Imagine a strange beeping noise heard high on Everest. A digital video camera
picks up the beeps and then focuses on the source of the noise. The camera
begins to make out a mechanical instrument moving over the blowing snow and we
realize the instrument is a metal detector—an odd sight against the hard
rock and ice face of the world's highest mountain. The detector and digital
camera are being used at 27,000 feet on Everest to look for a body found there
in 1975. The body is believed to be that of Andrew Irvine, a climber
who lost his life on Everest in 1924 while trying to make a summit bid with
renowned climber George Leigh Mallory. Were they a few hours short of
reaching the summit, or were they on their way down—the first to reach the
highest point on Earth? We are here to search for the body and the camera
Mallory and Irvine had with them, to try and solve this mystery. The
camera may hold images that could shed light on their tragic story. Ours will
be the highest archaeological project in the world.
The search team.
To try and discover what happened to Mallory and Irvine, our team of
climbers have several objectives to reach before the end of May, when the
monsoon snows arrive, bringing the climbing season on Everest to an end.
To see where the clues lie, explore a map of the north route.
Finding the Body
In 1975, a Chinese climber named Wang Hongbao left his tent at Camp VI for a
walk. He was gone for 20 minutes, during which time he came upon the body of a
climber that he later described to a fellow climber as being an old "English
dead" because of the vintage clothes he was wearing. No other English climber
was known to have died at that elevation on Everest, so it is presumed this
body could be that of either George Mallory or Andrew Irvine. Wang revealed his
find only in 1979, during a Japanese expedition on Everest when he confided his
story to a fellow climber. The very next day, he was killed in an avalanche, so
no more is known about his find.
Examining the Search Area
First, our team must locate the exact site where Wang was camping (the 1975
Chinese Camp VI site) and then fan out in a 10-minute walk radius from that
point to conduct their search; because Wang was gone from his tent for 20
minutes, he could not have walked more than 10 minutes from his tent before
finding the body.
The site is off the beaten trail up Everest and covers an area of about 1,080
square feet. Located at about 27,000 feet, the search area is also
known as the Snow Terrace. The moutaineers, led by Eric
Simonson and under radio consultation with geologist Jochen
Hemmleb, who will be watching the team by telescope from Base Camp, will go
out on three different research tours as outlined by Hemmleb's "Research
By studying photographs taken in the area and going over detailed orthophoto
maps of Everest's upper North Face, Hemmleb has pinpointed the exact area in
which the team should search for the body spotted in 1975. "When I saw
photographs of various Camp VI locations, I realized that the background in
each of those photographs was different. From these differences, I deducted a
method of pointing out locations on Everest's North Face. It became clear that
the Chinese Camp VI, where the body was found, was different from today's Camp
VI. That is no theory—it's visible in the photographs." Now all the team
needs to do is follow Hemmleb's directions to that site. The team plans
to follow Hemmleb's manual for searching, first by exploring and photographing
the locations, and then by taking a pass on the Snow Terrace with a metal
detector, in case the body and camp site are covered with ice and snow.
What metal would the device detect on Mallory and Irvine? Ice axes, nails on
the soles of their boots, backpack frames, oxygen canisters, and the
camera. If the camera is found, it will be transported, still frozen, to
Kodak's labs in Rochester, New York, where the film will be processed
and published on this Web site.
Oxygen bottles: The bottles used in 1924 were larger than the bottles used in
1922 and longer and skinnier than those from the 1930s. Also, it is known that
no bottles from the 1930s were left on the mountain higher than approximately
June 6, 1924: Mallory and Irvine leave the North Col for their final summit attempt.
Clothing: The last picture taken by Noel Odell of Mallory and Irvine
caught them leaving the North Col. They were wearing Grenville cloth anoraks
made by Burberry's of London. Irvine put special zip fasteners on his anorak, a
new invention at the time.
Equipment: Ice axes, nailed boots, frame backpacks, and maybe even crampons.
