Second step: Theo Fritche reported the 50 meter (160 ft) section was very strenuous, and rated it (5.6-5.7). Oscar Cadiach said it took him one hour to climb. Odell said he saw M&I overcome the section in five minutes. (Photo courtesy Franck Pitula)

Tracking truth-in-evidence on Mount Everest: Tom Holzel's conclusion about Mallory and Irvine's final climb

Posted: Feb 18, 2008 05:51 am EST
( "Well, I finally figured it out--this time completely--what happened to Mallory & Irvine. And it's a big disappointment. But, as a historian, one is obliged to follow the facts no matter where they lead."

Summit or not? The M&I question has engaged quite a few experts over the years; one is Everest historian Tom Holzel who climbed on the mountain as far back as in 1986 in search of the answer.

A criminal detective will tell you that things often are as they seem. In his entry below, Tom has now put together all the pieces and come up with a simple, possible scenario for Mallory and Irvine's final climb.

Did Mallory & Irvine Summit Mt. Everest?
By Tom Holzel Rev 08 Feb 08

In 1924, two British mountaineers were spotted high on Mt. Everest at about 1PM, only a few hours from the summit. Mists swirled in and lost them to view. It was veteran climber George Mallory and his powerful young companion Andrew Irvine. Both men were using early oxygen equipment, climbing in the last gasp of this, the third expedition to the mountain. The question that remains in every mountaineers heart has never been answered: Did either make it to the top before perishing on the descent?

Controversy broke out within months of the expeditions return to England. Where, exactly, did Noel Odell see the two climbers? He said he saw them surmounting the infamous Second Step. Critics insisted that was an impossible obstacle even for a climber as skilled as Mallory. Counter-claims arose, with defenders of Mallory & Irvine suggesting that it was simple jealousy of the climbing community, still hoping to reserve the goal of First Ascent for themselves.

Second Step in less than five minutes?

Odell saw the pair climbing the severely difficult Second Step in less than five minutes. Critics claimed that the Second Step was far too difficult an obstacle and a few did not believe he saw anyone. Others hinted that Odell mistook rocks for the two climbers. Modern critics claim that Odell must have seen them climbing the much easier First Step. Both are promontories on the NE Ridge. The First Step is easily circumvented; the Second Step bars that route to the summit.

The next expedition, that of 1933, was far better equipped. Wynn Harris found an ice ax belonging to Irvine along the ridge. It was presumed this marked the site of an accident on their descent. But descent from how high up? There were no further clues and the issue seemed smoldered out.

Counting speed and distance vs. oxygen

Reading the fascinating saga, it was not clear to me that the disreputable role of oxygen had been adequately factored into the puzzle. After analyzing the ascent speed of all known climbs on Mt. Everest, the resulting chart showed clearly that climbers using oxygen climbed faster than those that did not. Extrapolating from this data discovered the probable climbing speed of Mallory and Irvine and suggested that having reached the top of the Second Step as witnessed by Odell; they would each have had an hour or so of oxygen left. The summit was three hours away.

Mallory could not have given up so close to his goal. He could have taken Irvines remaining oxygen, sent him back down to safety, and made a solo attempt to reach the topwhich he might have reached.

Or so it seemed to me. Just a pre-publication notice of this idea in the London Sunday Times created a 3-week firestorm of objections. When the article was then published, Wynn Harris (who had found the ice ax) was moved to apoplexy in denouncing these findings. Blowing on these coals had certainly caused this great mystery to burst back into flame.

He had scribed 8100m in the snow with his ice ax

The next clue was discovered in 1979. Learning that Japanese climbers would be the first permitted access to Everests North side since WW-II, I sent a letter asking them to be on the look-out for a body on the North Face snow field at 8200m.

Astonishingly, they replied that their Climbing Leader had held a brief conversation with Wang Hung-bao, a Tibetan porter who had been on a huge 1975 Chinese expedition. He described an English dead he had discovered high on the North Face. He had scribed 8100m in the snow with his ice ax. This could only be Mallory or Irvine! The day after this revelation, Wang died in an avalanche.

But this clue was enough to galvanize interest in finally solving this great mystery. I mounted an expedition in 1986 to search for the English dead and the cameras the two climbers were known to be carrying. Would pictures be found taken from the top of the world? We were not to find out. The weather was atrocious and we were snowed-out.

Severe mottling around Mallorys waista typical rope-jerk injury

Another American search expedition took to the field in 1999. Led by Eric Simonson with a search plan devised by Jochen Hemmleb, the team met with excellent weather and with spectacular success. On the first day of the high-altitude search, Conrad Anker stumbled across Mallorys body at 8165m in a snow field below the ice ax that contained many other fallen climbers. The body was lying face-down, the head nearly covered with scree. The most notable new clue was a severe mottling around Mallorys waista typical rope-jerk injury.

In spite of this spectacular find, the mystery seemed no closer to being solved. Advocates for success claimed that none of the cluesold or new--detracted from Odells sighting of the two on the Second Step, and everyone agreed that if the two had got that far, at least one of them would have made a dash for the top.

First or second step? Why Odell's confusion?

