"Everest: Mystery of Mallory and Irvine"

PBS Airdate: October 6, 1999
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DAVID BREASHEARS: Imagine being among the first explorers to ever set foot on Mount Everest. The year was 1924, and despite two previous expeditions on the mountain, the British had yet to conquer Everest. At the time, no one knew how high humans could climb. Each step up this mountain was a step into the unknown.

I'm David Breashears. I filmed the Imax movie, Everest, and I've stood on top of this great peak four times. On June 8th, 1924, two climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, were last seen at 12:50 p.m. climbing toward the base of the summit pyramid. They disappeared into the mist and were never seen again. This story has become mountaineering's greatest mystery. Did Mallory and Irvine make it to the summit of Everest? The film you are about to see was made in 1986 and examines the question of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance. It also includes fascinating interviews with Professor Noel Odell and Captain John Noel, who were at the time the last living members of the 1924 Everest expedition. This year, George Mallory's body was found high on Everest's north face, but as a precursor to the present day discovery, the vivid personal accounts in the following film provide a living link to the past.

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NARRATOR: On the morning of Sunday, June 8th, 1924, two Englishmen, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, set out to climb the final slopes of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Shortly after midday, they were spotted less than 1,000 feet from the top. Then the clouds rolled in and they were never seen again. More than 60 years after the two men disappeared, we re-examined the legend of Mallory and Irvine. We retraced their route up Mount Everest and looked again at the evidence of climbers and historians, to try to unravel what remains one of the greatest mysteries of modern exploration. Could these two men have been the first to reach the top?

George Leigh Mallory was a vicar's son from Mobberley in Cheshire. He was a schoolmaster and lived in Cambridge with his wife and three small children. In his youth, he was much admired for his romantic good looks and athletic physique, adored by fashionable artists and intellectuals. In 1924, he was the most experienced Himalayan climber of his generation. It was Mallory, who when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, coined the immortal phrase, "Because it is there."

Andrew Comyn Irvine, Sandy to his friends, was only 22, an engineering student at Merton College, Oxford. He was a star of the university rowing team, tall, blond and immensely strong. This was his first time in the Himalayas. He had almost no mountaineering experience. Yet on the boat trip to India, Mallory had already singled him out as a possible climbing partner. It was an irresistible combination of experience and youth. Everest was the chance of a lifetime for young Irvine. But for Mallory, this was his third expedition to the mountain and at age 37, he knew it was unlikely he would go again. In his last letter to his wife Ruth, he said, "It is 50 to 1 against us, but we'll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud."

Captain John Noel, who is now 97, was the official photographer and filmmaker of the 1924 expedition. He believes that because Mallory knew this would be his last opportunity to reach the summit, it was a death or glory attempt.

JOHN NOEL: Mallory was a, I got the impression that he was absolutely obsessed with the idea of climbing Mount Everest. He set his heart on it. He talked about nothing else at all. And I believe that that was one of the reasons of his death.

NARRATOR: The last person to see Mallory and Irvine before they disappeared was team geologist Noel Odell. In an interview just before he died, he told us that he too believed that nothing would have stopped Mallory going for the top.

NOEL ODELL: I think that when they got to the foot of the final pyramid, it was late. Mallory would say well, we've got to hurry up here because it is almost approaching dusk, and along we go. I don't think Irvine in any way would have hesitated to go nor do I think he had been unfit enough to say, oh no, I don't think we can manage it. I think he would have been perfectly willing to go on and they might well have got to the top.

NARRATOR: The struggle to reach the highest point on earth had made heroes of Mallory and Irvine and captured the imagination of a world so recently savaged by war. When news of their loss reached England, the nation publicly mourned and even the king sent a message of condolence to their families. Howard Somervell, a close friend of Mallory's and a member of the 1924 expedition, spoke for many when he wrote: "I verily believe his death as that of his well-loved and splendid companion is a clarion call to our materialistic age which so terribly needs the true, unselfish spirit typified by George Mallory, alike in his life and in its ending."

