Who Was Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine? His Life and Mysterious Death

Andrew “Sandy” Irvine was a young British mountaineer who took part in the third Mount Everest expedition. He disappeared into clouds near the summit on June 8th, 1924. His body has never been found.

A picture of Mount Everest from the North side with tents in the foreground in 1990
Our 1990 Everest North Base Camp

Or has it?

His brother Thurston Irvine was just 10 years old when he watched Sandy Irvine embark on the SS California passenger ship at Liverpool Docks on February 29, 1924, heading for Mount Everest.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s the last we’ll see of him.’

This was unfortunately prescient. Just three months later Sandy disappeared with his companion George Mallory near the summit of Mount Everest. It was June 8th, 1924, and the beginning of the greatest mystery in mountaineering.

The mystery is this: who really climbed Mount Everest first? Was it Sandy Irivine and George Mallory, or Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tensing in 1953?

Sandy Irvine was just 22 when he died. He had been educated at Shrewsbury School where he became interested in engineering.

During the First World War, he had an idea for an aircraft-mounted machine gun that used synchronising gears to fire through the spinning propellor. This caused considerable interest at the War Office, as in 1915 the German Fokker Eindecker fighters had appeared with exactly this kind of mechanism.

At Shrewsbury he also demonstrated huge powers of endurance at rowing, becoming notable at the 1919 Peace Rowing Regatta at Henley. The sport gained him entrance at Merton College, Oxford. He immediately joined the Oxford University Mountaineering Club.

He then became romantically entangled with Marjory Summers, the stepmother of a friend. She was the young ex-chorus dancer wife of a steel business magnate, Henry Hall Summers. She was 33 years younger than her husband.

A snowy picture showing climbers and yaks trekking to Advanced Base Camp
Trekking to ABC

After the poor results of the expeditions of 1921 and 1922, the Mount Everest committee was keen to recruit younger climbers. Noel Odell suggested Sandy Irvine, who had struck him as possessing the qualities of youth and endurance the committee was seeking.

He had first met Irvine in 1919, riding a motorcycle near the summit of Foel Grach, a 3,000-foot mountain in Wales which Odell and his wife Mona were climbing more conventionally on foot.

As a result, Odell invited Irvine on the 1923 Merton College Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen, where Irvine impressed everyone with his endurance and easy-going nature.

Irvine’s family was embarrassed by the indiscretion with Summer’s wife and decided that perhaps it would be as well for him to disappear for a few months. Perhaps his ardour would cool. During Irvine’s sojourn on Everest, Summers began divorce proceedings against his wife Marjory.

Odell’s recommendation was accepted and the 21-year-old Sandy Irvine was invited on the forthcoming 1924 British Mount Everest expedition. This idea would have seemed unwise to many, as Irvine had no high-altitude climbing experience whatsoever.

George Mallory initially found him nice but dim.

‘One to rely on…for everything except conversation.’

Letter to Ruth Mallory

However, once on the expedition, Sandy’s engineering knowledge became indispensable. He modified the oxygen sets, making them lighter, and maintained the expedition Primus pressure stoves, the camp beds and the expedition member’s cameras.

His far older war-veteran colleagues liked him for his easy-going nature and hard work.

A picture of oxygen cylinders
Oxygen bottles

On that expedition, Mallory made an initial abortive attempt, and then my cousin Howard Somervell and Colonel Norton made an extraordinary oxygen-free attempt on the summit, nearly reaching the top and setting a record that would stand for over 50 years.

They were beaten by the human limits of endurance and the bitter cold of high altitudes: Somervell suffered from frostbite of the larynx.

Mallory was intensely frustrated and planned a third attempt with oxygen. But instead of taking the far more experienced Noel Odell as a companion on the rope, he selected Sandy Irvine for his last attempt on the summit. This was a strange decision.

Why was Sandy Irvine chosen instead of the infinitely more suitable Noel Odell, a climber who had proved to go extremely well at high altitudes and who possessed far great climbing experience and ability?

There have been many theories. Mallory didn’t get on too well with the taciturn Odell and perhaps thought he would attract too much of the glory. Or perhaps he felt Irvine was more oxygen-savvy and would keep the gas sets going. Or maybe he was just more easy-going and biddable?

I know from personal experience that Mount Everest makes people go mad. All reason goes out of the window when the summit is in prospect.

Ironically it was the demoted Odell who last sighted the pair “going strongly for the top” when he spotted them somewhere by the Second Step near the summit.

Irvine’s disappearance initiated a lifelong search for me. After discussing the mystery with Howard Somervell in 1969 and climbing the mountain myself in 1993 I decided to try to find Somervell’s camera which we thought was likely to be carried by Sandy Irvine.

