Summit Shot

Mountaineering's greatest debate—who reached the top of Everest first?—rages on


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“I CAN’T SEE MYSELF coming down defeated,” wrote 37-year-old Himalayan pioneer George Leigh Mallory shortly before his third assault on Mount Everest, in 1924. Nearly 80 years later, whether the British explorer was defeated remains the biggest mystery in mountaineering history. Did he and his 22-year-old climbing partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine, reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Mallory and Irvine—nattily outfitted in gabardine, the Gore-Tex of their day—departed their high camp early on the morning of June 8. They were last seen by fellow climber Noel Odell at 12:50 p.m. ascending one of the three rocky steps that characterize the upper reaches of Everest’s difficult Northeast Ridge. But clouds soon enveloped the top of the mountain, and Mallory and Irvine vanished into the penumbral mist.

Hard evidence in the case is scant. A 1933 British team found Irvine’s ice ax below the first step, at 27,760 feet, and one of their oxygen cylinders was found nearby in 1991. A 1999 expedition led by American climber Eric Simonson discovered Mallory’s bleached and mummified body lying facedown at 26,760 feet. As incredible as that discovery was, there are still no answers. “The camera would be the definitive clue,” says Simonson, alluding to the still-missing Vest Pocket Kodak that Mallory supposedly borrowed from a teammate for his summit bid. “And more evidence could absolutely be found up there.”

The final sighting of the two climbers—the starting point for the bulk of subsequent speculation—became problematic as Odell equivocated in the days after the climb, unable to decide whether he had seen Mallory and Irvine grappling with the Northeast Ridge’s relatively benign first step or the far more difficult second step. Climbers on the ridge today bypass the crux of the second step via a rickety ladder. The only group to ascend it in pre-ladder days, a four-man summit team from the 1960 Chinese expedition, did so with the aid of pitons—equipment that Mallory and Irvine did not have.

Everest veteran and filmmaker David Breashears, director of the 1987 documentary Everest: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, says there’s no way the duo could have free-climbed the second step—and, thus, they could not have reached the summit. “At over 28,000 feet, in an unprotected lead with a bowline around his waist and hobnail boots, and with Irvine on a marginally anchored or possibly unanchored belay stance, Mallory climbs something as hard or harder than he’d ever climbed at sea level?” asks Breashears. “It is not only ludicrous to think they could do that; it is a flight of fancy.”

American climber Conrad Anker, the 1999 expedition team member who found Mallory’s body, agrees. “Saying that they could have climbed the second step is putting the romantic dream ahead of the factual evidence, and that, in a sense, does a disservice to the climbers,” he says. “There’s just no way they climbed the second step without gear.”

But Simonson, who returned to Everest in 2001 for an unsuccessful attempt to find Irvine, refuses to rule out the possibility. “On a good day, sufficiently motivated, people do some amazing things,” he says, referring to Mallory’s indomitable will. “It’s my opinion that it was possible for them to climb the second step.”

Simonson is contemplating another fact-finding expedition to the mountain, spurred by the recent revelation that Xu Jing, a climber on the 1960 Chinese expedition, encountered a body—possibly Irvine’s—in decaying old clothes, lying supine, arms frozen to his sides, on a section of the Northeast Ridge. If that is Irvine’s body, perhaps he holds the final answer to mountaineering’s long-standing debate in his icy grip.