No one knows whether Mallory and Irvine were first to reach the summit of Everest. Officially, the honor of first ascent went to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. But the climb by Mallory and Irvine has remained an inspiration for all who followed them on Everest, according to Hillary.

EDMUND HILLARY: The place that Mallory and Irvine have in mountaineering history, certainly to my generation, is a very dominant place indeed. They were the ones who really got the ball rolling as far as Everest was concerned, and I think that Mallory's had an almost inspirational character as far as his determination to succeed on Everest was concerned. He was the one that stimulated not only his companions, but he stimulated the whole world into an interest in the ascent of Mount Everest. So he was a massive figure in the '20s as far as Mount Everest was concerned.

NARRATOR: Until the first Everest reconnaissance expedition of 1921, no Western explorers had been within 40 miles of the mountain and knowledge of high altitude climbing was still very limited. No one knew, for example, whether it would be possible to survive on the summit at 29,000 feet without bottled oxygen. These expeditions were exploration in the grand style. Hundreds of porters, cooks and yak herders serving a handful of curiously assorted mountaineers. The Tibetans were amused by this strange cavalcade.

JOHN NOEL: You've got to realize one thing about choosing the members of the expedition. The expedition went out soon after the First World War was over and naturally the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, that were joint managers of the expedition, had great difficulty in choosing men for the expedition because we were short of climbers. You see, the war had killed many of the youth of our country, a terrible loss to our country. The young men under Kitchener's army had been massacred.

NARRATOR: Sir Jack Longland, one of the leading climbers a decade later, was on the unsuccessful 1933 Everest expedition.

JACK LONGLAND: It is I think an interesting point that Everest was thought to be probably a pretty easy mountain and therefore, in the early expeditions, in 1921 and '22, there were a number of members of the parties who would certainly never have gotten anywhere near the top of Everest if they had the luck even with the weather. They were travelers and they looked after the sherpas and porters, they were normally good at managing transport. And they were, I suppose you would say, thoroughly good, respectable, Royal Geographical Society members whom modern climbers would not regard as being mountaineers at all. Mixed in with the travelers, an increasing number of people who could justly be described as mountaineers were added. But there was always a slight difference between the university trained mountaineers and what we used to call the bloody soldiery. It didn't usually amount to a real rift, but there was tension between the two.

NARRATOR: In fact, these expeditions were organized like military campaigns and the adage that an army marches on its stomach was faithfully observed. Food, supplied by London's leading stores, would not have been out of place in the officer's mess or an English country house. But despite this gracious living, they were men in the mold of Victorian explorers to whom nothing seemed impossible.

EDMUND HILLARY: I imagine the motivation for climbers in those days wasn't too different from what it is today, a desire to succeed, the meeting of challenges, the overcoming of major problems and your own fears. And with the ultimate hope that you get to the top. But certainly with Mallory and Everest, it was very much a personal thing between them. Mallory, I think, did regard Everest virtually as his mountain and he was very anxious indeed to be one of the people who actually first got to the top.

NARRATOR: All pre-war expeditions attempted Everest from the north side, in Tibet. Modern expeditions follow the same route across the unchanging landscape. It is an exhausting 12 mile approach up the East Rongbuk glacier before the mountain is even reached. The principal barrier to the upper slopes is the imposing cliff of the North Col, 1,000 feet of steep snow and ice. In 1921, Mallory climbed to the North Col at 23,000 feet to survey the mountain and saw a possible route to the summit.

Another British team the following year pushed to 27,300 feet, within striking distance of the summit and far higher than anyone had been before. But that expedition was marred at the very end when a column of porters Mallory was leading up the North Col was caught in an avalanche. Seven men died and Mallory held himself responsible for the accident. In 1924, the team once again made the arduous six week trip from Northern India to the mountain. They arrived with high hopes after getting so close to the summit in 1922. Mallory wrote to his friend Tom Longstaff: "We are going to sail to the top this time, and God with us, or stamp to the top with our teeth in the wind." But a month later, it was a different story. Heavy snow and high winds had destroyed the chance of a quick ascent. Two attempts to establish a camp on the North Col at 23,000 feet had already cost the lives of a porter and a Gurkha climber. Mallory wrote to his wife: "It has been a bad time altogether. I look back on tremendous effort and exhaustion and dismal looking out of a tent door into a world of snow and vanishing hopes."

