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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 three weeks.

"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 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:
  1. 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 Old tent fabric
  2. 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 period.

  3. 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.

Unanswered Questions (May 25, 1999)
Forty-Eight Yaks (May 21, 1999)
On Top of the World (May 17, 1999)
Summit Team Moves Higher (May 16, 1999)
Still at Camp V (May 15, 1999)
Snow Bound (May 14, 1999)
Outsmarting the Weather (May 13, 1999)
Last Trip Up (May 12, 1999)
Up to ABC/The Rescue (May 11, 1999)
The Image of Mallory (May 8, 1999)
In Extremis (May 7, 1999)
Pieces of the Puzzle (May 6, 1999)
Dearest George (May 5, 1999)
Mallory's Discoverers Return (May 4, 1999)
Mallory Reported Found (May 3, 1999)
Waiting in Silence (May 1, 1999)
Up to the Search Site (April 30, 1999)
To the North Col (April 29, 1999)
Waiting out the Wind (April 28, 1999)
Search About to Begin (April 25, 1999)
Pitching a 1933 Tent (April 23, 1999)
Early Camp Found at 21,750 Feet on Everest (April 20, 1999)
Up to Base Camp (April 23, 1999)

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