George Mallory’s Final Dash up Mount Everest: 100 Years of Mystery and Myth

A lost camera, a found axe, and a century of speculation. What happened to George Mallory and Sandy Irvine on June 8, 1924?
Andrew Irvine (left) circa 1920 and George Mallory circa 1915.
Andrew Irvine (left) circa 1920 and George Mallory circa 1915. / (Everest) JohanSjolander/E+/Getty Images; (Irvine) World-Pass Magazine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; (Mallory), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just before noon on May 1, 1999, Conrad Anker was standing about 2300 feet from the top of the world trying to plan a picnic.

“I’ve got a thermos of Tang juice and some Snicker bars,” he radioed to his four fellow climbers, scattered above him on the North Face of Mount Everest. “Why don’t you guys come down and have a little picnic with me?”

It wasn’t the first oddly breezy transmission Anker had sent that morning. Moments earlier, apropos of nothing, he’d told everyone that the “[last] time I went bouldering in my hobnails, I fell off.” The message made little sense; hobnails referred to hobnail boots, clunky footwear with nail-covered soles that modern mountaineers didn’t use. 

But Anker was being cryptic on purpose, hoping to notify his comrades that he’d found something important—something from a bygone era—without tipping off any other expeditions on the same radio frequency. The true bombshell of that initial transmission was boulder: their chosen code word for body.

The climbers didn’t register Anker’s news right away. They’d all tucked their radios deep into their down jackets to keep them warm enough to work, and it took a few more exchanges for the instruction to meet at Anker’s location—for “Snickers and tea,” another coded phrase—to ripple through the group.

At last, they saw what Anker had seen: a mummified corpse embedded in a gravelly section of stones. It was facedown, with both arms flung out and one leg crossed over the other. Weather had worn away some of the clothing, exposing a bright white upper back in perfect condition. Anker would later write that it “had a kind of matte look—a light-absorbing quality, like marble.”

The style of the apparel, hobnails included, made it immediately clear that the body was old; the climbers assumed that they’d found Andrew Irvine, one of two British mountaineers who vanished while trying to summit Everest in 1924. The search party had targeted an area where a body had been sighted in the 1970s, not far below where Irvine’s ice axe had been recovered decades prior. 

Then, Jake Norton saw the name tag sewn into one of the shirts: “G. Mallory.”

“Wait,” he said, “this is George Mallory.”

“Oh my God!” Dave Hahn said. “Oh my God!”

George Mallory, Irvine’s companion, was the older, more experienced, and more famous half of the pair—a veteran already of two Everest expeditions and such a naturally gifted climber that he seemed almost destined to reach the peak during this third adventure. His disappearance shocked the world, and now, 75 years later, the discovery of his body could finally give his descendants a sense of closure. 

The search party was hoping it could also answer the most tantalizing question in the mystery of what happened to the ill-fated explorers on June 8, 1924: Did Mallory fulfill his destiny before he died?

Expedition Everest

sepia photo of eight men, four sitting, four standing behind them
Eight members of the 1921 reconnaissance expedition (Mallory is front left). / From ‘Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921’ by Charles Howard-Bury, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Mount Everest had intrigued British explorers since the mid-19th century, when Britain’s Survey of India dubbed it, at 29,002 feet above sea level, the world’s highest mountain. (Its official height today is about 29,032 feet.) The Himalayan behemoth sits on the border of Tibet and Nepal, which meant that interested Westerners needed either government’s permission to access it. In late 1920, Tibet gave Britain the green light, and a coalition of men from the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club began planning a reconnaissance mission under the banner of the brand-new Mount Everest Committee [PDF]. 

Between mid-May and late September of 1921, a group of nine mountaineers—with help from some 40 local porters, 100 mules, a handful of cooks, and a couple translators—surveyed 12,000 square miles of previously unsurveyed territory, complete with photographs and a geological map of the Everest region. A climbing party that included George Mallory accessed Everest via the North Col, a glacier-formed pass in the ridge between Everest’s North Face and its neighboring mountain Changtse. 

