"The experiment of the expedition is Mr. Irvine . . . . His record at
Spitsbergen last year and his really remarkable physique, to say nothing of his
reputation as a general handyman, justify the experiment we are making in
exposing one of his tender years to the rigours of Tibetan travel. We entertain
no fears on this account . . . ."
General Bruce in The Times, 27 March, 1924
Andrew Irvine, known to family and friends as "Sandy," was two months into his
23rd year when he disappeared on Everest with George Mallory. An engineering
student, he was on two month's leave from Merton College, Oxford.
Whenever the tragedy is recalled, it has always been Mallory's name that
springs to mind. Irvine comes almost as an appendix—Mallory-and-Irvine. In a
way, this is hardly surprising. Mallory was already a hero in the public's eyes
when he went to Everest in 1924 and, after all, what time has a 22-year old had
to make much of a mark on the world? Yet today, 75 years after the two men were
lost, the mystery still tantalizes, and there are people who wonder about the
young man whose fate was inextricably linked with the ever-charismatic Mallory.
Irvine's former school, Shrewsbury, will be holding commemorative events this
summer to mark the anniversary of his death and staging an exhibition to
celebrate one of its most intriguing old boys. Irvine's first biography is
Irvine, far left, standing with the 1924 expedition.
What, then, do we know of this young man who fitted so neatly into the
expedition of 1924 even though he was 14 years younger than the average age of
the team, and 16 years younger than his partner, Mallory? The expedition group
photograph shows him at Mallory's side, a bulky, fresh-faced young man,
fair-haired and with generous features. He looks older than his years.
Irvine, from a well-to-do Birkenhead family, was the second of five brothers.
His sister Evelyn, who in age came between him and his eldest brother, was
perhaps the sibling to whom he was closest. After his death, some garnets that
Irvine had collected for her in Tibet were forwarded on by his Sherpa. The year
before, when he had been to Spitsbergen with an Oxford University expedition,
he brought her home an eider-feather quilt. Always tall for his age, he was
good at games and good-looking. "A little vain, and something of a dandy," one
of his brothers remembered fondly, "quite a lady's man. When he was lost on
Everest several young ladies claimed to have been engaged to him." His
partiality for wearing spats was also recalled, and it is interesting to notice
in some of the trek-in photographs, in which his companions have their legs
bound in the recommended Kashmiri puttees, Irvine sports what look like
Highland-issue spats (worn with long shorts).
His modest assurance endeared him to his fellow-expeditioners—"neither
bumptious by virtue of his 'blue' (for rowing), nor squashed by the age of the
rest of us," Hugh Somervell has written—even so, at times he may well have
felt isolated from the experience of the others and by his own lack of
intellectualism. Whereas his brothers were academically inclined, Irvine was
more practically gifted. They used to rag him for "not being very bright," but
conceded he had a natural instinct for method study or lateral thinking, and
this was demonstrated clearly on Everest when he saw that the way to save
weight on the bulky oxygen apparatus was to turn the cylinders the other way
around in the carrying frame, thereby doing away with a lot of the awkward
Irvine's selection for Everest was made on the recommendation of Noel
Odell, who had been impressed with his performance in Spitsbergen and
testified to his strengths, resourcefulness, and general good nature. As
Mallory wrote to his friend, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, when the team was
announced, "Irvine represents our attempt to get one superman, though lack of
experience is against him."
Irvine (right) with Mallory aboard the SS California, which carried the 1924 expedition from Liverpool to Bombay.
It's true, Irvine had done little climbing beyond a modest rock peak in
Spitsbergen, and a little rock climbing in North Wales, but he was determined
to remedy this as far as possible in the short time before the expedition
sailed. Over the period of Christmas 1923, he took the opportunity of some
glacier skiing in Switzerland. A letter (spattered with exclamation marks and
saying how "awfully" he was looking forward to the Everest "Show") was found
among Odell's papers when he died; it was from Irvine, fresh back from the
I had a perfectly wonderful time... [and] came back whole from Mürren—I
never thought I would—I took the Nose Dive straight my 2nd day and Lone Tree
my 3rd and stood which shook some of the expert skiers to the core. I got the
nickname of the Human Avalanche, so you can guess how I crashed about!! God
it's a good place—I'm dying to go again. Aren't the mountains wonderful,
just asking to be climbed, and real Spitsbergen colouring in the evenings.
The question is often asked: Why did Mallory choose Irvine as partner for that
final summit bid? Why not Odell, for instance, who had far more mountain
experience? The generally accepted response is that Irvine's mechanical genius
was essential to keep the notoriously temperamental oxygen apparatus
functioning, and Mallory intended this to be an oxygen-assisted attempt (having
just seen two non-oxygen attempts fail). Personally, I have doubts any choice
was made at all; I don't believe it occurred to Mallory to consider taking
anyone but Irvine. From the outset, he'd dreamed of surmounting the mountain
with Irvine ("on Ascension Day") and he'd written to his mother from Tibet to
say what a star young Irvine was proving to be, "a very fine fellow, [who] has
been doing excellently up to date, and should prove a splendid companion on the
mountain. I should think the Birkenhead News—is it?—ought to have
something to say if he and I reach the top together." (Mallory's family also
lived in Birkenhead.)
The last photograph of Irvine and Mallory shows the two preparing for their final summit attempt.
Winthrop Young used to warn Mallory against his tendency to inspire "weaker
brethren," carried away by their belief in him, to take risks or exertions that
they were not fit for. Did this happen on Everest? Was the loyal and
uncomplaining Irvine swept away by Mallory's dream? We know he was far from fit
at this stage of the expedition, suffering from diarrhea, breathing
difficulties, and a sore throat. The sun and wind on the North Col, where he'd
spent much of his last week, had flayed his fair skin to agonizing rawness. But
it's true, too—we see it in his diary—that Irvine deeply desired "a whack
at it myself." We cannot know if he fully appreciated the risks, but it's hard
to believe with some ten deaths already claimed in the three years' struggle
for Everest, that he did not know he was part of a dangerous enterprise. It is
certain his family back home did not appreciate what he was into, and they were
completely broken by the tragedy. According to his younger brother Alec,
Irvine's father steadfastly maintained the pair had reached the summit before
they died. Alec, equally firmly, was convinced they did not. "One of us," he
told me ruefully, "must be right."