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After the group retreated to the Rongbuk Monastery, the weather settled slightly before the oncoming monsoon, and Mallory began plotting a final summit attempt. With Norton's blessing, Mallory decided to use oxygen to maximize his chances of success. He selected Andrew Irvine as his partner, who, at 22, was one of the stronger members of the team and was adept at working the cumbersome oxygen apparatus.

Mt. Everest Expedition

(Andrew Irvine, top left, and George Leigh Mallory, next to him with his knee up. 
Part of the 1924 British expedition on Everest)


The two climbed to Camp 5 on June 6 and proceeded to Camp 6, at nearly 26,800 feet, the following day. They hoped to leave early on June 8, climb to to the summit and return to high camp the same day. At Camp 6, Mallory left a note for teammate Noel Odell, who was ascending the next day to support the summit bid. "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, G. Mallory."

Although the precise time isn't known, the two are assumed to have left by 7 a.m., a late departure by today's standards. As Odell was climbing to high camp at 1 p.m., he caught sight of them through a brief clearing in the higher clouds. At a distance of around 3,500 feet, Odell witnessed two climbers moving adroitly up a "rock step" before the mist clamped back down and the vision was lost. His description of the apparition has become both a key piece in the debate about whether the two ever reached the summit and some of the most classic prose in mountaineering lore: "There was but one explanation: It was Mallory and his companion moving, as I could see even at the great distance, with considerable alacrity, realizing doubtless they they had none too many hours of daylight to reach the summit from their present position and return to Camp VI by nightfall."

Mallory and Irvine were never seen again.  And though Odell continued to high camp, in hopes that his friends might have returned, he found nothing. He signaled the simple message "DEATH" to Norton, who was anxiously waiting at Camp 3. The tragic news would soon reach England, where a nation was left crestfallen and mourning.

The mystery of Mallory and Irvine - whether one or both reached the summit of the world - remains an enigma. At the heart of the question lies Odell's observation of the two "as they struggled strong for the top" at nearly 1 p.m. Odell first reported that they were at the Second Step, but later said that he had most likely seen the two climbers surmounting the First Step. If they were at the Second Step, it's likely that the pair reached the summit. If, however, they were on the lower First Step, time and distance were against them.

Before his death, Odell met me at Cambridge's Blue Boar Inn, a tavern that the Everest teammates had frequented, where he carefully recounted his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine. "I can give very little that is convincing to anybody, having seen them as I did, definitely on their way up the snow slope and not at the Second Step, as I made a mistake, but below the First Step.

Other mountaineers' experiences have buoyed Odell's premise. Frank Smythe, a member of the 1933 British expedition, was unable to surmount the formidable technical difficulties of the Second Step, which he referred to as the "steep bow of a battle cruiser." On the same expedition, Smythe's teammate, Wyn Harris, discovered an ice axe on the summit ridge below the First Step. Believing the Second Step impossible to climb, let alone descend, logic suggested that the famous climbers had likely retreated from above the First Step, the ice axe thus marking the location of an accident.


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