In this way, the 1921 expedition fulfilled its primary goal to scout a viable path to the peak. But the experience also awakened the climbers to the dangers of such an enterprise: Alexander Kellas, a Scottish scientist who had participated in seven prior Himalayan expeditions, died of heart failure during this one.

aerial map of the Everest region with the East Rongbuk Glacier, Changtse, the North Col, and Everest's summit marked
The North Col leading to Everest. / NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The second expedition in 1922 focused on the sole aim of summiting the mountain. Two parties got close: The first, again with Mallory, hit 27,000 feet; and the second surpassed that milestone by 400 feet. But violent weather and other issues forced both groups to turn back prematurely, and the expedition was terminated after an avalanche killed seven porters during the third summit attempt.

The next expedition would only reinforce the lesson that on Everest, the triumph of progress is often darkened by death.

The White Whale

George Mallory was not keen on returning to Everest after the second trip. He had a loving wife, Ruth; three young children, Clare, Beridge, and John; and a new teaching job at the University of Cambridge (he himself was a graduate of Cambridge’s Magdalene College).

black and white photo of a young man in profile, turning to look at the camera
George Mallory circa 1915. /, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“It is an awful tug to contemplate going away from here instead of settling down to make a new life here with Ruth,” he wrote to his father. “[But] I have to look at it from the point of view of loyalty to the expedition and of carrying through a task begun.”

Mallory’s reservations didn’t only concern what he’d be leaving behind, but also what he’d be leaving it behind for. “He said to me that what he would have to face would be more like war than adventure, and that he did not believe he would return alive,” his friend Geoffrey Keynes later wrote. War was no abstract concept to Mallory, who had served in the Royal Artillery during World War I and seen firsthand the bloody havoc of the Battle of the Somme. 

And yet he understood the unique appeal of Everest. When asked during a 1923 lecture in New York City why he wanted to climb it, Mallory answered simply, “Because it’s there.” He went on to explain that “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

Already the North Pole had been reached, the South Pole had been reached, and the once mythic Northwest Passage had been sailed straight through. But Everest’s snowy crown remained untouched, and Mallory—who had cut his teeth on high-altitude climbing in the Alps during his early twenties; whose fellow climbers had wondered at his “cat-like agility” and the way he “couldn’t fall even if he wanted to”; and who now, at age 37, had more experience on Everest than any other mountaineer in the world—seemed the man to change that.

In Keynes’s words, “He knew that no one would criticize him if he refused to go, but he felt it a compulsion. The situation has its literary counterpart in Melville’s Captain Ahab and his pursuit of the White Whale, Moby Dick.”

After months of avoiding the Mount Everest Committee’s invitation to join the third expedition, Mallory accepted it at last in mid-February 1924. He was headed to India aboard the SS California mere weeks later.

Adventurers, Assemble

a sepia photo of the members of the 1922 Everest expedition
The 1922 expedition at base camp. Left to right, back row: Henry Morshead, Geoffrey Bruce, John Noel, Arthur Wakefield, Howard Somervell, John Morris, Teddy Norton. Left to right, front row: George Mallory, George Finch, Tom Longstaff, Charles Bruce, Bill Strutt, Colin Crawford. / From ‘The Assault on Mount Everest’ by Charles Bruce, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Of all 13 members of the 1924 expedition, Mallory alone had attended both previous trips. But five other men had been with him in 1922, including expedition leader Charles Bruce; photographer and filmmaker John Noel; and Geoffrey Bruce (Charles’s nephew), Howard Somervell, and Edward Norton.

Participants’ duties often extended beyond whatever official roles they’d been assigned within these expeditions. New addition Noel Odell was named the oxygen officer—tasked with handling the oxygen apparatuses that the climbers would use at high altitudes—but he would also observe Everest’s rock formations in his capacity as a geologist. Expedition doctor Richard Hingston, a naturalist, would report on the region’s flora and fauna; and climber Somervell, himself a doctor, would end up spending ample time treating the ill.

