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Achieving life's great goals have in common the idea that the process of "how you get up the mountain" has everything to do with whether you will stand on top. Following, is an article by Cal Bar's Paul Pfau about his team's 1995 expedition to Mt. Everest in commemoration of the great British mountaineer George Mallory - who coined the expression "Because it is there" when asked why he sought to climb the mountain - and whom may have been the first to do so in 1924. Like Mallory and those who followed him to Everest, be committed to closing your own circle in putting the bar behind you.  Unlike Mallory, you won't have to die getting there, and the view from reaching your "summit" will be worth your journey.  Have faith - you can do it!


the ghosts of everest past


Mt. Everest

As the rain drummed on century-old windowpanes, Captain John Noel spoke of his role in the 1924 British expedition on Mt. Everest, the trip on which George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared not far from the mountain's summit. A wood fire cast deep shadows across the otherwise darkened cottage in England's Romney Marsh as the 95-year-old British officer told me of his lost friends. His clear blue eyes glimmered in the dim light, belying his age.

"When last seen, they were four hours behind schedule - nobody knows why," Noel said, his words almost inaudible because of the pattering rain. "They were seen to be going forward, toward the top. Did they ever get there? That's what people ask. They never got back, and they were never found. What happened to them is an everlasting mystery."

This mystery, and the pair's position on the mountain when they were last spotted, vaulted Mallory and Irvine to legendary status. Even today, historians and mountaineers speculate that they were the first to climb to the top of the world, almost 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. In 1953, the feat was monumental - had it taken place in 1924, it would have been little short of miraculous.

To be sure, if anyone was capable of the accomplishment, it was Mallory, who was no stranger to Everest when he set out on the 1924 expedition. He had been instrumental on the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition - the team pioneered the North Ridge route, used by subsequent expeditions until the 1953 British success on the Southeast Ridge in Nepal. The following year, he and three others achieved a record altitude of 26,800 feet before turning back. Unfortunately, Mallory's party was caught in an avalanche two weeks later while making another summit bid, an accident that killed seven porters. In characteristic fashion, Mallory bore the brunt of the responsibility for the tragedy, later writing, "The consequences of my mistake are so terrible. It seems almost impossible to believe it has happened forever and that I can do nothing to make good."

Over the years, Everest had become a decidedly British mountain, and the national clamor to succeed was undoubtedly a factor in the Mt. Everest Committee's selection of Mallory for a third attempt in 1924. In spite of his three small children, his wife and a new teaching job, Mallory accepted the invitation, compelled both by a sense of duty and by the hard-won experience that fueled his private ambition to stand on the planet's summit.

The weather was unsettled for much of the 1924 expedition, and the team didn't establish the North Col camp, at 23,000 feet, until late in the season. A desperate summit bid without supplemental oxygen saw Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce turn back after establishing a camp at 25,300 feet. Team Leader Edward Norton and physician Howard Somervell made the next attempt, managing to place a tent at 26,800 feet, where they spent an uncomfortable night. The effort testified to the team's incredible resilience. By today's Gore-Tex and titanium standards, the group's equipment was primitive - yet Norton managed to climb to 28,100 feet without supplemental oxygen, an oxygenless record that stood until 1978. But Everest's summit still beckoned.

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.

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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