Recreating Odell's Sighting
Mallory and Irvine were last seen "going strong for the top" by Noel Odell, who
was standing at 26,000 feet on the North Face, no more than 100 yards away from
the crest of the North Ridge. Our camera crew plans to go to the point at which
Odell thought he saw Mallory and Irvine climbing on the Second Step. We will
try to recreate this sighting and film it with a 25mm lens, which is closest to
the field of vision of a human eye. Our film will reveal whether it would have
been possible for Odell to see Mallory and Irvine climbing the Second Step
about 4,000 feet away. We will attempt to film climbers on the Second
Step, from Odell's vantage point, to verify if the human eye could detect small
figures moving so far away.
Odell's sighting has been taken seriously because he was a geology professor
who was trained in scoping geological formations; it is presumed that two
people moving on the Second Step would stand out to Odell's geologically
trained eye. Odell's sighting, nonetheless, is controversial. Later in his
life, he changed his story and claimed he last saw them on the First Step. This
would account for Mallory and Irvine being caught out too late, climbing for
the summit of Everest.
However, when studying Odell's first account of his sighting:
"At 12:50 a.m. M & I on ridge nearing base of final pyramide."
he appears to be referring to a point at or above the Second Step.
Irvine's Ice Axe
Finding the Site of 1933 Ice Axe
In trying to solve the mystery of Mallory and Irvine, there is little solid
fact to go on. The only piece of hard evidence in this story is the ice
axe found at 27,760 feet on Everest. It is believed the ice axe was
Irvine's because it has hand-carved nick marks on it, which Irvine was known to
make on his belongings. Our team will attempt to find the site of the ice axe,
and mark it with GPS. (See Jochen Hemmleb's Research Manual.
DNA testing could help unlock the mystery of Mallory and Irvine.
Following up on Clues
Upon finding any artifacts, the team will mark the exact locations with
handheld GPS receivers.
Extensive photographic documentation will be done, supported by recorded
radio calls down to Jochen Hemmleb at Base Camp.
If an unidentifiable body is found, a small tissue sample will be taken for
If fabrics are found, samples may be brought down and tested.
Climbing the Second Step
One of the great mysteries of Mallory and Irvine's summit day is whether or not
they could have climbed the crux of the route, the so- called Second Step, a
100-foot high rock wall at 28,230 feet. The Chinese made the first confirmed
climb of the Second Step in 1960. The following is a compilation from
"Liu Lienman tried four times to climb the 15-foot headwall, each time falling
off exhausted. Qu Yinhua then took over the lead. Unable to scale it by any
other means, he removed his gloves, shoes and socks to gain a better grip on
the rock (later losing his toes and parts of his fingers to frostbite).
Finally, by standing on Liu's shoulders and hammering in two pitons, Qu managed
to get to the top of the cliff. With the help of a rope paid out from above,
the three others followed."
During the second ascent of Everest from the north side, in 1975, the Chinese
carried up a ladder and fixed it upon the Second Step to aid the passage of the
headwall. Since then, all climbers have used the ladder to surmount the Second
This year, Conrad Anker, one of the world's ablest rock climbers and a
member of our expedition, will try to climb the Second Step the way Mallory and
Irvine would have done—without the aid of the ladder, ropes, or pitons. This
test, at 28,230 feet, will enable us to gain a greater sense of the challenge
faced by Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Many questions hang on Anker's proposed
ascent: How long will it take one person to free climb the Second Step? How
great are the technical difficulties (modern climbers have guessed at a rating
of between 5.6 and 5.10)? Could Mallory and Irvine have climbed the Step with
the hardware available to them? Did they have the skills to surmount the Second
Photos: (1,8) Liesl Clark;
(2) Peace River Studios;
(3) Courtesy of the John Noel Photographic Collection;
(4) Finch Collection, courtesy of Mrs. Scott Russell;
(5) From Everest: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, Arcturus Motion Pictures;
(6) Courtesy of The Alpine Club;
(7) Courtesy of Cellmark Diagnostics.