And then there was 22-year-old Merton College student Alexander “Sandy” Irvine, awarded a spot mainly on the strength of his potential. Odell had recruited Irvine for the expedition after serving as the geologist on a Merton College climbing trip to Wales and Spitsbergen, where he was blown away by Irvine’s brute athleticism and knack for mountaineering—an activity he’d never even tried before. Moreover, Irvine was something of an engineering wunderkind, and Odell hoped to entrust him with the oxygen equipment. Charles Bruce called Irvine “our splendid ‘experiment.’ ”

photo of Sandy Irvine, blonde and fair-skinned, in a jacket with his hands in his pockets
Sandy Irvine photographed by Christina Broom in 1924. / National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late March, the party set off from Darjeeling for a 350-mile hike across Tibet, passing through Phari, Kampa Dzong, and a number of other towns en route to base camp in the Rongbuk Valley. The support staff for the trip was as immense as ever—a 150-strong group of Tibetan porters, plus highly skilled Sherpas (people of Tibetan descent living in Nepal’s mountainous region); Gurkha non-commissioned officers (Nepalese soldiers in the British or Indian army); and other personnel, not to mention roughly 300 pack animals. 

When they finally reached base camp on April 29, they were already down a key member: Charles Bruce had withdrawn from the expedition in mid-April due to an attack of malaria. Norton replaced him as leader, a move that Bruce himself approved of. “[T]here was no step taken by Norton, no order issued by him, and no decision made by him of which I should not have been proud to have been the author,” he later wrote.

Norton’s foremost concern was the schedule. During the 1922 expedition, the monsoons had begun on June 1; and though Norton considered that “exceptionally early” for monsoon season, he hoped to have already summited Everest by then just in case it happened again.

He slated the first attempt on the apex for May 17, which would allow the climbers enough time for a second and even third attempt if needed. This gave them just over two weeks to set up a series of camps along the path to the peak—increasingly hazardous and taxing work as the terrain grew icier and the oxygen in the air plummeted with altitude. Base camp already sat at roughly 16,800 feet above sea level; the highest camp would be at least 10,000 feet above that.

With that in mind, Norton later wrote, “it will be understood that time pressed.”

High Camp

Establishing the first two camps was a bit of a breeze. On April 30, Gurkha NCOs Hurke Gurung and Tejbir Bura led all 150 Tibetan porters—“men, women, and boys, carrying at least 40 lb. each regardless of age or sex,” per Geoffrey Bruce—to the first site at an altitude of 17,800 feet. Half of the group then marched on to the second site about 2000 feet above it. 

Tiny humans passing through the towering icy peaks of a glacier
Members on the 1922 expedition passing through the East Rongbuk Glacier above Camp II. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The Tibetan porters were not generously compensated: They earned one tangka (the equivalent of barely a shilling) a day and had to bring their own supplies (minus food, which was provided). According to Bruce, they typically slept in the open air “with no cover or blankets.” Though more than four dozen porters did desert during the dash to the first two camps, the rest of the party completed the task with true grit; one woman carried her 40-pound bundle and her toddler all the way to Camp II.

But a blizzard rolled in as porters and explorers were setting up Camp III at 21,000 feet, and the number of ailing and injured participants suddenly skyrocketed. A porter named Tamding slipped on ice and broke his leg; a cobbler named Manbahadur suffered frostbitten feet; and Gurkha NCO Shamsher developed a blood clot in his brain. Others contracted pneumonia, and the situation eventually necessitated a full-scale retreat to base camp—a journey that Shamsher didn’t survive. (Manbahadur would pass away several days later.) 

color photo of Rongbuk Monastery, a cluster of white stone buildings, with snowcapped Mount Everest in the background
Rongbuk Monastery with Everest beyond it. /

To boost morale, the whole group backtracked four miles to the Rongbuk Monastery on May 15 so the lama could bless their expedition. They enjoyed a meal of “macaroni and spices,” Bruce wrote, before the lama “touched each of us upon the head with his silver prayer wheel” and “delivered a short but impressive address, encouraging the men to persevere, and assuring them that he would personally pray for them.” The experience “put fresh heart” into the porters, who soon returned to “their cheery normal selves.”

