Mallory & Irvine Everest mystery - Phil Summers: Intentions, Climbing and Sightings

Posted: Mar 10, 2006 03:54 pm EST

( What can we say. Everest researchers have hijacked us. Originally, we had only intended to provide a forum for the scientists to air their criticism of some outrageous statements made by another website. Since then, the Mallory and Irvine debate has evolved into a vast number of entries - featuring some very cool images and details of the two mountaineers' last climb. THE place for the M&I; mystery debate?

"You'll be pleased to know that is widely seen internationally as the location where the M&I; mystery is debated to a high standard," writes Tasmania researcher Phil Summers. No clue how it happened, but words like that will buy us in a heartbeat.

So here goes another paper on the issue - for you devoted M&I; buffs out there. Take warning though - this one is deep and big enough to last you the weekend.

In this unique optical physics work, Phil Summers (Aussie researcher and also a pretty good Mallory impersonator if you buy him a beer) adds further analysis and conclusions on the last hours of Mallory and Irvine, and their possible progression on the upper slopes of Everest.

Mallory and Irvine- The 'Second Step' Issue 1924 & 1933: Intentions, Climbing and Sightings

Jochen Hemmleb recently expounded a number of cogent arguments pertaining to the intentions of the 1933 Everest climbers vis a vis the Second Step route and their subsequent movements in relation to the aforementioned feature.

Analysis of contemporary accounts revel an intent by the time of Wager and Wyn-Harris' reconnaissance/summit bid to explore the Second Step by way of the oblique gully that rents the Step in a North-Easterly direction (the modern route) which by definition was prioritized as the most viable route at the time, after alternative access routes up the Step had been negated, including the direct prow route earlier in the climb preliminaries.

This attempt to access the 'modern route' was thwarted by the ultimate choice the pair made in their approach vector, however the aforementioned 'modern route' with its mid level snow patch still constitutes a viable position where Mallory and Irvine were purportedly observed by Noel Odell in 1924 en route to Camp 6 when the clouds diverged to reveal a famous vista.


Eminent researcher Jochen Hemmleb recently explored some potentials pertaining to access routes of the Second Step on Everest's North East ridge in relation to the 1933 British attempts(1).

Whilst in the early phases of the expedition incontrovertible written evidence exists that an open mind as to the best route to the summit was considered including the Second Step routes, it can be argued that by the time the actual summit bids were attempted after due analysis of the best routes in question, the fact that the direct prow route was not attempted nor written about in favorable terms, would suggest that it had been downgraded in the overall equation after time and study had revealed its true nature as Jochen Hemmleb suggests.

For Wager & Wyn-Harris' climb, Ruttledge clearly states the plan for the pair in these terms; "It will be remembered that their first object was to reconnoiter the Second Step, now about two hundred yards away; to climb it if they could; and to ascend thence along the ridge itself and up the final pyramid to the summit. If the Step could not be climbed, they would go by Norton's 1924 route, keeping more or less along the top of the Yellow band...."(2). This Wager and Wyn-Harris proceeded to do, after bypassing the First Step and ridge itself (due to perceived climbing difficulties) and following the Grey Band/Yellow Band boundary below the ridge towards the Second Step in an attempt to access it from below.

They then arrived under the Second Step and were thwarted by the difficult terrain, unable to even reach the base of the Step itself. The pair then proceeded onward as Jochen Hemmleb ably describes towards a shallow scoop some distance along past the Step.

Nonetheless, Wager and Wyn-Harris did attempt to access the Second Step via the oblique gully they observed from afar (the modern route) and proceed beyond to the summit if possible, from below in their case and thus they conformed to the plan as best as practicable at the time as Ruttledge describes. Sadly they were thwarted. The dissonance espoused by Jochen Hemmleb vis a vis the meaning of 'access the Second Step is perhaps explained by terminological differences with the interlocutor as Wager and Wyn-Harris' aim and movements are clear.

The Prow direct route revised

Granted the direct route up the 'second step' prow is dubious then and now and Jochen Hemmleb describes a rational explanation as to the determination of the prow's downgrading from the climb equation in 1933. Frank Smythe for instance described it in negatively in these terms "... It is quite 100 feet high; vertical for the most part and even overhangs in its upper portion. It is probably unclimbable and certainly desperately difficult" (3).