Hope was vanishing fast. The onset of heavy monsoon snows could be no more than a few days away, spelling an end to all climbing for the year. Yet, there was still enough spirit in the team for a last, all out assault on the summit. "The issue," Mallory wrote, "will be shortly decided. The third time we walk up the East Rongbuk glacier will be the last, for better or worse. We have counted our wounded and know roughly how much to strike off the strength of our little army as we plan the next act of battle. We expect no mercy from Everest."

In the first attempt on the summit, Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce failed to establish a high camp because their porters insisted on turning back. Two days later, with camp in place, Colonel Norton, the expedition leader, with Howard Somervell, traversed across the north face toward the summit. They were climbing alone without the help of bottled oxygen, and Somervell was forced to give up because of a severe high altitude cough. Norton went on alone, to set a new high altitude record of 128,126 feet. Somervell wrote in a report to The Times, "We have no excuse. We have been beaten in a fair fight. Beaten by the height of a mountain and by our own shortness of breath."

Climbing to this altitude had proved an alarming experience. Somervell had almost died of suffocation in a coughing fit and Norton had to be carried down off the mountain in great pain, suffering from snow blindness because he had taken off his goggles. His evacuation from the North Col camp at 23,000 feet was difficult and dangerous. He wrote later in a dispatch to The Times: "I was anxious to descend as my presence at Camp 4 could only be an embarrassment to Odell and Hazard, who had now taken the place of Irvine in the role of supporters. Hingston, our doctor, being unable at the moment to perform the miracle of restoring my sight, performed with the help of Hazard and two porters, another miracle. The route to the North Col was admittedly an alpine climb. They shepherded me down some 1500 feet of sheer ice and snow, placing my every footstep, leading me by the hand, and supporting me with ropes fixed and unfixed, with complete security."

Mallory decided to make one final attempt, and this time he would do it with oxygen. He thought the two previous attempts had been a waste of effort without it. For this last climb, he selected Andrew Irvine as his climbing partner, rather than Noel Odell, who might have seemed the logical choice; Odell was by far the more experienced and just coming to the peak of his fitness.

JACK LONGLAND: It is very difficult to be certain why Odell was not chosen when he was very well acclimatized to be Mallory's companion on the top ascent. But there is a curious background of information here, that Tom Longstaff, who had been with Odell in the Arctic and admired his going powers very well indeed, did say once that he was very slow in getting going in the morning, though after 12 hours he beat everybody. Mallory was a very impatient character and he might have watched Odell coming rather slowly fully equipped out of his tent at a high camp in the morning. So that might be the negative reason why he didn't pick the very well acclimatized Odell.

NOEL ODELL: I think Mallory realized that since they were going to try to get a beneficial effect from oxygen apparatus, Irvine had done a lot of the last stages of work on the apparatus they were taking. That he, I admitted to Mallory that he was the better mechanic than myself. He had done an awful lot of work on this apparatus and when Mallory spoke to me about this, I said that I was perfectly satisfied and I told him frankly that my interest in the mountain was not only to climb it but to know some of the composition of it and told him about the geology.

NARRATOR: On the morning of June 6th, Odell took this picture of Mallory and Irvine leaving Camp 4 on the North Col. It was the last picture ever taken of them. The next day, he received a message sent down with a porter, to say that they had gone on, up to their high camp, 2,000 feet below the summit.

