Search About to Begin
by Liesl Clark
April 25, 1999
This isn't your usual Everest expedition, where sights are fixed on the summit,
and all hopes are aimed at the highest node on Earth. (See "Up to Base Camp.")
In fact, this week our talented team of Himalayan climbers is focused on a site
some 2,000 feet below Everest's summit, an 825-foot-wide snow terrace at 27,000
feet. What they'll find there is yet to be determined (and possibly only four
days away), but we think that at the foot of the Yellow Band on inclined scree,
800 feet below an ice axe found in 1933, lies the body of 1924 climber Andrew
Irvine. Did Irvine fall to his death on his way down from the summit, or did he
just lay down, exhausted, and die after a fruitless effort to be the first up Everest?
The mystery of whether George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine were the first
climbers to stand on the summit of Everest has burned within mountaineers'
hearts for 75 years. After a month of being on the peak—and ahead of schedule—our team is now poised to find answers: "We are in the
unique position that we know better than before where to look for evidence, and
we have the strongest team ever to attempt the search," commented researcher
Jochen Hemmleb this morning as the last of our climbers headed off from Base
Camp to Advance Base Camp.
The mystery of Mallory and Irvine has been in the hearts of climbers for 75 years.
There is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. All climbers are healthy and
feeling strong. Also, this is a dry year on Everest, which means little snow lies
on the rocky terrace where we will conduct our search—a good sign that if
anything is up there it will be spotted by the climbers. The trick is to get up
there before the heavy monsoon snows move in.
The climbers left Base Camp in waves on the first leg of their journey to Camp V,
from where they will base their first search attempt. Eric
Simonson, Andy Politz,
and expedition doctor, Lee Meyers, left yesterday in the early morning. Today, we said
goodbye to Dave Hahn, Jake
Richards, and Conrad Anker as they all
threw on their packs, weighed down with only bare essentials, for their eight-hour
trek up the moraine of the East Rongbuk Glacier to Advance Base Camp. We (the film
crew) are staying behind at Base Camp to film Hemmleb's communication with the team
as he directs them via radio to the search site at 27,000 feet with the aid of his
200-X power telescope.
Hemmleb, who has been studying this mystery for 12 years, knows every step of the
way up to his proposed search site—without ever having set foot on Everest. A
geologist, he has devoted his energies to solving the question of what happened to
Mallory and Irvine by applying cartographic skills to the few photographs taken by
expeditions after 1924 of the area in question - the place where a body was found
by a Chinese climber in 1975. If rediscovered, this body, described as an "Old English"
climber, may have a camera with it and images that will tell the long-awaited story of
the demise of Mallory and Irvine.
A caravan of yaks makes its way to Advanced Base Camp.
We've been here for four weeks, and the team has already spent several nights acclimatizing
on the North Col, with one carry to Camp V. Although it's still early, Simonson feels the
conditions are good to carry out an initial peripheral search at the site where Hemmleb
believes the body is. "This next week we move up for our third foray onto the mountain.
We've established our Camp V at 7,800 meters (25,740 feet). Now we intend to occupy that
camp and conduct our search and then move up to Camp VI," explained Simonson in an interview
we conducted with him at Base Camp for our NOVA documentary on the climb.
"Our initial search efforts will be devoted to surveying the highest area of probability.
We expect to be able to comb that area fairly exhaustively. We don't anticipate having a
large amount of time up there. We think that since the area is so confined, a handful of
people can do a reasonably good job in that area over a few hours." For Simonson, the
tactic of sending the entire team up to Camp V—have them spend a night and then leave
early in the morning the next day to climb up to the search site and conduct an initial
search—is the best plan for a quick search without using up all of our oxygen supplies.
Working at 27,000 feet is not easy, and the climbers will need to use bottled oxygen to
help them function in the thin air above Camp V. "It's amazing what a boost the oxygen gives
you," comments Simonson. "You feel warm, and you can think more clearly up high." It's the
oxygen that we believe will help bring the entire team back safely after their first search.
Check back as we follow the team's progress up to Camp V and then to the search site.