Early Camp Found at 21,750 Feet on Everest
by Liesl Clark
April 20, 1999
Andy Politz called down on the radio: "I think I've found an old camp just
below the North Col." We all looked around at one another, convinced he must be
joking. We're here, after all, to find clues on Mount Everest that will help
reveal what happened to George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924. This
just felt a little too early for a "find." We've only been on the mountain for
"The tent fabric looks like silk, the floor is canvas-coated with rubber
matting, the ropes are cotton, and the tent pegs are bronze," reported Politz.
"I wanted to look more, but thought I should wait until the film crew comes up
before I investigate any further." We were elated, knowing from Politz's
description that the camp was from an early Everest expedition—but could it
have been from the 1920s?
Dating an old mountain camp is like trying to solve a Boy Scout mystery. What
style of tent did they use and what was it made of? What are the tent pegs and
ropes made of? Are there any other artifacts that were left behind? The find
certainly warranted a full-scale investigation, and Politz would wait for us at
Advance Base Camp.
Bronze tent pegs
Four days later we stumbled into Advance Base Camp after completing the
grueling 12-mile hike and 4,500-foot gain in altitude from Base Camp. After an
hour-long hike up the rocky moraine above camp, we stopped to put on our
crampons before stepping onto the hard smooth ice of the East Rongbuk glacier
near the base of the North Col.
The old camp, or what remains of it, sat like a clump of dirty laundry amidst
small crevasses and deceptive snow patches. In 60 mph gusts of wind, Politz,
Eric Simonson, our expedition leader, and researcher Jochen Hemmleb began
digging through the remains.
"It looks as though there are two generations of camps here, one from the 1930s
and another from possibly the `60s," explained Politz. After 45 minutes of
digging around the oldest-looking tent fabric, a yellow and white jumble of
frozen cloth, Hemmleb peeled back a layer and revealed an old piton hammer, a
wood-handled hammer used to pound in metal stakes into rock cracks to aid in
rock climbing. This hammer—and an assortment of foot-long, French-made
pitons also found at the site—would have been used on the exposed rock higher
on the mountain.
After taking an inventory of the relics back at Base Camp, Hemmleb, who has
spent the past 12 years studying the history of mountaineering on the north
side of Everest, offers the following conclusions:
"Three generations of relics were found at the site:
Based on the material used and what is known from contemporary pictures, the
old cotton/silk tent should stem from the 1930s. Most likely it is a remnant of
the 1933 Camp IIIa. This is supported by old-style tent pegs labeled "Made in
England" found among the debris.
Old tent fabric
A surprising find was the food tin labeled "22 VII 56", which we interpret
as the date July 22, 1956. The Chinese character on the lid—"3 bean salad"—may point to a Chinese-Russian Reconnaissance Expedition, which took place
two years later. Two tubular ice pitons found at the site also fit into that
Comparatively modern tent fabrics and pieces of an A-frame tent point to
either the Chinese expedition of 1975 or the French Army attempt of 1981. The
French-made rock pitons would support the latter conclusion."
Check back at the end of the week to see what our experts have to say about the
meaning of these finds.