"Dear Odell, we are awfully sorry to have left things in such a mess. Our Unna cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment. Be sure of getting back to 4 tomorrow in time to evacuate before dark, as I hope to. In the tent, I must have left a compass. For Lord's sake, rescue it. We are without. To here, on 90 atmospheres for the two days, so we will probably go on two cylinders but it's a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job. Yours ever, G. Mallory."

On the day of their last ascent, Odell was climbing the north face in support, less than a mile behind them. The clouds suddenly cleared and he said later: "I noticed far away a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object, moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed and then the first climbed to the top. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud once more. It was, of course, none other than Mallory and Irvine."

JOHN NOEL: People often said, why, when he was last seen by Odell, last seen going forward towards the top of the mountain, before they were hidden from view by the driving clouds, why was he going forward? He was already, according to the plan they had made, four hours late when last seen and when four hours late, he was going forward towards the top, not returning back to their last camp. Now on Everest, no human being can stand, survive without the help of his sleeping bag and his tent at that altitude. Their last camp was 27,000 feet above the sea. They had to get back to it that night. They never did.

NARRATOR: An hour after Odell's sighting in the early afternoon of the summit day, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. Concerned for Mallory and Irvine's safety, Odell climbed alone, beyond Camp 6 in a high wind and driving sleet, to try and find his friends, but there was no sign, and as instructed by Mallory, he returned to Camp 4 on the North Col that night. Over the next two days, despite feeling exhausted, Odell climbed again on his own to the top camp but found no trace of Mallory and Irvine. He had now been above 23,000 feet for 11 days, and his two ascents to 27,000 feet in search of the missing climbers remains a mountaineering achievement without parallel.

NOEL ODELL: It was blowing very hard and blowing snow and mist stuff. Visibility was bad, very bad. Anyhow, I got back to bivouac tent after looking for them above Camp 6, that's above 27,000 feet. I got up, I don't know, I got up somewhere between 27 and 28,000 feet and got back there. I signaled by a very primitive means as I had arranged with Hazard, which I think is described in the book, by means of sleeping bags placed in certain position on the nearest patch of snow, which I did, indicating to Hazard that couldn't find them and we must conclude that they were lost.

NARRATOR: Above the high camp, they could not have survived one night on the mountain, let alone two. Below, at advanced base camp, the rest of the team was anxiously awaiting news. Finally, in the early evening of June 10th, they saw the pre-arranged signal from the North Col, six blankets laid out in a cross. It meant simply: death. The expedition leader authorized an answering signal. Abandon hope and come down. There was no point in mounting another search. After four deaths, Colonel Norton was not prepared to take further risks. He felt that Mallory and Irvine's deaths had not been wasted, that they had died to keep alive the spirit of adventure that had made the British Empire. "We were a sad little party," he said. "From the first we accepted the loss of our comrades in that rational spirit which all of our generation had learned in the Great War, and there was never a tendency to a morbid harping on the irrevocable. But the tragedy was very near. Our friends, vacant tents and vacant places at table were a constant reminder to us of what the atmosphere of the camp would have been had things gone differently."

The loss of Mallory and Irvine brought the death toll of the three Everest expeditions to 13, and still the tantalizing question remained, had the mountain been climbed? When Hillary and Tenzing went to the top, 29 years later, the mystery was still very much in Hillary's thoughts.

EDMUND HILLARY: Yes, when I reached the summit of Mount Everest and sort of looked round about, and particularly when I looked down towards the North Col, Mallory actually was very much in my mind and although I really had no hope of actually seeing any sign of his passing, I certainly looked down towards the North Col. I looked sort of over and down the very steep slopes leading from the summit, but I saw nothing, no sign of Mallory's passing.

NARRATOR: It is a mystery which intrigues all mountaineers. Chris Bonington, who has led three expeditions to Everest and reached the summit himself in 1985, admits that he is fascinated.

CHRIS BONINGTON: I certainly would love to think that they actually reached the summit of Everest. I think it is a lovely thought and I think it is something, you know, gut emotion, yes I would love them to have got there. Whether they did or not, I think that is something one just cannot know. I think one can say, it is perfectly possible they did. And I think the mystery, the question of whether they did or not, I think that is one of the nice things to conjecture about.