This suggests that the direct prow route was indeed downgraded in the climb equation and by default leaving the modern route up the oblique gully as the de facto only viable route which Wager and Wyn-Harris sought and tried to access. Smythe also describes the Second Step direct prow route in similarly pejorative terms elsewhere, "The Second step was a sheer cliff some eighty feet high and appeared impregnable to direct assault" (4). "I can only compare it to the sharp bow of a battle cruiser" (5). This indicates by late May 1933, the direct prow route of the Second Step was de-rated as a viable route to climb the Step when enough detail of its nature was elucidated compared with the more open posture adopted in April en route to base camp as seems natural when transitioning from a data poor position to one of a closer more data rich on the Steps extent.

Thus the dichotomy between the pejorative descriptions of the prow route espoused by Smythe for instance, compared with the oblique gully route, searched for by Wager and Wyn-Harris and spoken about in more favorable terms by Ruttledge, suggests by definition that the latter was the preferred route to climb the Step by late May 1933 compared with the more dubious direct prow route.

Optical illusion

Jochen Hemmleb suggests a fair explanation as to the clarification of the Second Steps nature by invoking the testimony of Norton and Somervell in 1924. Another possibility could be that more intensive telescopic and visual study revealed the Step's prow snow gradient to be a mere optical illusion as the banked snow at the base of the prow forms an approximate isoceles triangle with inward tapering near the vertex, which deceives the eye when a rocky prow overhang is superimposed beside the feature.

The overall effect could act as an optical illusion deceiving the eye that the tapering snow is continuing on a line behind the rocky prow top itself and thus out of sight as the focus is naturally diverted to the rocky prow top which blocks the line of sight behind where the tapering snow tricks the eye in suggesting continuation beyond. Possibly this illusion was realized upon closer examination as the expedition gained familiarity with the terrain and context and thus perhaps explaining Smythe's conclusion.

Mallory and Irvine seen by Odell on the Second Step?

Finally the issue of Odells observations of Mallory and Irvine at 12.50pm was addressed by Jochen Hemmleb. Granted there is much skepticism as to the observability of the pair over the years from Odell's position.

Comparing snow conditions as a function of time on the Second Step from 1924, 1933 or 1999 may be subject to the vagaries of nature and not readily comparable or quantifiable, however the semi-permanent mid level snow patch on the Second Step has been clearly identified by Jochen Hemmleb's able work in the 1924 Somervell photograph taken on June 4.

But determining the resolution over distances involved from Odell's position at approximately 7930m to the Second Step and its mid level snow patch at 8610m by a direct line of sight is readily computable however by application of simple optical physics involving the Rayleigh Criterion thusly:

Resolution according Rayleigh Criterion

Resolution = 1.22 x wavelength/ pupil diameter confers 1.22 x 550 nanometers (white light)/ 0.8 to 0.1 cm which is the max/min aperture of the pupil. Where 1.22 is an optical constant used in physics.

As angular measurement is in radians and allowing for secondary exiguous considerations such as spherical and chromatic aberrations, refractive index and individual idiosyncrasies of Odell's eyesight which anecdotally suggests was quite good, the typical human eye can resolve down to approximately 0.0005 radians. This corresponds to 1 cm over 20 meters in daily life for the typical person.

Subtended over Odells line of sight distance on the North ridge confers a distance of approximately 1100- 1250m which when multiplied by 0.0005 radians (eye's resolution), results in a resolution of 55 to 63cm on the Second Step!

Dots on the snow

As Mallory and Irvine were both approximately 2 meters tall and encumbered by bulky clothing and oxygen kit, it can be shown that when silhouetted on the Second steps mid level snow patch which is approximately 4 x 3 m. in area typically, they would have been quite detectable and appear as 3-4 length dots on the snow!

With a break in the clouds at 12.50pm and several minutes of near zenith sunlight on the snow resulting in a higher albedo at an acute angle and thus few impinging shadows on the snow, combined with Odell's report of moving dots climbing in sequence on the snow and one emerging on top of the Step in short order, leads to a reasonable conclusion that Odell was correct ab initio in his observations of Mallory and Irvine on the Second Step and can be confirmed by the simple optical calculation above showing that both climbers could definitely have been observed under the salient conditions at the time.

Unlikely they climbed to the top of the Step

Taken to its logical conclusion, the climb time and positional description equation casts increased doubt on the First Step as to Mallory and Irvine's location at 12.50pm as although there is a prominent snow patch at its right flank base, its unlikely the pair could climb to the top of the Step or even the flank top mid way up the Step in the short time Odell observed the vista.

Similarly a direct frontal climb up the First Step lacks any prominent snow patch, thus decreasing the likelihood of this Step being where the pair was observed.

