What guys think is hot vs. QUIZ: What should you write your common app essay about? I’ve been fascinated by the legend of George Mallory, and whether he was the first person to climb Everest, since long before I became a mountaineer. Many years and many mountains later I finally had final thought chance to follow in his footsteps earlier this year, when I climbed Everest by the Northeast Ridge where he disappeared in 1924.
The story has been written about many times, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, here is a summary. He and his companion Sandy Irvine were last seen climbing a rock step on the Northeast Ridge of Everest at 12. For many months after my climb I didn’t give it much thought. But re-reading Noel Odell’s description of the fleeting glimpse he saw of the climbers last week made me reconsider. I pulled out a few photographs that I took of the climb and tried to put myself in his shoes.
There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. Noel Odell, The Mount Everest Dispatches, Alpine Journal, No. There has been a great deal of speculation about which rock step Odell was looking at when he saw the climbers, so first it’s necessary to acquaint ourselves with some of the features on the Northeast Ridge. Here’s what Everest looks like from Base Camp on the north side.
There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me and I saw the whole of the summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. Noel Odell in The Fight for Everest by Edward Norton. Why this confusion when the three rock steps seem to be very distinct?
Things start to look very different when you get higher up the mountain. A photo of the three steps from Base Camp won’t tell us much, but let’s go a little higher and try to get some idea of where Odell was at the time he made the observation. But what does this tell us? In my opinion, the most pertinent words are contained in his first statement, when he stated he was looking at the prominent rock-step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid. I believe Odell’s statement in his dispatch, rather than the one he made in Norton’s book, is likely to be more accurate. The prominent rock-step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid doesn’t look to me like it can possibly be the First Step.
If anything, it’s more likely to be the Third Step. I think therefore that by 12. 50 Mallory and Irvine were at least at the Second Step, possibly at the Third. They still had another seven or eight hours of daylight ahead of them, and this is what they will have seen.
Climbers on Everest’s Third Step, with the summit route indicated in red. As many as five climbers may have died on Everest this year as a result of summit fever, the determination to reach the summit at all costs, without consideration for the consequences of continuing on. Some of them had been told to turn around by their more experienced Sherpas, but chose to ignore the advice. In 1933 Sandy Irvine’s ice axe was discovered on the ridge a short distance below the First Step. George Mallory’s body was discovered a few hundred metres directly below this in 1999.
There was a hole in his skull and a rope around his waist which had snapped. His sunglasses were in his pocket, suggesting the pair may have been descending in the dark, when Mallory no longer needed to wear them. He saw it as his destiny, and he knew that after two previous attempts the expedition in 1924 would be his last chance. You may be thinking that summit fever is something that only inflicts the inexperienced climbers. Someone like Mallory would surely know that the summit is only halfway? In an hour or two, perhaps, a victory would be ours. My whole being revolted against the idea.
I had made up my mind irrevocably. Today we were consecrating an ideal, and no sacrifice was too great. Herzog and Lachenal reached the summit, but they had an epic, agonising descent, and were lucky to survive. Both of them lost all their toes to frostbite, and Herzog lost all his fingers as well. It is notable that Lachenal was a professional mountain guide whose career depended on remaining free from injury. Herzog was the more educated of the two. I now believe George Mallory and Sandy Irvine did reach the summit of Everest in 1924, but does it matter?
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There is a growing minority in the mountaineering world who believe that first ascents should only be credited to climbers who get down safely as well as up, and they have a point. There was no camera on Mallory’s body when they discovered it in 1999. But where is Irvine’s body, exactly? If the rope snapped and he fell below Mallory, then he likely plunged 2-3000 metres down the North Face into the Rongbuk Glacier.
Whichever way you look at it Hillary and Tenzing were the first people to climb Everest and get down again. You can read my report of our climb via the North Ridge and see photos and video of it here. To receive my weekly blog post about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook. Your intuition that contemporanious notes are the most accurate is also a principle of court evidence. That’s an interesting question and one that has been subject of much speculation over the years. The answer is Third, First and Second, in that order. The Third Step is by far the shortest and most straightforward to climb, while the Second Step is sufficiently difficult that some commentators have wondered whether it would even have been possible for Mallory to free climb it in 1924, and get his partner Irvine, a relatively inexperienced climber, up there behind him.
In 1960, in what is now regarded as the first ascent of Everest by the Northeast Ridge, a team of four Chinese climbers described spending around 3 hours trying to climb it, eventually doing so by standing on each others shoulders, a curious method which caused many people to doubt their claim. While many people regard this part of Odell’s statement as crucial, I chose to ignore it. The speed at which anyone climbs the steps depends not only on their skill as rock climber, but also how strong they were feeling at the time, and that’s something we just don’t know. Perhaps he was waiting for just 10 minutes, or perhaps an hour. I read your account totally absorbed, such was its profundity. I have a question on the third step possibilty you suggest. Based on the known capacity and flow rate of the 1924 oxygen cylinders, there would be perhaps 3.
