Search for THE Camera: Everest Historian Tom Holzel

Feb 3, 2010
Outside Magazine

Once again, an Everest expedition is trying to solve the who done itmystery of Everest: did George Mallory and Sandy Irvine summit Mt.Everest in 1924? You see Sandy Irvine, who went missing on Everest'sNorth side in 1924, had a camera.

A  plan is emerging for a new search for the missing camera thatcould solve the mystery once and for all. We have seen this headlinebefore, but this time is very different - there is a clue and a map!

Before we take a look at this effort, a tiny bit of background on the north side of Everest.

The north side is steeped in history with multipleattempts throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The first attempt was by aBritish team in 1921. Mallory led a small team to be the first human toset foot on the mountains flanks by climbing up to the North Col(7003m).  The second expedition, that of 1922  reached 27,300' beforeturning back, and was the first team to use supplemental oxygen. It wasalso on this expedition that the first deaths were reported when anavalanche killed seven Sherpas.

The 1924 British expedition with George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy"Irvine is most notable for the mystery of whether they summited or not.If they did summit that means they preceded Tenzing and Hilary by 29 years.Mallory's body was found in 1999 but there was no proof that he diedgoing up or coming down, thus the importance of finding the camera andpotential photos of a summit.

It was a Chinese team who made the first summit from Tibet on May25, 1960.  Nawang Gombu (Tibetan) and Chinese Chu Yin-Hau and WangFu-zhou who is said to have climbed the Second Step in his sock feet,claimed the honor. However without a summit photo, many doubted thesummit claim. In 1975, a successful summit was claimed by the Chinesewhen the ladder on the Second Step was installed.

Tibet was closed to foreigners from 1950 to 1980 preventing anyfurther attempts until a Japanese team summited in 1980 via theHornbein Couloir on the North Face. The north side started to attractmore climbers in the mid 1990s and today is almost as popular as theSouth side.

But it is who summited first that dominates Everest folklore. Was itMallory and Irvin in 1924, or Tenzing and Hillary as we know in 1953.Some even speculate it was British climber, Maurice Wilson in 1933

With the mystery dominating Everest gossip for almost a century,teams have looked in vain for positive proof of a 1924 summit. Therehave been valiant efforts throughout the years.

In 1933, Irvine's wooden ice axe was found in the fall line of theclimber's last known route. A Chinese porter reported seeing an "anenglish dead" in 1960 but there were no pictures.

Then in 1999, a team led by IMG founder Eric Simonson conducted aserious search. Conrad Anker found Mallory's body on the north sidebelow the Chinese reported location. Neither Irvine's body nor thecamera was located. Simonson returned in 2001 to look for the camera,without success. It was the classic needle in the haystack searchcomplicated by snow cover.

While the discovery of Mallory's body created excitement throughout theclimbing world, it did not provide any evidence of a summit. In fact itjust fueled the speculation.

Now a decade later, technology has given a boost to the search.

Everest Historian Tom Holzel, who conducted a thwarted search expedition in 1986, took a new approach.

This time he used two images; one from a photo taken in 1933 andanother taken in 1984 from a SwissPhoto, AG, Learjet flying overEverest. This last image was very high-resolution.

Holzel used imaging technology to compare the photographs anddiscovered that the location of an ice ax marking a certain fall of thetwo climbers, was misplaced by 60 yards. Everyone was looking in thewrong place! Following the new line, he identified what he calls an"oblong blob." The blob is near where the Chinese porter reported hissighting in 1975.

It was Irvine who is thought to have been carrying the Vest Pocket Kodak camera when he and Mallory disappeared.

Holzel wants to continue the search as soon as he can raise theestimated $150K to fund his small team that includes Thom Pollard andJake Norton (both were on the 1999 expedition). They will search in a narrow areain the Yellow Band where the photographs show the blob. If they findthe camera, they have processes on how to handle it to prevent furtherdamage. Kodak has consulted with them on the project.

Tom was kind enough to do yet another interview with me. Mind you,he has been interviewed extensively and asked almost every questionimaginable so we explored a few surrounding areas.

Q: You have had several lengthy interviews recently, but is anything else you would like to share?

Take a look at these two blog postings for the latest theorizing:

{note: these are superb articles that deserve a full read and not a shortened summary}

Q: Why the public’s fascination with Everest for long?

Partially because it is one of the end-points of terrestrialexploration, along with the poles and deepest Africa and the Amazon.The mystery of men going and not coming back is a certain draw. Withthe secret feeling that anyone of use might have done it--and perhapscome back!

Q: Has the negative attitudes about solving the M&I mystery by the British mountaineering community abated?

No. They are still bitter that not only did they not discoveranything (they never even tried), but those crude AMERICANS once againpulled their chestnuts out of the fire. It all stems from the grievousaffront suffered by the Alpine Club and the RGS when it was filled withGentlemen only. Sir Percy Wynn Harris was terribly miffed when I failedto list a long string of other Everest Greats when I described one ofthem with regard to oxygen experimentation.

Q: Your brief thoughts on non-M&I areas: Did the Chinesesummit in 1960. Did Maurice Wilson even stand a chance of summiting?

The 1960s Chinese probably did summit, as I said in a SummitMagazine article, after subjecting their account to a propagandaanalysis. Hidden in the midst of much pomp and circumstance was thedescription of a great rock near the summit, in which they took shelteragainst the wind. And, it turns out there is such a rock.

It is near certain that Maurice Wilson never even got up to theNorth Col (7000m). His cause is being pushed by Thomas Noy and otherswith secret proof. All we have to do is excavate the entire summit snowcap to find Wilson's shaving mirror which he took to the summit tosignal his success to the monks at the Rongbuk Monastery. This mirrorwas missing from his effects, and of course no Tibetan porter took itwhen he was discovered by them for the first time...

Q: How is Spring 2010 looking at this point? Do you have the expedition organized yet?

The chances of getting $150K in just two weeks is almost nil. Butwe'll give it a try. The "rich Saudi Prince" campaign seems the onlyway to do so. Otherwise, it'll be a more formal attempt for 2011.

This is a low resolution version of the image Tom has been studying.

Tom Holzel Search Map
Tom Holzel Search Map

Istrongly encourage you to visit these links and read his full thoughtprocess. They are compelling, logical and thought provoking.

You can also read a summary of Holzel's efforts on the Scientific American website.

Climb On!


Arnette is a speaker, Mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site.

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