NARRATOR: In 1986, an American team went to Everest to examine the clues and the conflicting accounts of Mallory's last climb. The team includes Audrey Salkeld, a British historian, and one of the world's leading authorities on Everest, and Tom Holzel, a Boston engineer who has studied the Everest mystery for 15 years. Together they have written a book in which Holzel outlines his own controversial theory about what might have happened.

TOM HOLZEL: What I think happened is that Mallory and Irvine reached the Second Step, a 50 foot cliff and the only real obstacle in their path, at about one o'clock in the afternoon. At this time, Mallory had to make a major decision, because it was really time to turn back. So he had a brainstorm. He decided to send Irvine down, who was - Irvine was an inexperienced climber. He would take Irvine's oxygen and together with his own, give him just enough to reach the summit and then Mallory could continue on the risky climb to the top. Remember, this is Mallory's third time to Everest and certainly would be his last attempt to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. They started off, Mallory up and Irvine back to Camp 6, and in about an hour were hit by a snow squall. The snow squall proved too much for Irvine and he fell to his death. Mallory, on easier ground, continued up. I believe Mallory reached the summit, but then he faced a long, arduous descent. It is impossible to say how Mallory died. He may have fallen off the mountain, but I think he may have actually reached the Second Step and realized it would be impossible to climb down, so he decided to sleep out in the open and would have died of exposure.

NARRATOR: And is it any wonder? Mallory was dressed in layers of wool and a cotton windsuit.

CHRIS BONINGTON: I think he was an all around mountaineer. He was obviously very competent. I don't think he was an absolute star, I mean like say of those days, someone like Willo Welzenbach or taking more modern times, Dougal Haston or Reinhold Messner. But I think he was a very, very good mountaineer who of course, I mean, knew Everest and knew that environment better than any other mountaineer of that particular period.

JACK LONGLAND: Technically Mallory stands up to pretty severe tests. As far as all around exploring and mountaineering and the techniques of camping and going across wild country are concerned, there is very definitely a considerable question mark to be set against Mallory. I think that great explorer, Tom Longstaff, puts it very succinctly, and I noted a quotation which perhaps I should be allowed to make. Longstaff called him, Mallory, "A very good stout-hearted baby, but quite unfit to be placed in charge of anything, including himself." I think there is a world of experience behind that one. You can't fault Mallory's rock climbing nor I think, possibly except for the avalanche in '22, his snow craft. But he couldn't look after himself. As General Bruce said, he was always leaving his boots behind.

NARRATOR: Since the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, only two real clues have emerged. One of their ice axes was found high on the mountain in 1933, and the Chinese discovered a body in 1975. And there is the confusing evidence of Odell's last sighting. He was over three and a half thousand feet away when he thought he saw them on the Second Step. The crucial question is, did he in fact see anything at all?

JACK LONGLAND: Well, I don't want to say that Odell didn't see them, but it's very easy to mistake natural objects for climbers. In fact, in 1933, Shipton and Frank Smythe were watching the ridge above them on their way to the top camp, Camp 6, and they said, there go Wyn and Waggers, that is the first attacking party, on the Second Step. Well, that certainly was not true. It is almost certain that they saw two rocks spaced at a convenient distance apart and you can very easily think that rocks on a distant snow slope are moving. So it is only that Odell is so certain that he saw one figure climb something and climb it very quickly, and he has stuck to that story ever since and I am not the person to say that his eyesight wasn't good enough. He was a very cool character and he was in splendid condition at the time, but he could be mistaken.

NOEL ODELL: I am absolutely certain that they were climbers. They were moving actually, moving figures.

