satisfactory.
For one thing, Somervell had dropped his ice axe on similar terrain only a few days before Mallory and Irvine's last climb, only for it to tumble down the North Face irretrievably. For another thing, the route mapped out by the mitten and the oxygen bottle makes the ice axe site an unlikely place for a break downwards into the 'yellow band'.
Then there is the evidence of Mallory's injuries and posture, which argue strongly against a fall over the height of the ice axe site.
While his injuries were enough to end his life, Mallory's body was essentially 'in-tact' and his posture one of self-arrest compared to other fallen climbers on that part of the mountain. The 1999 expedition were particularly moved on this point.
Whether the posture implies moments of consciousness during or after the fall, which would be inconsistent with a long fall from the ice axe site, or whether Mallory's was simply spared the physical distortions suffered by other climbers falling from the ridge, the evidence points towards a much shorter fall.
Mallory and Irvine's descent along a lower route would explain this shorter fall. A return from the Couloir is one of very few explanations for this scenario, and I believe the best.
Of course, a traverse into the Couloir and return by a different route might also explain why no further evidence of Mallory and Irvine has been found above (or below) the First Step.
Where are the bulky oxygen apparatus and carrying frames? The example of bottle 'number nine' suggests that the pair were not in the business of throwing their equipment down the mountain, as some commentators have suggested.
These items ought to be conspicuous, especially given the high level of interest in Mallory and recent Everest archaeology, and yet they have never been found by any of the parties following the narrow modern route over the ridge between the steps and beyond.
By contrast, a traverse into the Couloir, an ascent from the Couloir onto the final pyramid, and a return along Norton's route has hardly ever been done. It is a tantalising and almost maddening possibility: all the remaining evidence lies on a line between the Couloir and camp six, and yet today's expeditions and theories are obsessed with the Second Step.
But the argument set out here is not without its limits: three problems in particular present themselves.
Firstly, it can be objected that Mallory and Irvine did not need to climb the First Step and there be seen by Odell in order to take a decision to traverse into the Couloir. What is more, by climbing the step, the pair might have committed themselves to the ridge and precluded any possibility of traversing below the steps.
This is a serious complaint against a Couloir theory, as long as Odell's sighting on the First Step is to be believed. But like the First Step itself it is not an insurmountable obstacle. For one thing, Mallory and Irvine might have had good reason to climb the step.
We know from the mitten and the oxygen bottle (and perhaps the ice axe) that Mallory and Irvine attained the crest of the ridge. Their line towards the First Step might therefore have been higher than Wager and Wyn Harris's in 1933, and the bulk of the step and its outcrop might have blocked a straightforward view of the ridge beyond.
Certainly, Mallory would have benefited from studying the difficult terrain of the ridge and Second Step from the unique vantage point of the First Step. If he was worried about the severity of the route, he might have climbed part of the step before finally discarding his original preference of following the crest.
The First Step is not the most difficult terrain on the Northeast ridge and a reconnaissance (while the question of routes was still to be decided) is by no means out of the question.
Having climbed the First Step, Mallory would have felt the loss of perhaps half an hour's climbing time before descending and beginning an alternative attempt to reach the Second Step from below or explore the Couloir.
The second problem is one of timing, for it could be argued that Mallory and Irvine were already too late in the day to be thinking about starting along a new route.
To be on the First Step at 1.00pm would (many say) place them hopelessly behind schedule and without any realistic or responsible chance of reaching the summit and returning safely. (Tom Holzel envisages the pair climbing the step only for the purpose of reconnaissance, to aid future expeditions, before continuing their descent.)
Indeed, the shortage of oxygen available to the two men, the great distance of their camp from the summit, and the lateness of their position at the time of Odell's sighting all argue strongly against Mallory and Irvine's ultimate chances of success.
But as ever it is vital to view the situation through Mallory's eyes, for he believed (I think wrongly) that he had some margin for error.
From the outset, Mallory's timings were over-optimistic: he hoped to reach the pyramid by 8.00 and contemplated evacuating camp six by midnight (instead of arriving back there in complete exhaustion).
Mallory might have thought he could eat into that margin for error, especially since the summit appears notoriously close from the Northeast ridge. (In reality, it is cruelly hidden from view behind the snowfield of the final pyramid.)
In the grand scheme of the climb and his final opportunity to prove himself on Everest, the delay incurred by climbing (and descending) the First Step should not be seen to prohibit a traverse into the Couloir.
The third problem concerns the ice axe, for the Couloir theory and a return along Norton's route sees the axe being abandoned on the ascent, when its use might have been greater.
This objection is again problematic, not least because it is unclear whether the mitten, the axe and the oxygen bottle all lie on the same line (the axe was below the ridge, whereas the mitten was on the crest).
However, there are major problems understanding why Irvine would have abandoned such tool, whether on the ascent or the descent.
The fall scenario questioned earlier is further discredited by a fine analysis of contour lines on the North Face. These suggest a fall line for Mallory (working upwards from his body) well to the east of any line worked downwards from the ice axe site.
In order words, even discounting the limited injuries and pacific posture, it is difficult to envisage Mallory falling from the ice axe site and coming to rest in his known position.
If not left in a fall, then Irvine's axe could have been abandoned for a number of reasons: tiredness and forgetfulness, general irritation with carrying it, or use as a marker for some reason. Perhaps the axe was a spare and therefore more disposable.
But none of these reasons argue very strongly in favour of abandonment on the ascent as opposed to the descent. There is always the unexplained.
Did they reach the top?
The Couloir has been climbed. Not, it must be said, by any of the pre-war British climbers, but much later by no less a mountaineer than Reinhold Messner and others. Meanwhile, the logic and attraction of the ridge route was forever distorted by the Chinese decision to fix a ladder at the critical point of the Second Step.
So the route chosen by Norton and Somervell, Wager and Wyn Harris, Shipton and Smythe could have been climbed. Perhaps not without oxygen and perhaps not over such a great horizontal distance from the 1924 camp six; but it could have been climbed.
Whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the summit remains unknown, but the debate should be given a boost by dropping the fascination with the Second Step and thinking out the implications of a climb into the Couloir.
My own remarks about the lateness of the pair at 1.00pm, together with a sane consideration of the oxygen available to them, argue against their reaching the top. So does the impending snow squall of 2.00pm, of which Mallory was ignorant when he stood on the First Step and considered what to do next.
But a further, more definite advantage of the Couloir theory is that it gives us somewhere new to look for clues: not just the traverse along the grey band from the First Step into the Couloir, but also the north pillar of the summit pyramid and the Norton return to camp.
That possibility deserves to be explored.
© Gareth Thomas, 2008