On May 20, Mallory and a team of climbers won their toughest battle yet: establishing Camp IV (elevation: 23,000 feet) atop a shelf on the North Col, which required scaling a 200-foot-tall “chimney,” or cleft in the cliff. “You could positively see [Mallory’s] nerves tighten like fiddle strings,” Norton wrote. “Up the wall and chimney he led here, carefully, neatly and in that beautiful style that was all his own.”

Their next battle proved even riskier. On May 23, after days of subzero temperatures and heavy snowfall, three porters and a cook named Poo got stranded at Camp IV with no food but barley flour. Mallory, Somervell, and Norton undertook a death-defying rescue mission to belay them down from the shelf. It was successful, but slogging through knee-deep (or deeper) snow for seven hours left the mountaineers fatigued beyond belief; everyone was forced back to Camp I to recuperate and reassess.

During the ensuing “council of war,” as Norton called it, the explorers decided to make two attempts to reach the peak: the first by Mallory and Bruce, the second by Norton and Somervell. Both parties would depart from Camp IV—where Odell and Irvine would remain to provide support as needed—on consecutive days and establish Camps V and VI as they climbed. Because only 15 porters were fit enough to accompany the climbing parties, they’d be working with scant resources, which meant forgoing oxygen altogether.

It was at Camp I that Mallory penned what would be his last letter to Ruth, dated May 27. “Dear Girl, this has been a bad time altogether. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door and onto a world of snow & vanishing hopes—& yet, & yet, & yet there have been a good many things to set on the other side. The party has played up wonderfully,” he wrote before summarizing the events on the North Col. “Darling I wish you the best I can—that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this—with the best news. Which will also be the quickest. It is 50 to 1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet & do ourselves proud. Great love to you. Ever your loving, George.”

Along the margin, a postscript: “The parts where I boast of my part are put in to please you and not meant for other eyes.”

The First Attempt

sepia photo of six people in a row: three white men and three Indigenous men of the Himalayan region
Mallory (third from left) and company at some point during the 1924 expedition. / Nationaal Archief, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

At 6:10 a.m. on June 1, Mallory, Bruce, and eight porters set off from Camp IV and fought blistering winds to gain about 2000 feet in altitude—at which point half of the porters plopped down in defeat, leaving the rest of the team to struggle up another few hundred feet and pitch Camp V at 25,300 feet. It was a far cry from the cozy expanses of the lower camps: Norton described it as “two fragile 10 lb. tents perched on an almost precipitous slope.” Five porters then retreated to Camp IV, while everyone else spent the night at Camp V with the intention of making it to Camp VI the following day.

Norton and Somervell realized that something had gone awry when, as they and six porters trudged toward Camp V on June 2, the first party’s lead porter, Dorjee Pasang, appeared above them in solo descent. Once he reached them, he passed along a note from Mallory: “Show’s crashed, wind took the heart out of our porters yesterday.”

Before long, Mallory himself appeared with his cohort and explained that the porters simply couldn’t be convinced to climb any higher that morning. As they headed back to Camp IV, utterly defeated, the second party soldiered on up the mountain.

The Second Attempt

Norton, Somervell, and all six porters arrived at Camp V around 1 p.m. that same day. The two weariest porters deposited their packs and departed for Camp IV, while the other six men forced down a meal—some combination of pemmican, biscuits, tinned sardines or corned beef, tea, and condensed milk—and settled into their tents for the night.

