When Edmund Hillary stepped onto the summit of Mount Everest at 11.30 on 29th May 1953 he didn’t admire the view, or dance a jig of triumph. No, he reported that the first thing he did was to look for traces of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine.
The mystery of what happened to Mallory and Irvine and whether they had first climbed Mount Everest has fascinated people for nearly 100 years since they disappeared high on the mountain in June 1924.
I have a family connection with one of the top climbers on that 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, one of Mallory’s friends, and I am an Everest summiteer myself.
I was the founding member of the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition and – unknown to most – in possession of secret information which eventually led to our discovery of George Mallory’s body by the American climber Conrad Anker on our expedition.
Here’s how the expedition came about, and what happened when we found Mallory, 75 years after he died on the mountain.
The 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition
I started my search for Mallory in 1969 when Mallory’s friend and my cousin, Howard Somervell told me how he handed his camera to Mallory in 1924 just before he disappeared close to the summit. My quest for answers to the Mallory mystery started to turn up respondents, and in April 1998 a German student, Jochen Hemmleb, contacted me with a long list of questions about Everest. I told him that I was on the brink of persuading the BBC to fund an expedition to look for Mallory and his camera.
Then, after ten years of trying, the BBC finally accepted my proposal. In 1998, the Independent published an article announcing my expedition to go in search of Mallory’s camera. Jochen and I decided to form a Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, with me as the initial founder.
I met up with Lord Hunt, leader of the first successful Everest expedition of 1953. He said:
“I wish you well in your search for this important clue to the fate – success or failure – of Mallory and Irvine in 1924.”Lord Hunt in a letter to Graham Hoyland, 1998
I thought I had covered all the potential problems of looking for a dead body on a mountain. How wrong I was.
In Kathmandu, I met the American team and they actually turned out to be a nice bunch: Conrad Anker, already with a fine reputation, on his first expedition above 24,000ft (7,300m); Dave Hahn and Andy Politz, both Everest veterans; and Jake Norton (no relation) and Tap Richards, two likeable young climbers. They didn’t seem to know very much about Mallory. Liesl Clark would film for NOVA.
How We Knew Where George Mallory’s Body Lay On Everest
Once at Base Camp, we discussed where to search for Mallory, Irvine and the missing camera. I had the secret information that I had kept to myself up to that point: the story my father had passed on to me. Before the expedition, I had researched this in greater depth.
Here’s the secret: my uncle John Hoyland had been killed on Mont Blanc in 1934, and Frank Smythe, the world-famous climber who had recovered John’s body had revealed that when he was on Everest in 1933 he had seen a body just like John’s, lying in the snow. He said it was resting at the bottom of the Great Scree Slope, at around 8,100 metres.
This information was recorded in a private letter to Edward Norton (source Guardian). Previously Somervell had met Frank Smythe to discuss the forthcoming 1936 Everest expedition and mentioned to him that he thought it might be possible to place a camp in the Great Couloir that Norton had reached in 1924.
I think it was then that Smythe passed on this story, knowing that Somervell was John Hoyland’s cousin. We therefore had a good idea of where to look. In the event, Conrad Anker found George Mallory’s body in just 40 minutes. Unfortunately during a climb up to ABC, I suffered a minor health problem and my BBC colleague immediately had me sent home.
Who Found Mallory’s Body – and When
Conrad Anker told me later how at 05.00 on 1st May 1999 Andy Politz, Dave Hahn, Jake Norton, Tap Richards and he left Camp V, at 25,700ft, to go up to the 1924 Camp VI. They got there at 10.00 am Conrad spotted a couple of modern bodies and then in the course of removing his crampons to climb up some rock suddenly saw a patch of white, a patch that seemed even whiter than the surrounding snow. It was a body, bleached to an extraordinary degree by 75 years of sun. He radioed his companions with the cryptic request for ‘a mandatory group meeting’ and they began the lengthy process of identifying the body.
Dave Hahn broke in here and said that it looked like a white marble Greek statue.
I remembered Lytton Strachey’s gushing description of George Mallory’s body as a sculpture by Praxiteles and thought that it had come only too true.
At this stage, they were still assuming this was Irvine, as the hair appeared to be blond. In cutting away some clothing, Jake came upon a label that said ‘G. Mallory’. They all looked at each other and said, ‘Why would Andrew Irvine be wearing George Mallory’s shirt?’ Then it finally dawned on their oxygen-starved brains that they hadn’t found Irvine. They had found George Mallory.