CHRIS BONINGTON: I am practically certain in my own mind that Odell did see the two figures and they were people and they weren't rocks. I think the reason for this is firstly, Odell himself, the fact that he had first class eyesight, the fact that he was completely at home in that environment. The fact that he had a scientist's powers of observation and the way he was wandering around looking for rocks. The fact that he actually saw the figures moving and specifically said they were moving, which I think means that they couldn't possibly have been two rocks; they were definitely moving figures and therefore they must have been Mallory and Irvine.

NARRATOR: But Odell was less certain about where precisely on the ridge he had spotted Mallory and Irvine. When he returned to England he was persuaded that it must have been on the first of the prominent rocky outcrops along the ridge, although his instinctive reaction at the time was that they had climbed the higher Second Step, the only real obstacle on the route. If they were seen on the Second Step, then there is a much stronger possibility that they could have gone on to reach the top. But were Mallory and Irvine capable of climbing the Second Step anyway?

JACK LONGLAND: It is a very, very formidable obstacle and I don't think it was climbable by the standards of our time and more particularly by the fact that we had no iron mongery.

NARRATOR: Most of the early climbers approached the Second Step from below and saw 150 feet of near vertical rock, but Mallory may have come in along the ridge, avoiding some of the major difficulties. In recent years, several expeditions have tried to climb Everest by Mallory's route. Catalan mountaineers reached the summit this way in August of 1985, when the Second Step was banked with deep monsoon snows. The summit team had no real trouble with the Second Step; for them it was a steep snow climb, not the vertical rock wall Mallory would have encountered. One of those Catalan climbers was Toni Sors. He recently paid a visit to Mobberley, Mallory's birth place. He was convinced that this now legendary climber would have been able to lead his partner up the Second Step.

TONI SORS [voice over translation]: Yes, I think so. As I have said before, the real problem of the route is not really its technical difficulty, although the Second Step, we must admit, is technically difficult. But anyway, I believe that if Mallory and Irvine arrived at the foot of the Second Step in good physical condition, they could have climbed it.

NARRATOR: And what difference would the use of oxygen have made? Modern climbers are well aware how quickly the body deteriorates above 19,000 feet, chiefly from oxygen starvation. Movement becomes slow and painful. But in the 1920s, the problems of climbing at high altitude were not clearly understood. After two failed summit attempts without bottled oxygen, Mallory reluctantly concluded that oxygen was the key to success.

CHRIS BONINGTON: I am quite sure that oxygen must have made all the difference to Mallory and Irvine, and I think the fact that they were using oxygen makes it conceivable that they reached the summit of Everest at the same time. I think what was particularly interesting was the way that Mallory, in his previous attempts, of course, had done it without oxygen and he had been very firmly against oxygen and convinced that you were much better without. And then, having seen how effective oxygen was, even with those very cumbersome, rather inefficient systems they had both in the 1922 trip and the '24 trip, he decided for that final attempt to opt for oxygen. As far as my own experience with oxygen, well, it is absolutely conclusive. I am not a great high altitude goer, I don't think. I am not a Reinhold Messner. But I found that say at 26 and a half, 27,000 feet, without oxygen I was absolutely struggling. The moment you put oxygen kind of on, it doesn't exactly take you back down to sea level, but my goodness, it makes a heck of a difference.

NARRATOR: But the oxygen sets used in the 1920s were primitive. They were notoriously unreliable and each weighed 33 pounds, an enormous load for climbing at high altitude. Irvine, after carrying out extensive modifications and reducing the weight by 5 pounds, coaxed the best out of the equipment. But as an engineer he was appalled. He wrote home: "The oxygen apparatus has already been boggled. They haven't taken my design, but what they have sent is hopeless. Breaks if you touch it, leaks. Is ridiculously clumsy and heavy. Out of 90 cylinders, 15 were empty and 24 leaked badly by the time they got to Calcutta. Eee gods. I broke one today taking it out of its packing case." And certainly from the quantity of oxygen they are known to have taken on the final summit attempt, there would not have been enough to get them both to the top. So is it conceivable that they might have separated, as Holzel has suggested? Would Mallory have sent Irvine back to make use of oxygen in a solo summit attempt?