5-8 hours to reach the 3rd step by 12. Irvine to reach and climb over the 3rd step would have to carry three cylinders to gain the summit or if on just two cylinders attain a height perhaps above the 2nd step or the base of the final pyramid at best. Do you think Mallory and Irvine carried three cylinders each in order to be seen by Odell at 12. Also this would suggest a very early pre dawn start by the pair to depart Camp VI to reach the 3rd step by 12. However to be fair, new work on this topic suggests we may be underestimating Mallory and Irvine’s ascent speed based on Odells climb rate, such that even with two cylinders, the 3rd step could be attained by 12. 50pm with the summit still a distinct possibility.
I welcome your analysis of these matters and thank you once again for such an original analysis here. I’ll be certain to visit your site again and read more such as Eric Shipton’s story I also found of interest. Thanks for this, it’s an interesting question. I know quite a lot has been written about the capacity and flow rate of the oxygen cylinders as evidence for whether or not they reached the summit. My argument is much simpler and mostly based on a single factor: Mallory had summit fever. Irvine was too knackered too argue! Perhaps he carried three bottles, but probably not.
5 with fixed rope and ladders, but then I’m no elite climber like Mallory was. I think it’s a powerful argument which throws a lot of this common sense out of the window. I appreciate your kind reply containing much food for thought. Now Odell relates how he estimates he was at 26,000 ft and climbed a 100 ft crag up the North ridge en route to Camp VI. 50 pm he pressed upward and reached camp at about 2. So thats about 1h, 10 mins to climb perhaps 600 ft, which is a very high climb rate sans oxygen, albeit lightly loaded.
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Now if you have any photo’s at about the 26,100 ft leave, that may tell us more as I recall some have been in that area and taken photo’s butmore detail may shed more light. I would reckon that puts the middle photo in the sequence more or less spot on. Thank you for these details on your climb squire, much appreciated. I’ve been incommunicado in recent days and have only been able to reply today.
Yes, you’re quite right about the Odell sighting location in relation to your ascent to Camp III. Did you use supplimentary oxygen to climb to Camp III? Mind you thats up through the yellow band and then up onto the NE arete’ but as you rightly point out thee is no proper co-efficient for terrain difficulty, hydration, determination etc. Odell’s climb rate, yes, you should have been at about Odell’s location about 1. 5 hours above your Camp II.
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NE arete’, so this photo would be quite close to the view Odell had. We need a photo taken about 1. On the whole I agree with your suggestion you originally cite of the middle photo in your article as the Odell sighting area. Finally, Odell was really climbing quickly from about 1.
00pm to then reach Camp VI over 600 ft in a little over 1 hour. We can actually confirm this by looking at Odell’s climb rate in another section later. Odell’s remarkable climb rate above Camp VI between 2. He reached Camp VI at 2. Camp VI to arrived at 4.
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So in that two hour period he was stationary behind a rock for about an hour and also sheltering in the tent. Camp III- are there many boulders up there to shelter behind, perhaps closer to the north ridge itself? 40-50 minutes when Odell was actually climbing up or down that 200 ft above Camp VI. 10 min rest at 50 minutes climb time, which is comparable to Odell’s earlier climb rate to gain Camp VI between near 1. I climb rate is actually underestimated if they managed to climb at the kind of rate near to Odell?
9 cylinder early as surplus to requirements and then pressed on at a higher rate then they’ve been given credit for on their second cylinder? This is another issue, would they really have proceeded toward the summit from the 2nd step onward if the oxygen was nearly expired? Its a matter of degree I suppose, but how much is too little before one decides you won’t make it? These arguments are just some thinking I’ve done on the topic exploring a few new areas without restraint, but I welcome any insights you may have squire. Thanks again for your time and a good discussion.
Camp 2 I was supposed to be sleeping on 0. As mentioned previously, though, I don’t believe climb rates are the key to whether the pair reached the summit. For so many reasons, there’s no way they can ever be accurate. Camp 2 to Camp 3 changed wildly as I crossed different terrain, and I was very much slower all round on my summit day the following day. I thank you for your helpfulness with these details you’ve provided and patience.
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Don’t worry about sleeping through oxygen masks sans oxygen, I still get confused trying to find my way out of video shops after I buy a Doctor Who disc where the bright lights and mirrors leave me wandering about until I can find someone to lead me to the exit! I appreciate your perceptive perspective on the Odell sighting but note that even if we’re out by a few hundred feet, the vista will be pretty much the same as you’ve described and yes Odell after the sighting, would have vectored toward Camp VI more to the upper left on the North ridge whereas today the high camps seem to be above that but still below the yellow band. I agree that climb rates have limits but to be on the 3rd step at 12. 50pm must indicate a faster rate than what is now thought. 1924 as now has all sorts of obstructions that may alter one’s perceptions there. Mark, would you ever consider returning to Everest as part of a dedicated expedition devoted to the search for Irvine?