He was lying face-down, arms outstretched as if to break a sliding fall, with a broken leg and a serious skull fracture. A thin cotton rope was around his waist which had caused extensive bruising. It was broken near him, and it seemed likely that he had been a victim of a fall while roped to Irvine. The body was only an hour or two from the safety of their camp.
Why Was Mallory’s Body Not Turned Over?
George Mallory’s body was frozen hard into the scree of Mount Everest and it took hours to tear off his clothing and remove his possessions. It would be impossible to turn him over with his frozen, outflung arms.
A second visit to the body a few days later managed to lever the body out of the frozen grave and Thom Pollard decided to have a look at Mallory’s face. He crawled beneath the body as Andy Politz lifted it.
He reported that Mallory had stubble on his chin, that his eyes were closed and there was a hole over his left eye, with two pieces of bone protruding. Otherwise, his face was perfectly preserved.
Artefacts Found (and Not Found) on Mallory’s Body
Several of Mallory’s possessions were found on his body:
- one pair of goggles were in Mallory’s pocket, suggesting he was descending in darkness or poor visibility when he fell
- one pocket knife
- an altimeter. Unfortunately, this did not record a maximum altitude achieved.
- an envelope with notes on the amounts of oxygen in each of the cylinders
- nail scissors
- a bill from his tailor
- significantly there was no photograph of his beloved wife Ruth. Mallory said he would place this on the summit in the event of success. Nor was it recorded in his camp possessions.
- most importantly there was no camera.
The Significance of Mallory’s Camera
” We met Mallory at the North Col on his way up. He said to me that he had forgotten his camera, and I lent him mine,” said Howard Somervell to me in 1969.
“So, if my camera was ever found,” he said to me, “you could prove that Mallory got to the top!”
Mallory and Irvine certainly would have been expected to have taken a picture of the highest point reached. I contacted Kodak, and they said that a printable image could in theory be obtained should the camera ever be retrieved. The old black-and-white film was less susceptible to cosmic rays than modern colour reels.
If found and developed, this photograph could solve the mystery. Imagine one’s feelings as the image developed in the bath of solution. Is that Lhotse looking lower in the background? Is that Mallory holding up the British flag?
The question is: why wasn’t Howard Somervell’s camera with Mallory’s body? Had Irvine taken it to take a picture of his friend on the summit?
Or had someone already removed it, to destroy any possible claim that the British had climbed Mount Everest’s North side before the Chinese?
How and Where Was George Mallory Finally Buried?
Before the expedition, I had contacted the Mallory and Irvine families, sought permission to look for their dead relatives, and asked what burial service they would prefer. Eventually, I got their consent and agreed to provide a Christian burial if at all possible.
I had therefore contacted Peter Firth, an ex-BBC colleague who was then the Bishop of Malmesbury, and I asked him to write an appropriate committal service to read over the body of Mallory or Irvine.
The expedition interred Mallory where he lay by heaping loose stones over him. This might have prevented further bird damage.
You can read more about this in my article on where Mallory is buried.
After all the media excitement of finding Mallory died down, I realised that we hadn’t succeeded in my quest: to find Somervell’s camera. I returned to the mountain’s North side in 2000, 2001, 2006 and 2011 in the hope of finding Irvine.
Dozens of well-acclimatised Sherpas expended hundreds of hours in the search. We hunted down the fall line and across the North Face for Sandy Irvine and the camera and it seems very curious to me that nothing was found.
A Western climber recently looked for Mallory’s grave for around an hour but couldn’t find it, making much noise in the media about his venture, ignoring the efforts of our Sherpa search parties over the course of several previous search expeditions. He speculated that both Mallory and Irvine’s bodies had been removed by persons unknown, together with Somervell’s camera.
Could this be true, or a conspiracy theory?
Certainly, if a successful climb by Mallory and Irvine in 1924 could be proved it would trump China’s claim to have first climbed the mountain from the North, Tibetan side in 1960. This could have profound political ramifications if China were ever to claim further territory around Mount Everest such as the Khumbu valley in Nepal.
As with all detective mysteries, you might ask: “Cui bono?” Who would benefit from removing the evidence of a successful British climb of Mount Everest in 1924? There is only one answer to this.
So does Somervell’s camera lie in a Chinese official’s safe, somewhere in Tibet?
Until a post-Soviet-style Glastnost arrives in China we are unlikely ever to know.
Was Mallory’s Body Removed from Everest?
So….did Mallory and Irvine climb Mount Everest?
After nine expeditions to the mountain, including testing exact replicas of Mallory’s clothes and studying the weather during their climb, I felt I had learned the answer to whether Mallory and Irvine had climbed Mount Everest.
My conclusions can be read here https://www.grahamhoyland.com/books/last-hours-on-everest/