I am probably the last remaining Everest climber alive who talked about Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance with a member of their expedition.

As a result, I became the founding member of the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition.

Oddly enough we never expected to find George Mallory’s body, it was always Sandy Irvine we expected to find.

Unknown to most I was in possession of secret information which eventually led to the discovery of George Mallory’s body by the American climber Conrad Anker on our expedition.

Is Somervell’s Missing Camera with Sandy Irvine?

Somervell’s missing camera is possibly still on Sandy Irvine’s body.

Somervell lent his camera to George Mallory just before his last climb and it was not on Mallory’s body when found. Therefore it was probably given by him to Sandy Irvine, possibly to take a shot of Mallory at their highest point. Which could have been on the summit of Mount Everest itself.

A picture of the author Graham Hoyland, who sits on the summit of Mount Everest without an oxygen mask
Graham Hoyland on the summit with his ice axe

Sandy Irvine’s Ice Axe and its Significance

Sandy Irvine’s ice axe was found high on the summit ridge nine years after his disappearance, in 1933.

It was found by Percy Wyn-Harris, a member of the fourth British Mount Everest Expedition, at around 8,460 metres, or 27,760 feet. It was lying about 20 metres or 66 feet below the summit of the ridge on large boilerplate slabs of rock.

Although these were easy-angled they were smooth and covered in places with loose pebbles. If covered with snow they could have been the site of a slip.

The axe had three nicks cut into it which were also found on Sandy Irvine’s swagger stick, denoting his ownership. It was of Swiss manufacture and matched other axes of the 1924 expedition.

Some suggested this was the site of a fatal accident, but Odell thought the axe had been laid down to be recovered later, as the remainder of the route appeared to be rock.

A picture of the front cover of the book "Last Hours on Everest" which explains all the clues which led to the finding of Mallory's body.
Last Hours on Everest” explains all the clues which led to the finding of Mallory’s body

Has Sandy’s Body Been Found?

Sandy Irvine’s body may have been found.

After the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999 I spent several expeditions searching for Irvine’s body on Mount Everest. Mallory had clearly been roped up to Irvine when he fell, as bruising injuries testified.

We searched up and down the fall line that Mallory’s body had taken from the ridge, below and above, and nothing was found.

This seemed curious, to say the least. Where was it?

There had been previous sightings.

In 1965, a member of the 1960 Chinese expedition, Wang Fu-chou, gave a lecture at the headquarters of the USSR Geographical Society in Leningrad. He was reported as saying:

“At an altitude of about 8,600 meters, we found a corpse of a European…He was wearing braces.”

Geographical Society, Leningrad, USSR

And then after this Chinese 1960 expedition sighting, there was another from their 1975 expedition:

‘Riddle of Everest nears solution – Japanese climbers to seek Briton’s body’.

Times, 21 February 1980

The Times report stated that a Chinese climber, Wang Hong Bao, had found the body of an Englishman during the Chinese Everest expedition of 1975. This was reported by Wang to Ayoten Hasegawa, a member of a Japanese reconnaissance party, as they stood just below the North Col in October 1979.

According to Mr. Hasagewa, Wang, pointing with his axe to the final pyramid area, said he saw the body behind rocks and wrote the figure 8,100 on the snow, indicating the height in metres.

Mr Hasegawa does not understand Chinese but with the help of Wang’s gestures and written Chinese characters he understood what Wang wanted to say.

Times, 21 February 1980

In an extraordinary twist of fate, Wang himself was killed in an avalanche on the North Col the very day after he had told his story, so it could never be corroborated.

After the repeated failures to find Sandy Irvine and Somervell’s camera I began to wonder: had they been removed by someone?

In 2019 an American, Mark Synnott conducted a brief, hour-long search for a hole on the North Face that may have sheltered Irvine. This had been spotted in photographs. Nothing was found. He speculated that Irvine’s body and my cousin’s camera had been removed by the Chinese:

I kept hearing rumors that explained why I didn’t find Sandy: The Chinese had found his body and the camera long ago — and then buried the story. An official with the Chinese Tibet Mountaineering Association told a Nepali friend of mine in the fall of 2019 that the rumors were true. The camera was kept under lock and key, with other Mallory and Irvine artefacts, in a museum in China…It is also possible, if not likely, that the film revealed Mallory and Irvine high on the mountain, perhaps even on top. This, of course, would rob the Chinese of the first ascent of Everest’s North Face, an accomplishment that occupies sacred space in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.

Source: Salon.com

These rumours are only hearsay, and cannot be counted as solid evidence, such as that of a body.

But they might provide a possible explanation for why none of us has been able to find Sandy Irvine or my cousin’s Vest Pocket Kodak camera.

The mystery remains for someone else to solve.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.