Controversy has raged unabated over which Step Odell saw the two climbers. And everything hinges on which step it was. At first Odell was certain he saw them climbing the very difficult Second Stepand the expedition members took that for granted at the time. Yet back in England, this consensus suffered a gradual shift.

After six months, the British climbing establishment had slowly decided it could not possibly have been the extremely difficult Second Step Odell saw them surmount. It must have been the nearer and similar appearing First Step. Odell himself eventually recanted, but after he was no longer a candidate for further expeditions, he returned to his original belief. The underlying question has always been: Why his confusion?

Note told Odell exactly where Mallory expected to be at 8 AM on June 8th

Odell was on the North Col and must have seen Mallory's note sent down by porters to expedition photographer Capt John Noel. It said in part: "It won't be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rockband under the pyramid or going skyline at 8 p.m." (He meant 8 a.m.).

"The pyramid," i.e., the summit pyramid begins at the Second Step. "Going skyline" means cresting the ridge. It was well-known that Mallory intended to climb via the NE Ridge and Second Step (the "Mallory Route"), rather than the alternate Great Couloir or "Norton Route." He had Nortons testimony about his route, and kept it in mind as a possible alternate when writing his note. Visually, both places described in the note are very close to each other. Thus, Odell knew exactly where Mallory expected to be at 8 AM on June 8th.

Climbers spotted five hours late - but where exactly?

On that same day, Odell was climbing up the North Ridge to resupply the highest camp, C-VI. At 26,000-ft he looked up as the mists parted and suddenly saw the NE ridge unveiled. Stunningly, he spotted Mallory and Irvine climbing a step but greatly behind schedule. What thoughts would immediately have raced thorough his mind?

It would certainly have been the thrill of seeing his comrades so high above him. But that must have been coupled with the shock that they were five hours late climbing the Step. It would never have occurred to Odell that they might be on anything other than the Second Step. Why would they? No one ever talked about climbing the First Step. It was not on the route. If they were en route to the summit, as Odell believed, the only step that needed to be climbed was the Second Step. And there they were!

Odell was enthralled by this "dramatic appearance" in which "they were moving expeditiously as if endeavouring to make up for lost time." After five minutes the mists closed-in and they were lost to view. But Odells vision of the two on their way to the top burned into his memory--minus only any recognition of where, exactly he had seen then. That thrilling part his mind filled in without a second thought.

Why behind schedule? No evidence for a late start or a balky oxygen system

Yet why were the two climbers so late? Many researchers have suggested that they were late because they started late, and they started late because the unsporting oxygen equipment needed an emergency repair.

But the evidence points in the other direction. They had raced up the North Ridge using only ¾ of a bottle of gas--a climb rate of 840 vert ft/hr at the lower oxygen flow rateand an ascent nearly as fast as Finchs amazingly fast oxygen climb in 1922 over the same terrain.

They had reached the assault camp C-VI in plenty of time the day before to have made any repairs to the cantankerous oxygen equipment, were that necessary. But we know the equipment was working perfectly because two of their spent oxygen bottles were spotted just short of the First Step by Eric Simonson in 1991.

The altitude difference between them and C-VI divided by one bottles duration (4 hours at the higher flow rate) shows that the two were climbing at 275 ft/hr. also excellent speed at that altitude. Thus, except for the lateness of the day, (which can be explained by other reasons) there is no evidence for a late start or a balky oxygen system.

Likely scenario: Spotted on the first step - coming down

Assuming a normal early start at --5 to 6 AM--means they would have reached the First Step between 10 and 11 oclock. Yet Odell saw them climbing a Stepwhich we now suggest was the First Step--two to three hours laterat 12:50PM. If they were only then on the First Step--what had they been doing in this 2-3 hour interval?

The crucial thing to realize is that if they were climbing the First Step, it can only mean they were no longer ascending. It is a detour off the ascent route, but makes a marvelous vantage point from which to study the continuing ridge.

The simplest and therefore most likely scenario is that they were returning from their highest point. Perhaps they climbed all the way to the base of the Second Step's open-book crux. Up close, the actual severity of this final obstacle must have hit hard.

At the crux of the second step, Mallory realized that this was his last hurrah

Mallory had stated that the next time he made an attempt, it would be all or nothing. He was through exhausting himself only to set another altitude record short of the summit. The prospect of climbing the terrifying Second Step overhang with 9,000-ft of exposure and no protection or belay, all with little chance of ascending much farther, must surely have seemed a risk not worth taking.

In addition, Mallory had already thoroughly exhausted himself on this expedition with rescues of porter, and then himself, and an aborted assault without oxygen the previous week. Thus, at noon, standing at the ferocious crux of the Second Step, Mallory realized that this was his last hurrah.

Hugely disappointed, they turned back

The 250-yd traverse between the First to the Second Step is steep and treacherous. Mallory might have taken this stretch alone while Irvine waited at the First Step; more likely they made the traverse together. With no fixed lines, the distance takes a tricky one to two hours.

Mallory was the shining star of the British Climbing Establishmentthe Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club. In 1921 he became the first human to set foot on the mountain, and he spied a route to the summit. In 1922 he had tried for the top and failed.