JACK LONGLAND: I am sure he wouldn't have abandoned Irvine unless he thought Irvine had a perfectly simple way down to the top camp, Camp 6 at 26,800 feet. That would have been against all the traditions on which he had been brought up and the mores of that day.

TOM HOLZEL: What most of the older mountaineers say when they say Mallory would never have sent Irvine back is, they usually say no one did that in those days because it just wasn't done, it wasn't part of the ethos. In fact, if you examine the early expeditions, on each one of them, one person was either incapacitated and the other continued, or - in 1921 for example, in 1922 Morshead became incapacitated and the others just went on without him, they sent him back to the tent. In 1924, Somervell could not go on, so Norton continued on without him and then came back and picked him up. In 1933, Shipton collapsed at the First Step and Smythe continued on. So Shipton had to work his way back to the First Step. So what they are saying, that this wasn't done, just isn't true. They don't like it; they didn't like that Mallory sent Irvine back, which by the way is just a theory of mine, but it happened all the time. So I can't see what the objection is.

NARRATOR: It was nine years after the deaths of Mallory and Irvine before another expedition went to Everest. But the mystery was heightened by the only clue they found regarding the fate of the two climbers. They came across an ice axe, lying on slabs above Camp 6. The puzzling thing was that it was lying considerably lower down the route than the point at which Odell believed he last saw Mallory and Irvine.

NOEL ODELL: Hadn't slid down at all, it was lying flat there on these rocks. Well, that was left there, obviously left there, must have been left there. Whether left on the way up or the way down has often arisen, there's a question.

JACK LONGLAND: This must mark the spot where an accident happened. On the grounds that first, nobody in his senses is going to leave an ice axe on Everest either on the way up or on the way down; it is far too useful in a number of places. And the second point is, that if they were roped together, we don't know of course, but it was not very difficult ground, but they were probably roped together, considering that Irvine was to some extent a novice climber. One of them may have slipped and the other tried to hold him on the rope and failed, but before doing so put down his ice axe in other to hang onto the rope with both hands. If anybody did start sliding there, there is certainly nothing to stop you for about 500 feet.

NARRATOR: More than 40 years passed and nothing else was discovered on the mountain. Then, a rumor reached the west that in 1975, a Chinese climber had stumbled across a body at 26,600 feet on a sloping terrace in the middle of the north face. It is a story that has never been officially confirmed. The Chinese are perhaps unwilling to invite speculation about Mallory and Irvine's climb. It might cast doubt on their own claim to have made the first ascent of the north ridge in 1960. Wang Hangbao, the Chinese climber who found the body in 1975, died on Everest four years later while climbing with a Japanese team. The day before he died, he revealed his secret to a Japanese mountaineer, Ryoten Hasegawa.

TOM HOLZEL: We know that it was an English dead for two reasons. One, the Chinese and Japanese characters are very similar, although the spoken language is not, and Wang actually etched in the snow the word for English dead, 8100 meters, and then pointed up on the hill. So there was absolutely no question about it. In addition, the single English word that Wang knew was the word "English" because all the expeditions prior to this one had been English coming in. Secondly, they then had a sort of hands and feet description and Wang actually went like this to indicate, and pointed up, to indicate that there was someone sleeping at 8100 meters. Again, Hasegawa said there can be no mistake.

NARRATOR: But it wasn't until the American expedition of 1986 that there was independent corroboration of the story. Their Chinese liaison officer, Song, who had been climbing with Wang in 1975, confirmed that he believed the story to be true. The body appeared to have been found directly below where the ice axe was discovered in 1933. The body has not been sighted since. Mallory and Irvine are the only climbers known to have been lost anywhere nearby on the mountain. But which one is it? Did Mallory or Irvine, wandering off route, stop there and later die of exposure, or did one of them fall to the terrace? Were they on the way up, or the way down? The answers are still unknown.

It is not possible without stronger evidence to award the laurels of first ascent to Mallory and Irvine. The honor went to climbers of a new generation, Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, when they climbed the mountain from the south, from Nepal, in May, 1953.