On the morning of June 3, porter Lobsang Tashi, feeling ill and nursing a head wound (rocks had fallen on their tent the previous afternoon), was discharged to Camp IV. But the other three porters—Norbu Yishé, Llakpa Chédé, and even Semchumbi, whose kneecap had been slashed open by a rock—left Camp V with Norton and Somervell at 9 a.m. and made it to 26,800 feet, where they established Camp VI, in the early afternoon. Having fulfilled their role of ferrying supplies to the final camp, the porters then began their descent, while Norton and Somervell rested up for their journey to the summit.

photo of two men climbing snow-covered rocks
Mallory and Norton during their summit attempt in 1922. / Spencer Arnold Collection/GettyImages

A spilled thermos delayed the climbers in the morning—they had to melt snow to replace its contents—but they still managed to leave camp by 6:40 a.m. Though Norton described the day as “fine and nearly windless—a perfect day for our task,” it was so “bitterly cold” that Norton’s violent shivering caused him to wonder if he might have contracted malaria. As they ascended, their health deteriorated in disparate ways. Norton’s main issue was vision. He had removed his goggles to see better, which left him susceptible to snow blindness; by roughly 27,500 feet, he wrote, “I was seeing double, and in a difficult step was sometimes in doubt where to put my feet.” Meanwhile, Somervell’s frostbitten air passages made breathing progressively difficult. 

Around 28,000 feet, Somervell told Norton to continue without him, and Norton, nearly blind, stumbled up to 28,126 feet alone. Knowing he had no hope of surviving the rest of the ascent and the return journey, he surrendered the attempt and reconvened with Somervell. The pair, their adrenaline now replaced with fear and fatigue, traipsed shakily back down the mountain. During the descent, Somervell literally coughed up the frost-ravaged mucous lining of his larynx. “What a relief!” he later wrote. “Coughing up a little blood I once more breathed really freely—more freely than I had done in some days.” 

At 9:30 p.m., Norton and Somervell arrived at Camp IV, where Mallory and Odell showered them with praise and Irvine plied them with tea and soup. Mallory had not passed idly these past couple days—and later that night, he told Norton what he’d been up to.

The Last Gasp

As Norton and Somervell were inching up Everest on June 4, Mallory and Bruce had hustled down to Camp III to enlist porters and gather supplies for a potential third attempt. This time, Mallory wanted Irvine as his partner, and he also wanted oxygen.

The issue of oxygen was a divisive one in the mountaineering community: Some climbers considered it a form of cheating, while others didn’t find it a reliable tool. In fact, Mallory himself had once been an oxygen skeptic. At this point, though, he was willing to try anything, and Irvine—the least experienced climber, no doubt, but a hulking workhorse and the savviest oxygen operator—was the best choice for a climbing companion. Norton respected Mallory’s tenacity and approved the plan.

sepia photo of a group of men watching one kneeling before oxygen canisters
An oxygen demonstration during the 1922 expedition. / Print Collector/GettyImages

At 8:40 a.m. on June 6, after a breakfast at Camp IV of fried sardines, biscuits, chocolate, and tea, Mallory set off with Irvine and eight porters for Camp V. About eight hours later, Camp IV’s remaining residents found out how it went: Four porters arrived with a letter that Mallory had written at Camp V. “There is no wind here,” it read, “and things look hopeful.”

The next day, June 7, was a similar story. Odell and a porter named Nema clambered up to Camp V, where they were eventually met by the summit party’s four other porters bearing news from Mallory at Camp VI. The first was addressed to Odell:

“We’re awfully sorry to have left things in such a mess—our Unna cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment. Be sure of getting back to IV tomorrow in time to evacuate before dark, as I hope to. In the tent I must have left a compass—for the Lord’s sake rescue it: we are here without. To here on 90 atmospheres for the two days—so we’ll probably go on two cylinders—but it’s a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job! Yours ever, George Mallory.”

