Has Sandy Irvine’s Body Been Found? (By the Chinese or Others)

Andrew “Sandy” Irvine was the youngest mountaineer in the British team that took part in the third, 1924 Mount Everest expedition. He disappeared into clouds near the summit on June 8th, 1924, climbing strongly for the top with his companion George Mallory. His body has never been found.

Or has it?

a man standing near the summit of Mount Everest
Where is Sandy Irvine?

Rumours persist that Irvine’s body was spotted by Chinese climbers and removed from the mountain by persons unknown.

This might sound like an absurd conspiracy theory, but I was the founding member of the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition that found Mallory’s body, and I went on six further Mount Everest expeditions in an attempt to find Irvine’s body and my cousin Somervell’s camera that I believe he was carrying.

See here for more on Sandy Irvine and here for the finding of George Mallory.

the North Face of Mount Everest
The North Face of Mount Everest was searched thoroughly.

We searched the area thoroughly, up and down the fall line, and across the North Face, and I think it curious that we did not find Sandy Irvine’s body. Nor did we find my cousin Howard Somervell’s camera, which he had handed to Mallory as he set off on his last climb.

Has Sandy Irvine’s Body Ever Been Found?

There had been sightings of what was probably Irvine’s dead body.

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.”

Wang Fu-Chou, Geographical Society, Leningrad, USSR

This was not Mallory’s body as he lay lower on the mountain. Then, after this Chinese 1960 expedition sighting, there was another sighting from their second, 1975 expedition. A Chinese climber, Wang Hong Bao, 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.

Then, in an extraordinary twist of fate appropriate for an adventure novel Wang himself was killed in an avalanche on the North Col the very day after he had told his story.

So his story could never be corroborated, but this may have been the body of George Mallory which was later found by our expedition at around that altitude.

the cover of the book The Last Hours on Everest, written by Graham Hoyland
Last Hours on Everest reveals all the clues that led to the finding of Mallory, and analyses the evidence

Did the Chinese Find Irvine’s Body and Remove it from Everest?

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

Cui bono? – or, in English, “who would this benefit?”. This useful Latin phrase is employed by crime detectives to establish a motive for what is surely a crime: the removal of a dead body and the covering up of evidence for Irvine’s last climb and brutal death.

Who indeed?

Mount Everest full of snow
High winds and altitude make searching extremely difficult

In 2019 an American climber, 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. 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 [Irvine]: 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.


Will We Ever Find Sandy Irvine’s Body?

I think it is unlikely that we will find Irvine’s body anytime soon. If it fell into a crevasse or the Bergshrund at the foot of the North Face his body will not be disgorged from the Rongbuk glacier for many years.

Similar bodies are emerging from the Icefall on the South side of the mountain after fifty years or so, and the Rongbuk glacier is longer.

Then it emerged that a diplomat in the British Embassy had been informed that the Chinese did indeed find the remains of a foreign climber at 8,200 meters during their 1975 expedition to the North Face of Mount Everest.

They had recovered Howard Somervell’s Kodak VPK and brought it back to Beijing. His informant stated: “They screwed up the development of the film and ruined it. Rather than admit they made a mistake, they erased all evidence that they had found the camera or the body.” (source Salon)

Furthermore, the diplomat wrote

“We asked whether it had been possible to develop the film. I seem to recall that we were told there had been nothing on it. I also recall that we were told that the camera was in the Mountaineering Association’s museum. Someone should speak with the Chinese Mountaineering Association. This was all a long time ago and I could have got it wrong, although I don’t think so. And that meeting has always stuck in my memory. If the film really was mucked up, I imagine it is quite possible that the association [CMA] would deny that the camera had ever been found.” 


If Irvine’s body and Howard Somervell’s camera were indeed removed by Chinese authorities we are unlikely to be informed given the secretive nature of the present regime.

This mystery, which has now occupied my life for over fifty years has still not been solved.

We may have found Mallory, but we have not found a conclusive answer to this question:

“Who first stood on the summit of Mount Everest?”

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.