The corpse was frozen and bleached by the sun. It lay face down in the snow, fully extended and pointing uphill. The upper body was welded to the scree with ice. The arms, still muscular, were outstretched above the head. Mountaineer George Mallory had last been sighted on 8 June 1924, when he and Andrew Irvine went missing while attempting to become the first men to reach the summit of Everest. Whether or not they achieved this goal has been the subject of intense speculation for nearly 100 years.
In the spring of 1999, an American named Eric Simonson set up the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Five experienced mountaineers were sent high onto Everest with the aim of finding the bodies of one or both climbers.
They had a few clues to help them in their search. In 1975, a Chinese climber named Wang Hung-bao had stumbled across ‘an English dead’ at 26,570 feet (8,100 metres). Wang reported the find to his climbing partner shortly before being swept away by an avalanche. The precise location of the ‘English dead’ was never fixed.
Eric Simonson’s five-strong team of experienced mountaineers were undeterred. Conrad Anker, Dave Hahn, Jake Norton, Andy Politz, and Tap Richards were determined to succeed, even though the odds were stacked against them.
Their search was concentrated on a wide snow-terrace the size of twelve football pitches. Tilted at a crazy angle, the terrace lay above 26,000 feet. The men knew that if they lost their balance, the 30 degree slope would carry them down a 7,000-foot drop to the Rongbuk Glacier.
On 1 May, Conrad Anker was combing the slope when he raised a cry. He had spotted a corpse, white as alabaster, sticking out of the ice. The rest of the team made their way towards him and began chipping the corpse from its frozen resting place. As they dug, they studied the body with care. The tibia and fibula of the right leg were broken, the right elbow was dislocated and the right side also badly damaged.
The climbing rope had wrapped itself tightly around the ribcage.
It didn’t take long to identify the body. When Tap Richards looked inside the clothing, he found a name-tag: G Mallory. ‘Maybe it was the altitude and the fact that we’d all put aside our oxygen gear,’ said Dave Hahn, ‘but it took a while for reality to sink in. We were in the presence of George Mallory himself.’
The question that remained unanswered was whether or not Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit. Did they die on their way up? Or on their way down?
The team hoped they might find Mallory’s camera: experts at Kodak had said that the film, though old, might yet be developed. But when the men reached inside the pouch around Mallory’s neck, they found only a metal tin of stock cubes: ‘Brand & Co. Savoury Meat Lozenges’. There was other evidence as well: a brass altimeter, a pocketknife, a monogrammed handkerchief and a pair of undamaged sun goggles in an inside pocket.
The goggles were potentially an important clue as to what had happened on that day in 1924. Just a few days before his attempt on the summit, Mallory’s second climbing partner, Edward Norton, had suffered serious snow-blindness because he’d neglected to wear his goggles.
Mallory would not have dispensed with his goggles if climbing in daylight. The fact they were in his pocket suggested that the two men had completed their push for the summit in sunlight and were making their descent after dark.
No less interesting was an envelope found on Mallory’s body. It was covered in numbers: pressure readings of the oxygen bottles they were carrying. It had long been believed that the climbers didn’t have enough oxygen to get them to the summit. But the numbers showed that the two climbers were carrying five, perhaps six canisters – more than enough to get to the top of the mountain.
More tantalizing was an item that the searchers had expected to find on Mallory’s body. He was known to have been carrying a photo- graph of his wife, Ruth, which he had vowed to leave on the summit. The photo was nowhere to be found, even though his wallet and other papers were intact.
The men who found Mallory were able to piece together a plausible scenario as to what happened on the fateful evening of his death. It is a story of adventure and tragic error – one that ultimately led to his doom.
It is late in the evening on 8 June, long after twilight, and the two climbers are still high on the mountain. Exhausted and with failing oxygen supplies, they are desperate to reach safety. As they cross a notoriously treacherous layer of marble and phyllite known as the ‘Yellow Band’, one of the two climbers slips.
It may well have been Mallory. If so, his fall is halted by the rope, which dashes him into a rocky outcrop. His ribs are instantly broken and his elbow is dislocated. But he is held there by the rope, dangling in a void.
And then, unexpectedly, the rope snaps and he plunges through the darkness. He lands on a steep shelf of snow, snapping his tibia and fibula. But still he doesn’t stop. Gravity drags him down the North Face at tremendous speed.
He’s terrified and in appalling pain, but still conscious and trying to save himself. In desperation, he clutches at frozen scree, digging his fingers into the ice. Faster and faster he slides until his forehead smashes into a jagged outcrop of rock. It punctures a hole in his head. He comes to a standstill at the same time as he loses consciousness.
Pain and hypothermia rapidly take over. Within minutes, George Mallory is dead.
Irvine, meanwhile, has almost certainly met with a similar fate. He’s fallen, seriously injured, and is also suffering from hypothermia. Within a few minutes of Mallory’s death he, too, has succumbed to the cold.
But did they make it to the summit? Were they the first to climb Everest? It’s a question that Eric Simonson’s team was unable to answer with absolute certainty. The discovery of Mallory’s body was a remark- able find, but the riddle is likely to remain unsolved unless or until the camera is found.
One person alone has felt able to say whether or not Mallory and Irvine deserve the title of ‘conquerors of Everest’. Mallory’s son, John, was just three years old when he lost his father. To him, George Mallory’s failure to return home provided all the answers he needed. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.’
This excerpt is from Fascinating Footnotes From History by Giles Milton, published by John Murray.