The second informed photographer and filmmaker John Noel, who was back at Camp III, that the summit party planned to set off early on June 8 “in order to have clear weather.” “It won’t be too early to start looking out for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up the skyline at 8.0 p.m.,” Mallory wrote. (It was immediately understood that he meant 8 a.m., not p.m.)

Once Odell dismissed Nema and the other porters with the note for Noel, he hunkered down for a pleasantly solitary night at Camp V and headed for Camp VI on the morning of June 8 with provisions for the climbers after their summit attempt. Noel was stationed at Camp III’s lookout point at 8 a.m. as instructed, but he wasn’t able to make out any sign of Mallory or Irvine.

Odell, en route to Camp VI, was. At 12:50 p.m., the clouds cleared and offered him a dazzling view of the Northeast Ridge, where he glimpsed two “tiny black spot[s]” moving rapidly to the top of a rock step. He believed it to be Mallory and Irvine traversing the Second Step of the Three Steps, the final obstacles before Everest’s summit pyramid. If so, it meant they’d left Camp VI much later than expected that morning, though reaching the summit could still be feasible.

This sighting would become the source of endless debate—because it’s the last time Mallory and Irvine were seen alive.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

A fearsome squall bore down as Odell alighted at Camp VI around 2 p.m. He found parts of the oxygen equipment scattered around the camp, suggesting eleventh-hour tinkering by Irvine and possibly explaining their late start. It occurred to Odell that the climbers might have trouble locating the camp in these weather conditions, so he ventured out to yell and whistle for them—all to no avail. By 4:30 p.m., the squall had dissipated, and Odell, having realized the tent only slept two, headed for the North Col.

He bypassed Camp V at 6:15 and about half an hour later arrived at Camp IV, where fellow expeditioner John Hazard restored him with hot noodle soup. The next afternoon, June 9, after a morning of seeing no movement at the higher camps, Odell took porters Nima Tundrup and Mingma up to Camp V. They spent the night there, after which Odell continued on alone to Camp VI. It was now June 10, and the camp had clearly not been visited since Odell had left it two days earlier. He lumbered up the likely path that Mallory and Irvine had taken toward the summit—a fruitless search that he abandoned after a couple hours, knowing, as he wrote, “that the chances of finding the missing ones were indeed small on such a vast expanse of crags and broken slabs.”

Back at Camp VI, Odell hauled two sleeping bags up a snowy slope and with them formed the letter T—a signal to Hazard at Camp IV that “No trace can be found, given up hope, awaiting orders.” Hazard used blankets to transmit the same signal to Camp III, where Norton and company replied with blankets laid out in three rows, meaning “Abandon search. Return as soon as possible.”

The messages encapsulated what every member of the expedition knew to be true: Everest had claimed two more lives.

group of people and tents in a rocky valley with Everest in the background
A 1983 expedition camping in the Rongbuk Valley. / Mountain Light Photography/GettyImages

The retreat began on June 11, and by June 13 the occupants of all the camps had convened at base camp. There, Somervell, expeditioner Bentley Beetham, and a contingent of porters erected a 10-foot-tall cairn inscribed with the names of all twelve men killed during the three Everest expeditions. “We were a sad little party; from the first we accepted the loss of our comrades in that rational spirit which all of our generation had learnt in the Great War,” Norton wrote. “But the tragedy was very near; our friends’ vacant tents and vacant places at table were a constant reminder to us of what the atmosphere of the camp would have been had things gone differently.” 

They trooped off to Rongbuk Monastery two days later and left there on June 16. Three days after that, Arthur Hinks of the Royal Geographical Society in London received a cable that Norton had written back at base camp: “MALLORY IRVINE NOVE REMAINDER ALCEDO.” Nove was code for “killed in last engagement,” while alcedo meant “arrived all in good order.”