Now in 1924, at age 37, he was making what he himself had said would be his last attempt. By switching to the unsporting use of oxygen, the gloves had been taken off and he was attacking the mountain one last time by any and all means, fair and foul. But the mountain had won again. Hugely disappointed, they turned back to the safe ground of the First Step.

Like the French in 1981, they clambered up the First Step for a final look around

Now, at 1PM, they had plenty of time. As a consolation prize, they clambered up the First Step for a final look around. This was exactly what the French did in 1981 when they, too, could no longer continue. Perhaps a view of the backside of the Second Step would reveal an alternate route. Certainly photographs were taken. Makalu glowered a scant 14 miles away. They ate some Kendal Mint Cakes.

Descending the Step, they began the long descending traverse along the NE Ridge. A half-hour later (2PM) they were hit by a nasty snow squall. Odell describe this as driving sleet and biting wind. One could not see more than a few yards ahead

Mallory's fall

Surely Mallory would be leading to find the route, and they would have roped-up. He slipped. Irvine tossed his ice ax aside to grab the rope with both hands.

The jerk of one climber's slip in a gentlemans belay is enough to pull his partner off his feet, but not nearly enough to inflict the massive rope-jerk injury that Mallorys body exhibited around his waist.

The 100-yard lateral offset between the ice ax site and Mallorys fall line suggests the first slip did not kill Mallory. As they both fell, the rope between them snagged early in the fall and brokesaving their lives but inflicting rope-jerk injuries around both mens waistsand separating them in the blinding squall.

Both seriously injured, unable to see the other, it was each man for himself. In the driving snow, Mallory crawled on a 100 yards or so, moving diagonally downhill. But he fell again. Attempting to use his ice ax to self-arrest, it kicked back and pierced his skull. He tumbled and slithered down the 8200m snow terrace and crashed into a rock that stopped his fall.


In spite of many searches made along Mallorys fall line, Irvine has not been found. A big break-through in resolving the mystery (and perhaps the final major clue) came in 2001, when Eric Simonson and Jochen Hemmleb (of the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition) returned to Beijing to track down Xu Jing, a climber of the Chinese expedition of 1960. Astonishingly, he recalled seeing a body lying on his back in a rock clef in the same general area as Mallorys but in the Yellow Band, 200-300m higher up. It could only have been Irvine.

In 1960 Chinese climbers had reached the NE Ridge by climbing diagonally through the Yellow Band as all modern climbers do. But they did not mark the route and each team found its own way up and down the tiled strata. It was when descending in this random fashion that Xu spotted the blackened body of a foreign mountaineer.

Thirty-five years is a long time to hold accurate memories of exactly where this body was briefly noticed, and Xu could not specify where in the Yellow Band he saw it. But his memory of having seen the anomalous body was clear enough. Just like Wang finding Mallory, Xu must certainly have spotted Irvine.

Frostbites indicate slow death

The higher location of Xus dramatic sighting means that Irvine, also probably injured, did not fall as far as Mallory. Unable to find Mallory in the driving sleet, he continued on a while longer. But in the near white-out he would not have been able to retrace the route, difficult to follow even in clear weather.

Descending through a random part of the Yellow Band he, too, finally succumbed to his injuries in the frigid squall. If Xu's sighting is correct, he sought shelter from the howling storm in a small rock clef. His blackened features indicate he did not die suddenly but slowly froze to death.

Although each climber was believed to have taken a Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) camera, no camera was found on or near Mallorys body. His was likely striped from his body during the fall and would be difficult (though not impossible) to find. Irvine, however, seems to have lain down to die. If he did not lose his camera in his shorter fall that broke the rope, it would surely still be on his person.


The mystery of Mallory & Irvine has fascinated mountaineersactual and armchairfor generations. What a glorious feat it would have been for those two vastly under-equipped pioneers of Everest to have reached the top. It is a dream that has thrilled and inspired adventurers as much then80 years ago--as it does today.

Upon reaching the summit in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary looked for signs of his possible predecessor but saw nothing. But theirs was no ordinary failure. The stirring example of the intrepid pair was their great daring on slender resources. The pitting of their great dream against the implacable brutality of Mt. Everest--the Mother Goddess of the Snow. Yes, they did not return, but their bold effort lives on as no mere climbing success ever could.

Tomorow: Q&A's with Holzel.

Tom on how the film in the VPK camera should be handled and developed

In 1986, Everest expert and co-author of the book "First on Everest - The mystery of Mallory and Irvine," Tom Holzel set out to find Mallory's camera. In addition, Tom was the one to track down Zhang Junyan and corroborated the late Chinese mountaineer's Wang's story about the discovery of an "English body" on the mountain.

Odell says he saw Mallory and Irvine climbing the second step in less than five minutes. The section has only been free-climbed a few times since.

Oscar Cadiach (K2 Magic line, 7 main 8000ers, Everest twice), who climbed the second step without oxygen said, "It took me one hour to climb the 50 meters-long step. I hoped two hours more would be enough to reach the summit, but breaking trail in soft snow ended up with us topping-out six hours after climbing the Step."