Eric Simonson, who hales from Ashford, Washington, boasts a climbing career
that spans nearly 30 years, including 20 years in the Himalayas. He climbed
Everest in 1991, on his third attempt. Three times since then, he has stood
within 100 meters of the summit. As expedition leader,
Simonson is responsible for expedition logistics and organization for the climbing team.
NOVA: What is the purpose of this expedition?
SIMONSON: Our mission is twofold. On the one hand, we want to evaluate
whether it was technically feasible for the 1924 expedition to have summited.
Obviously we are aware of the significant climbing challenge afforded by the
Second Step and we
want to try to pin a more quantitative evaluation upon that climbing to see just how
hard it really was. Virtually every climber that has climbed the Second Step since 1975
has done so utilizing the Chinese ladder. If we can climb the Second Step without
the ladder I think we'll have a better idea of whether Mallory
could have done it. Secondly we want to do a search in the area of the high camp
looking for relics and artifacts from the 1924 expedition, and that would include
obviously the camera.
NOVA: Do you think that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed the Second Step?
SIMONSON: When I climbed the Second Step in 1991 I used the Chinese ladder and I
thought the terrain was quite difficult and challenging. It is difficult for me to think
that they did it in 1924. Again, we know that Mallory was an excellent climber, and we
know that the weather was quite good that day, so I'd be the first one to look forward
to being corrected. But presently I'm dubious as to whether they would've been able to do it.
We know from accounts of past expeditions that there is evidence of early Everest climbers
in the vicinity of the high camp. The fact is that no one has really taken the time to
look closely in those areas so our goal is to do just that: spend several days at extreme
altitude examining as best we can the area around 27,000 feet to the west of the high camp.
We think there may be a body in that area, and we know from the Chinese accounts that that
body was dressed in old English attire, and we know that the climbers in 1924 were carrying
cameras with them, so we will be looking for the cameras.
NOVA: What happened to Mallory and Irvine?
SIMONSON: I think it is very plausible that at some time they split up, and that
Mallory pushed on. It was his third try on the mountain. I know when I went to the summit
on my third try I was utterly determined and I felt the same way. I think it's utterly
plausible that he perished high on the mountain. Whether he climbed the Second Step,
again, I have doubts. My guess is that Irvine might have given Mallory his own oxygen
and perhaps he tried to go down on his own without oxygen, and fell or got lost on the
way down and the body that we think we may find at 27,000 feet may be that of Irvine.
I see the interest in Mallory and Irvine from two different sides. On the one hand the
public is interested in the obvious: Who was the first to climb Mount Everest? For me
I find that less compelling a reason for my interest. From the standpoint of a mountaineer
I think it is a lot more interesting to consider what they were doing 75 years ago with
utterly primitive equipment—leather boots, canvas tents, iron oxygen cylinders—and
to see the evolution of mountaineering in that context. It has been suggested that had
they been successful and returned from the summit in 1924 that mountaineering might
have evolved entirely differently than it has over the last 75 years. We've seen
mountaineering evolve through a series of large expeditions. Only in the last
decade or two has there been a swing to a more smaller or self-sufficient style. Also,
I don't think we can take anything away from the British in 1953, to
Hillary and Tenzing and
their remarkable expedition and their achievement of the summit of Everest.