Hinks waited to telegraph the fallen climbers’ families until the following day, by which point the press had already been notified. It was a reporter who informed Ruth Mallory that her husband had died, so she wouldn’t see it first in a newspaper.

black and white photo of Ruth Mallory, bright-eyed and smiling with middle-parted hair and a ribbon as a headband
Ruth Mallory. / Author unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“It is not difficult for me to believe that George’s spirit was ready for another life and his way of going to it was very beautiful,” Ruth wrote to their friend Geoffrey Young. Her feelings were not confined to zen acceptance; in a follow-up letter, she wrote that she “[knew] George did not mean to be killed. I don’t think I do feel that his death makes me the least more proud of him. It is his life that I loved and love … Whether he got to the top of the mountain or did not, whether he lived or died, makes no difference to my admiration for him.”

The climbing community didn’t exactly echo this sentiment. Through his death, Mallory had become a martyr of sorts to the cause of conquering Everest, and many people clung to the belief that he had indeed stepped foot on its peak before tragedy befell him and Irvine on the way down. 

But for years, investigating the matter was out of the question—mostly thanks, albeit unintentionally, to one John Noel.

An Epic in Fits and Starts

On December 8, 1924, London’s New Scala Theatre premiered The Epic of Everest, Noel’s feature-length film chronicling the 1924 expedition. It was an immersive event, with the stage modeled after a Tibetan courtyard and a performance by seven monks that featured “cymbals, copper horns, handbells and swords, trumpets made from thighbones, and drums crafted from human skulls,” according to Wade Davis’s book Into the Silence.

The whole thing became a diplomatic fiasco known as the Affair of the Dancing Lamas. For one thing, British media generally failed to treat the occasion with due reverence or civility. “High Dignitaries of Tibetan Church Reach London; Bishop to Dance on Stage; Music from Skulls,” proclaimed one headline. For another, the monks had left their monastery in Gyantse without clearing the trip with their abbot, and the Dalai Lama ordered their arrests upon return. Moreover, Tibetan leaders were offended by the portrayal of Tibetans in the film itself—certain scenes, for example, showed adults eating the lice they’d removed from their children.

“For the future, we cannot give permission to go to Tibet,” Tibet’s prime minister wrote to a British ambassador. And for the next eight years, they didn’t.

Finally, in 1932, British officials succeeded in getting authorization from the Dalai Lama for another Everest expedition, which they mounted in 1933. Though these climbers failed to reach the peak, one of them—Percy Wyn-Harris—discovered Irvine’s ice axe “about 200 yards east of the first step and 60 feet below the crest” of the Northeast Ridge, per expedition leader Hugh Ruttledge.

This was the first of a few pieces in the puzzle of Mallory and Irvine’s fate that climbers unearthed over the following decades. From base camp in 1936, Frank Smythe spotted through a telescope what he suspected was a body. “This object was at precisely the point where Mallory and Irvine would have fallen had they rolled on over the scree slopes,” he wrote to Norton. “It’s not to be written about, as the press would make an unpleasant sensation.” Norton evidently agreed: The news didn’t break until 2013, when Smythe’s son, Tony Smythe, found a copy of the letter tucked into one of his father’s diaries.

The trail went cold during the mid-20th century, initially due to World War II and then because adventurers pivoted to scaling Everest on the Nepali side (including Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who became the first to definitively set foot on the summit in 1953). But in 1979, Chinese climber Wang Hongbao revealed that he’d come upon the corpse of an Englishman in deteriorating apparel four years prior at around 26,980 feet. Then, in 1991, American climber Eric Simonson saw a very dated oxygen canister near the First Step, around 28,000 feet.

The major breakthrough was, of course, the discovery of Mallory’s body by members of 1999’s Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Their efforts—and those of subsequent expeditions—have helped flesh out promising theories about what happened to the two climbers. 

So What Happened to the Two Climbers?

Man, standing, holds a 1924 brownish metal oxygen tube in front of a photo of Irvine and Mallory
Eric Simonson displays the oxygen canister in 1999. (In the photo behind him, Irvine is on the left, Mallory on the right.) / DEVENDRA M SINGH/GettyImages

We know that Mallory and Irvine made it almost as far as the First Step. Just below its base, the 1999 search party located the oxygen canister that Simonson had seen earlier that decade.

