George Mallory was an English mountaineer who became obsessed with becoming the first person to climb Mount Everest. He disappeared on the mountain in 1924. I decided to look for his body in 1969 and my Mallory and Irvine Research expedition found Mallory in 1999.
George Mallory’s body was discovered on the North side of Mount Everest on 1 May 1999 at a height of 8200 meters (nearly 27,000 feet). His body was ‘buried’ in the same location by covering it in stones and debris, a few hours after its discovery.
Mallory, when discovered, lay spreadeagled facedown on a scree slope with a snapped rope around his waist. What was strange was that there was no sign of the camera Mallory had borrowed from my cousin Howard Somervell, or of Mallory’s climbing companion, the 22-year-old Sandy Irvine.
Furthermore, Mallory’s body seems to have disappeared- or has been removed. What’s going on?
The Location of Mallory’s Body on Everest
George Mallory’s body is located at 8200 metres (27,000 feet) on the North Face of Mount Everest, in Tibet. He lies at the foot of what he called the Scree Slope, below the Yellow Band, a layer of metamorphosed limestone just below the summit and clearly visible from the North Base Camp.
Mallory’s body was found where it was seen by the British climber Frank Smythe in 1933.
When I grew up there was a family story that Smythe, who had recovered my uncle John’s body from Mont Blanc, had seen something very similar when he was looking through a telescope from Everest’s North Base Camp – a dead body on a mountain.
” I was scanning the face from the Base camp through a high-powered telescope last year, when I saw something queer in a gully below the scree shelf.
Of course it was a long way away and very small even when seen through a high-powered telescope, but I’ve a 6/6 eyesight and I do not believe it was a rock.
I remember when searching for the Oxford men on Mont Blanc we looked down onto a boulder strewn glacier and saw something which wasn’t a rock either – it proved to be two bodies.
The object proved to be at precisely the point where Mallory and Irvine would have fallen had they rolled on over the scree slopes below the yellow band.”Letter to Edward Norton by Frank Smythe 1937
Armed with this knowledge I knew where to look, and when my expedition colleague Conrad Anker climbed up to 8200 metres and searched he found Mallory’s body in just 40 minutes, exactly where Smythe said it would be, lying at the bottom of the huge scree slope that can be clearly seen from the Tibetan side of the mountain (source Guardian).
After the body was found the American climbers on the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition stripped Mallory’s body of his clothes and collected his few possessions (see wikipedia).
Before the expedition, I had contacted Peter Firth, an ex-BBC colleague who was at that time the Bishop of Malmesbury, and I asked him to write an appropriate committal service to read over the body of Mallory or Irvine, should they be found.
George Mallory’s “Burial”
Mallory’s “burial” was simple. A few words were said, and a few stones were piled over the corpse to prevent further bird damage from the Alpine choughs, and the body was left where it was.
The GPS coordinates of the grave are known but not promulgated to avoid grave robbery. For this reason it is even more curious that Mallory’s body cannot now be found by those who know where it should be.
Has an avalanche swept it away? Unlikely, as the body lay in the same spot between 1924 and 1999 without shifting an inch. I know from my nine expeditions to Mount Everest that other dead bodies lying on the standard route up the North side of the mountain have been “tidied up”, that is, pushed over the edge by guides keen to avoid unnerving their clients.
However, this is unlikely to have happened to Mallory’s corpse, as he lay far from any climbing route, and was buried under a pile of rocks.
Also, where is Irvine’s body? The snapped rope around Mallory’s waist suggests the two men fell together, so surely Irvine should lie somewhere on the fall line. Why after nine expeditions couldn’t I find Sandy Irvine? Why should anyone want to “disappear” these two corpses?
The answer possibly lies in the object that I was trying to find all along: Mallory’s camera. And that is a slightly longer story…
Was Mallory’s Body Recovered and/or Removed?
It is very rare for a dead body to be recovered from high altitude on Mount Everest. Mallory’s body is no exception, despite his fame and significance. It’s just too difficult to remove a corpse at that altitude. For more on this, see my article on how many dead bodies are on Everest, and why they stay there.
In all the years I was on the mountain I can only remember one instance of a body recovery; when a Basque climber fell off the mountain right in front of me in 1993. He tumbled so far down, around 1000 metres, that he came to a place where it was possible to drag his body along the Western Cwm in a sleeping bag.
Usually it is far too dangerous to risk the lives of the Sherpas (who do all the hard work) to drag a dead weight off the hill. It usually takes about six Sherpas to rescue an injured climber, so why bother with a dead one? Most corpses lie where they took their last breath, and I saw five dead bodies when I climbed to the summit.
Some guides do tip bodies over the edge when they can, in the interests of “tidying up”, and any corpses left hanging on the ropes are cut away to clear the route. At high altitude everyday niceties are swiftly abandoned. This is why Mallory’s body wasn’t recovered in 1999.
Where is Mallory’s Body Now?
There have been several attempts to locate Mallory’s grave since 1999, partly to help those searching for Sandy Irvine and for the camera he may have been carrying. Those who think the unlucky pair may have been the first to the summit want to find the camera because a photograph of one of them on the top would be proof positive.
An American climber looked for Mallory’s grave for around an hour recently, and looked in a hole that he had been told was a possible hiding place for Sandy Irvine. As this hole turned out to be only 4 inches wide this was unlikely. He suggests that the Chinese authorities might have removed Mallory, Irvine and the elusive camera. Why?
He suggests the answer might lie in a Chinese desire to claim the whole of Mount Everest and the Khumbu region lying to the south of the mountain, the home of the Sherpas. This, he said would be based on the assertion that the Chinese were the first to climb Everest’s northern side. Any suggestion that the British were the first to climb the mountain from the Tibetan side might dent this claim to territory.
Would the authorities really dispose of bodies and destroy historical evidence to reinforce a claim to territory? We may not know for a long time.
Post-Cold War Soviet researchers only uncovered the truth of the Russian Communist state secrets decades afterwards. It will be many years before we know where Mallory, Irvine and the elusive camera are now.