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A 1960 Chinese expedition - whose claim to have reached the summit is now generally accepted - acknowledged that they spent five hours climbing the Second Step. By inference, it is unlikely that Mallory would have been skilled enough to make the ascent in 1924. Others, however, have suggested that Mallory's considerable rock climbing talents, honed on the crags of Wales' Snowdonia, were superior to those of the Chinese, who were relatively inexperienced. Adding to the intrigue was an obscure report that reached the West in 1980. A member of the 1975 Chinese Everest expedition, killed in 1979, was reported to have discovered the body of an "English dead" on the North Ridge, at about 27,000 feet. The clothes of the fallen climber were said to have crumbled when touched.

With this circumstantial evidence in mind, a team including George Leigh Mallory's Australian grandson, 35-year-old George Mallory, mounted an expedition to Everest's North Ridge in 1995, hoping to put the questions to rest. Searching for clarity, the team stopped at approximately the same location where Odell had watched the two climbers overcome the rocky spur. The young Mallory was struck by the distinctiveness of the two rock steps. "The First Step is a rounded bulge, like a helmet, which, due to the angle at which the observer looks up, seems to go down on the far side," he noted. "By contrast, the Second Step appears as a distinctive, sharp cliff against the skyline, and the ground on the far side angles up to the base of the summit pyramid. Could Odell have mistaken the helmet for the 'sharp bow of a battle cruiser'"? To me, it's inconceivable."

Based on these observations, the younger Mallory and teammate Jeff Hall presumed that Mallory and Irvine must have reached and surmounted the Second Step. Though not substantive proof, the premise is more than unfound conjecture. The 1995 team had approached the peak with a thorough knowledge of the issues that defined the decades-old controversy and studied the problem with these insights in mind. From the high camp of the 1924 expedition, the younger Mallory, Hall and the teammate Chirring Sherpa spent just four hours reaching Everest's summit. Although they were aided by a 15-foot ladder placed on the upper section of the Second Step by the 1975 Chinese expedition, they agreed that the technical difficulties were only moderate, and their quick ascent lent credibility to the argument that Mallory and Irvine had scaled the obstacle.

If Mallory and Irvine climbed this crucial section, as the 1995 team came to believe, his grandson thinks that one or both of the climbers must have summited.  Only 1,000 feet remain after the Second Step, a distance the 1995 team covered in only 90 minutes, and with the expectations and hopes surrounding the expedition, it seems unlikely that the two wouldn't have carried on. Geoffrey Winthrop Young, friend and mentor to the elder Mallory, convincingly summed it up, "...after nearly twenty years knowledge of Mallory, as a mountaineer, I can say... that difficult as it would have been for any mountaineer to turn back with the only difficulty past, to Mallory, it would have seemed an impossibility. My own opinion (is) that an accident occurred on the way down (as most do) and that if that is so, the peak was first climbed because Mallory was Mallory."

In spite of the continuing controversy, Sir Edmund Hillary's reflections are perhaps the best conclusion to the mystery. In a letter he wrote several years ago, he selflessly commented that, although it was  unknown if Mallory or Irvine actually stood first on Everest's summit, all climbers on the mountain nonetheless "stood on the shoulders" of those British pioneers. At the very least, when young Mallory finally triumphed on the peak of his grandfather's dreams, thus closing the family circle that was tragically begun nearly 71 years earlier, perhaps he and his grandfather finally stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

Suggested Reading: Col. Edward Norton, Leader of the 1924 expedition, detailed the team's efforts in The Fight for Everest: The Story of the 1924 Expedition. The second edition of Everest: A Mountaineering History by Walt Unsworth, published in 1994, is a definitive historical guide to every attempt made on the mountain through that date.  

__________________________

Published originally in the August 1998 edition of "Rock & Ice" magazine. Leader of four expeditions to the Everst Massif, Paul Pfau of Shadow Hills, California, says that 15 years of researching the Mallory and Irvine mystery have proved to be just a great an adventure.

 

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Cal Bar Tutorial Review and Paul Pfau can be contacted at 800-348-2401.

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