HILLARY: If it were discovered that Mallory had in actual fact set foot on the top of Everest, obviously it would make some difference to Tenzing and myself. For 33 years, we have been regarded as the heroic figures who first reached the summit of Everest. Well, now I guess we would be just downgraded a little bit to being the first two men who reached the summit and actually got safely down again. Which brings up a point of course, if you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.

NARRATOR: Whether they reached the summit or not, it seems clear that Mallory seriously underestimated the time it would take to reach the top and return to the high camp at 27,000 feet. A common error of judgment at high altitude, but one that may well have cost them their lives. Climbers understand the dilemma. Close to the summit, after a long and arduous ascent, the drive to continue to the top can be overwhelming. Could they have done it?

TONI SORS [voice over translation]: The great problem lies in where they were last seen and whether they had the time to get to the top. But there are other considerations. I believe it was Mallory's third time on Everest and he knew the mountain very well. So it seems certain that he was determined to get to the top. I know that feeling because I have been there twice. But my fellow climber, Oscar Cadiach, who was there for the third time, was ready for anything. So sometimes one has to take big decisions. And it just may be they arrived very late at the foot of the Second Step and decided to press on, even if that meant reaching the summit at night. In these circumstances, the possibility of achieving it would have been quite high.

NARRATOR: Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Mallory's close friend and mentor, the most accomplished alpine climber of his day, was convinced they made it. He wrote:

"After nearly 20 years' knowledge of Mallory as a mountaineer, I can say that difficult as it would have been for any mountaineer to turn back, with the only difficulty past, to Mallory it would have been an impossibility."

CHRIS BONINGTON: If we accept the fact that they were above the Second Step, they would have seemed to be incredibly close to the summit of Everest and I think at that stage, something takes hold of most climbers. I know it takes hold of me, where you are prepared to take a very, very high level of risk to actually get to that summit and I think you get to that point where you worry about getting to the top, and you completely cut out the problems of getting back down again. And I think therefore taking all those circumstances in view, even if the weather did seem unsettled, even if the cloud was coming in and out, even if there was a little bit of snow, I think it is quite conceivable that they did go for the summit.

EDMUND HILLARY: Mallory was sort of the inspiration of Everest. He represented Everest and it would have been a very fitting reward for all his efforts, if on that final day he had set foot on the summit of the mountain.

NARRATOR: There was never any doubt among his loyal friends. Veteran explorer Tom Longstaff, who was with Mallory on the 1922 Everest expedition, wrote in a letter to a friend, "It is obvious to any climber that they got up. You cannot expect of that pair to weigh the chances of return. I should be weighing them still. It sounds a fair day. Probably they were above those clouds that hid them from Odell. How they must have appreciated that view of half the world. It was worthwhile to them. Now, they will never grow old and I am very sure they would not change places with any of us."

DAVID BREASHEARS: Last spring, NOVA went back to Everest with a team of mountaineers to search for Mallory, Irvine, and their camera. On May 1st, the team found George Mallory's remains at 26,760 feet, in the fall line below Irvine's ice axe. This year's expedition brought back some of Mallory's belongings, found with him on the mountain. Are there revealing clues in these artifacts that can tell us whether Mallory stood on the summit of Everest? To find out, watch NOVA on January 18th.

You've seen the history. Now this winter on NOVA, witness the quest.

I want to find this body. I want to know what it can tell us.

The ascent.

It's a dangerous mountain.

When it's like this, we're going nowhere fast.

The discovery.

We saw a patch of white that wasn't rock, and it wasn't snow.

Oh my God. Oh my God.

"Lost on Everest." Coming January 18th.

On NOVA's Website, watch the story of Mallory's discovery unfold through daily dispatches sent from base camp at Mount Everest. To order this program on videocassette for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, or to order David Breashears' new book on this and other Mallory expeditions for $35 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

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This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

This is PBS.


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