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Irvine Andrew "Sandy" Irvine
Irvine—The Experiment
by Audrey Salkeld
"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 being written.

Irvine with the 1924 expedition 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 piping.

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 and Mallory on board SS California 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 Alps:

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.)

text here 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."

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Back to The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine '24

Photos: (1,3) Salkeld Collection; (2,4) Courtesy of the John Noel Photographic Collection.

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