We also know that Mallory and Irvine were likely together when disaster struck. Fastened around Mallory’s waist was a 10-foot-long cotton rope with a frayed end, and his ribs were bruised where the rope had strained against them. This suggests that Mallory and Irvine suffered a fall, during which the rope snapped. Mallory’s other injuries support this theory: His right tibia and fibula were broken, his right elbow was broken or dislocated, and something had punctured his skull above his left eye. 

But Mallory would have been in much worse shape had he fallen all the way from the Northeast Ridge, with a drop to his final resting place at 26,700 feet measuring 1300 feet or more. So it’s generally believed that the climbers lost their footing somewhere on the Yellow Band, a craggy expanse of limestone between the Ridge and Camp VI. To add to the tragedy, Mallory landed within just 300 yards of the camp.

When the fall occurred is anyone’s guess—and oh, have people guessed. Much of the speculation hinges on Odell’s purported sighting of Mallory and Irvine on the Second Step at 12:50 p.m. It’s not a foregone conclusion that the climbers were actually on the Second Step: It’s a notoriously difficult 90-foot-tall cliff, the hardest of the three steps, and, according to Odell, Mallory and Irvine were moving across it quite quickly. After taking that route to the summit with Dave Hahn in 1999, Conrad Anker felt it extremely unlikely that the 1924 climbers—with heavier oxygen equipment, no ladder for the ascent, and ropes too flimsy to rappel them down—could have conquered the Second Step. Unless, Anker theorized, thick snows had smoothed its most perilous rocks into a walkable ramp.

If Mallory and Irvine defied the odds and traversed the Second Step that early in the afternoon, they could have scrambled up the facile Third Step and then the summit with relative ease. If Odell mistook the First Step for the Second Step, though, the climbers wouldn’t have had enough time to complete the ascent and then get back down to the Yellow Band before sunset—and experts  generally agree that they wouldn’t have survived a Second Step descent in darkness (Mallory had left his flashlight at camp). And that’s all assuming Odell really did spot the climbers: It’s also been suggested that his tiny black spots were just rocks. For what it’s worth, Odell always maintained that he saw humans in motion.

On the topic of daylight, Mallory’s goggles were found in one of his pockets, which could mean that the sun had already set when he fell—perhaps after summiting Everest. But it’s also possible that those were his spare pair, and the ones he’d been wearing just weren’t recovered.

Man holds a Ziploc bag with circular glass goggles inside it; he's standing in front of a photo of Irvine and Mallory in 1924
Eric Simonson displaying Mallory's goggles in 1999. / DEVENDRA MAN SINGH/GettyImages

There’s yet another bit of circumstantial evidence (or, rather, lack thereof) that some people take as a sign that Mallory might indeed have reached the summit. He had promised Ruth that he’d leave a photo of her on Everest’s peak—but of all the belongings still on his person in 1999, including a few letters, the picture was nowhere to be found. Nor was the Kodak camera that Mallory and Irvine had taken with them, an artifact that could definitively solve the mystery if it happened to harbor a photo snapped atop Everest.

And then, again, there’s Sandy Irvine himself. Wang Hongbao indicated that one cheek of the man he came across had been pecked out by birds—a description that didn’t match Mallory’s condition in 1999 and therefore suggests that the 1975 sighting was of Irvine. In other words, Irvine’s own desolate grave must be somewhere relatively close to his companion’s. Was the camera buried with him?

We may never know. More than 320 people have perished on Everest—some as recently as late May 2024—and recovery missions are so dangerous that most of the bodies are simply left there, whether in plain sight or lost somewhere in the shadowy folds of the mountain. For now, the secrets of Mallory’s last spirited battle to best nature remain hidden among those victims.

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