Pieces of the Puzzle
The sun sets on Mount Everest
by Liesl Clark
May 6, 1999
"Whoever dares to tamper with myths is moving in a realm beyond the reach of reason."
Only a few bells can be heard beyond the walls of the orange dome tent. The sounds mark
the spot down the sandy moraine where the yaks lie after dusk, the bells hung round their
necks, facing the light breeze coming off Everest. It's late and the climbers and Sherpas
are all asleep in their tents, resting at Base Camp before the next push up the mountain.
Audrey Salkeld, People of High Places
Myth? The Ice Axe Was Irvine's
With every day comes new information about Mallory and Irvine that forces us to reexamine
what we think we know, the evidence that we have, and our own sense of reason. There are so
many pieces to this puzzle and our impression is that they are being examined on a
worldwide scale. Today, during an interview with the London Sunday Times, I learned
that a letter had been written to the newspaper by a friend of Sir Percy Wyn Harris,
the climber who in 1933 found the
ice axe at 27,500 feet on
Everest. After years of conjecture, it has been assumed that the ice axe was Irvine's
because it has nicks on the handle. Irvine was known to put these distinct markings on
all his belongings.
The letter writer to the Sunday Times recalls that Wyn Harris told him the tick marks
in the shape of a cross were notched onto the axe by a Sherpa who was instructed to mark
it, thus separating it from the other expedition ice axes. When I informed
Jochen Hemmleb, our resident
Everest historian, of the letter to the Sunday Times, he dug up a reference to this in
Walt Unsworth's book, Everest. Unsworth quotes Wyn Harris directly:
The markings on the Ice Axe found in 1933 at 27,500 feet.
"When I picked up the axe there was no mark on it. The cross, over which there has
been so much controversy, was not put on either by Mallory or Irvine. It was in fact
cut by my personal Sherpa porter, Kusang Pugla, who did it under threats from me that
it must not be lost or mixed up with other axes."
I looked closer and couldn't believe the irony: Wyn Harris' quote was from, of all papers,
the Sunday Times, 17 October 1971. All the pieces don't quite fit together, because while
Harris describes "crosses," the marks on the ice axe in question are clearly straight lines.
So is this one more clue that leads us back to Mallory, or not? Could the ice axe have
belonged to him? If so, where is Irvine? And if they were roped together and fell together,
is Irvine somewhere above or below Mallory? Or did Irvine survive an initial fall with Mallory,
the break in their rope severing them forever? Our climbers searched to the west of the old
Chinese Camp VI site where a body, presumed to be Irvine's, was found face up with a
hole pecked out of a cheek in 1975. On their next search, the team will also look
to the east of the Chinese Camp VI, a more level area where Irvine, perhaps injured
and exhausted, sat down to die.
Myth? Odell Saw Mallory and Irvine on the Second Step
Today's interview was with climber Andy
Politz, who was
part of the search team that found George Mallory on May 1st. Early in the
day, Politz first went to the position where Noel
Odell stood on
June 8, 1924 at 26,000 feet. The clouds parted for a few moments and Odell
observed Mallory and Irvine "going strong for the top." He was the last to
see them alive. He later wrote:
"At 12:50 p.m. M & I on ridge nearing base of final pyramide."
This was originally presumed to mean the Second Step.
Odell later commented that he saw them surmount the step in five minutes.
But then, he modified his observations, adamantly reporting that
he saw them on the First Step.
In 1990, Everest historian Audrey Salkeld began considering whether Odell had in fact
been referring to the Third Step, a small feature at the base of the final pyramid.
In an effort to determine whether an observer could mistake one step for another, Politz
climbed to Odell's observation point and photographed the steps with a 50-mm lens.
"From where I stood I could see the three steps," said Politz on camera. "Odell was supposed
to have seen them climb to the top of one of the steps in five minutes' time. And the question
is whether from that perspective the steps all lined up or separated significantly enough. Could
they have been confused with the Second and the Third Step? Well, I'll tell you, you're so
magnetically drawn to the view and those three steps are definitely separated from that
perspective. I have no doubt that he saw them on the Third Step. I think it's very obvious.
What he described is clearly easy to define, even when the clouds part and you have just a
few seconds of observation. And the summit pyramid stacked right behind that step that these
At 12:50 p.m., when Odell saw Mallory and Irvine for the last time, they may have been climbing the
Third Step—approximately just two hours away from reaching the summit. With the climbers'
recent discovery of a pair of sun goggles in Mallory's pocket, it is easy to assume he had
taken his goggles off as the light waned. And if it takes at least five hours to descend
from the summit back to high camp, Mallory and Irvine could have been descending in the
dark, aiming to reach camp at about 9:00 p.m.
With each day come new ideas and more conjecture. And with each truth comes more
questions. At mealtimes we discuss the many scenarios and debate the best search
objectives. And by nightfall, after tampering with the myths, we have entered what
Everest historian Audrey Salkeld refers to as "a realm beyond the reach of reason."
Time is running out for us to learn more, with only one more chance to go high and
search for answers in the thin air on the high slopes of Everest. In two days, the
team begins the move back up the mountain.
Read Everest historian Audrey Salkeld's response to this dispatch.
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)
Photos: (1) Liesl Clark; (2) Courtesy of the Alpine Club Library, UK; (3) From Everest: Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, Arcturus Films.
Members of the press: click here for NOVA/PBS ONLINE "Lost on Everest" media relations contacts.
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