Cheers squire, you’ve given me much new information on this to consider. It would be nice to go back and study some of the history of the place rather than concentrate on climbing. I found it tough up there. His carelessness and forgetfulness are well documented but long after other far more successful summiteers are forgotten his name will remain . It would certainly be seen as an unprofessional decision these days.
A gentle reminder that the at times bold self confident assertions by some writers may require a healthy dose of scepticism. If so, would they really attempt the 2nd step in the knowledge that the summit may well be beyond their oxygen capacity? One can suggest they they may have intended to press on sans oxygen once above the 2nd step, but that may not be possible physiologically speaking. However if they did attempt the 2nd step, then it may suggest that their real situation was more sanguine than we outsiders think, such that the fact that did climb up on the step, tacitly suggests they were in a better situation than we give them credit for. As Mark conjectures, perhaps they were going so well that perhaps Odell saw them on the 3rd step at 12. My point is that we don’t really know their true situation was such that it may have been better than what we think. I oxygen kit somewhere above the 2nd step will much better refine the entire issue.
I and have studied the accompanying comments and diagrams. First of all it must be a huge advantage to have been on site. I may be mistaken but it would appear to me that you were part of the Altitude Junkies expedition earlier this year. If so I was in constant communication with Axe and the Margaret you mention was his climbing partner. She was very sensible and turned around when she appeared to be within touching distance of the summit, something Axe did the previous year.
I very difficult owing to the many variables. To start with I find myself amongst the minority who believe a successful summit can be claimed when the climber returns safely to base camp. I also believe there are two types of climbers. The first band climb with their heart.
Mallory on nearing his goal would be overtaken by summit fever and the climb must be tackled regardless of the cost. I made a good early start, had an uneventual climb until at least the step in questio. Odell saw them climbing well from one step to another before they were finally lost in the clouds. As you say, the shape and form of the steps and horizon change according to where you are positioned below. Odell leads me to believe that this was the third step as the shape of it is quite distinctive. As we know, it is much further from step three to the summit than it would have appeared to them. It is quite reasonable to assume that, if they were at step three at 12.
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50pm to summit and descend would have ensured that they were descending in darkness. They would have been exhausted and at their most fragile making a slip, fall or careless placing of the feet very probable. The sun glasses in the pocket, the snapped rope,placing of the ice axe and the blow to Mallory’s scull all help us to imagine the final few minutes of the decent. I believe Mallory was leading when Irvine fell passing Mallory in the dusk. Mallory did his best to prevent his friend from falling over the edge into the glacier.
I can offer no suggestions re the oxygen bottles as I have no experience in that field! I have read your subsequent tweets with interest but fully realise that I have added very little to the discussion. I have, however,been able to focus my imagination on a fantastic hour or two up there in the clouds with Mollory and Irvine. What a sad and wonderful story created by two British legendary mountaineers. Yes, that’s right, Axe and Margaret were my team mates, and in fact I shared a tent with Axe on our summit push. His writing has a very stream-of-consciousness style, which includes mentioning all the things which irritate him as he’s climbing. A journalist in New Zealand looking for a story picked up on this and decided to write a sneery article about his attitude.
In fact the figure known as Green Boots is much lower down the ridge, about halfway between the Exit Cracks and the First Step. The photo you refer to is of the Third Step, where I counted four more bodies as I was descending. Your conclusions about the ascent are very similar to mine: that it may be the Third Step where Odell saw them because of his reference to the summit pyramid, that Mallory was gripped by summit fever and continued no matter what, and that he tried to arrest Irvine’s fall on the way down but failed. Since discovering your blog a few months ago Mark, I’ve been popping in for a read intermittently. I nearing the base of the pyramid with no steps mentioned.
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To my eye thats still the eponymous 2nd step as it is near be base of the pyramid and to my eye is more prominent than the 3rd. To be fair, it may be immaterial as climbers can ascend between the 2nd and 3rd steps in 60 minutes and even 30 minutes is assumed these days. I would really be still climbing up near the 2nd step if their oxygen levels were near to exhaustion as current timing projections would have us believe. I on that narrow section between the mushroom rock and the base of the 2nd step. Single file for the Englishmen with Irvine just behind Mallory and throughout the climb he’s more often than not close enough behind Mallory to read the oxygen gauge inexorably winding down as the hours go by. So once that the base of the 2nd step, they’d be at a critical juncture, to climb the more difficult obstacle so far on the climb or desist.
So be the base of the step, what do we project the gauge to indicate? Mentally, if they’re aware of their position, they’d know they still had some hours to go from the base of the 2nd step, which raises the question whether they’d climb the step at all with oxygen levels so low. Finally, on the descent, I and a colleague would argue that the rope force imprint in Mallory’s upper torso under the armpit on his left side, clearly indicates that Mallory was dangling at the end of a rope and sufficient force was applied such that the tensional force was transmitted via the rope to Mallory leaving the rope inmprint. That means either a rock acting as an anchor with rope tied to it during a solo descent or Irvine hauling on the rope until overloaded it broke sending Mallory falling to he death down the basin and Irvine still higher above him holding a broken rope. I being together until right at the end.