Similarly the so called Third Step is also dubious, as granted it to has a snow patch at its base, but its doubtful the pair could climb the Step in the time observed by Odell, although it is conceded the Step is quite easy in extent but mitigating against it is the size of the structure to climb in the limited time available, approximately 7 meters high but still an overall better candidate than the First Step.

By contrast the Second Step does correlate with the climb profile and the time in question as Mallory and Irvine were well within observability on the mid level snow patch and only had the final crux section comprising of 4 meters to climb to emerge on top of the Step, which Odell later noted he saw one man achieve at 12.50pm. Thus, the Second Step is the best fit of the available data of Odell's sighting and taken in conjunction with the optical calculations on the resolution of men on that Step, it indicates that Odell's ab initio observations were most likely correct compared to the other options in the overall historic equation.


Ruttledge clearly describes the intent by Wager and Wyn-Harris in their reconnaissance of the Second Steps accessibility, in assessing its viability as an ascent route, climb it if possible and then regain the ridge and then to the summit. Jochen Hemmleb accurately describes their subsequent erroneous movements in attempting to access the Second Step via a lower vector as the terrain from below stymied their attempts to access the Step from that approach, leaving a continuation of that approach vector as their own available course.

Nonetheless, Wager and Wyn-Harris did attempt to access the Second Step via the oblique gully which they identified from afar as was the plan from this wrong approach, but the dissonance in interpretation may simply be terminological in nature with the interlocutor. The nature of the Second Step by late May 1933 was sufficiently clear so as to cast doubt as to the direct prow accessibility.

Pejorative observations by Smythe in particular indicate that the Step was difficult and dubious in terms of a direct assault with realization of this factor later in May 1933, arrived at in undefined circumstances but perhaps explained by recall to earlier observations by Norton and Somervell in 1924 as Jochen Hemmleb rightfully illuminates or simply through closer observation leading to realization that no bypass snow gradient existed on the prow of the Step and a simple optical super-positional illusion was deceiving them until dismissed with better observations.

More than meets the eye

Finally the issue of Odell's report at 12.50pm of possibly sighting Mallory and Irvine on the Second Step can be addressed by application of simple optical physics which results in line of sight resolutions good enough to detect the pair with reasonable accuracy on the Step in question. Correlation of the salient conditions in situ combined with known climb profiles on the Step, result in a reasonable case that Odell did observe Mallory and Irvine at 12.50pm on the Second Step.

Granted, skepticism and subtle de-emphasis in Odell's subsequent reports has diffused the issue over time, leading to increased doubts as to where Mallory and Irvine were at 12.50pm or whether they were seen at all, but simple optical physics indicates that insofar as this aspect of the mystery is concerned there is 'more than meets the eye'!

By Phil Summers, Australia, for ExplorersWeb.


(i) The salient features of the Rayleigh Criterion calculation as as follows 1.22 x wavelength / pupil diameter or 1.22 x 0.00000055 / 0.008 cm = 0.00008 radians in the best case.

For the worst case it results in 1.22 x 0.00000055 / 0.001 cm = 0.0006 radians.

Allowing for natural eye defects such as aberrations, and exiguous factors like refractive index which differs little between a vacuum and standard terrestrial pressure (1.0000 and 1.0003 respectively) the eye can resolve down to 0.0005 radians or 1 cm over 20 m. Subtended over 1100-1250m from Odell's position to the Second Step confers a resolution between 0.55-0.63 meters or about 2 feet across using imperial measurements.

(ii) Future applications of these optical techniques could also be utilized in possibly determining with more accuracy, the fate of Mallory and Irvine in relation to the post 4.00pm squall on Everest on 8 June 1924 that Odell reported. With a late afternoon sun and known codified resolutions for any distance on the upper ridge, the fact that Odell failed to observe the two in fair conditions when the optical physics indicates they could have been seen on any snow laden section, permits more accurate detail to be gleaned as a function of previous work involving time/climb rate/oxygen/positional equations and the optical physics.

With the final pyramid in clear view and no trace of Mallory and Irvine on that section for instance, indicates that either; the pair turned around before the squall ended, had still to reach that level by 4.00pm, had already summited and descended beforehand or were still yet to descend within line of sight below the 'north pillar' after a summit. With the optics posing the question - Computationally, they could have been seen over great distance yet were not at key times in clear air, so what does the lack of sighting mean as to Mallory and Irvine movements and fate?


(1) Jochen Hemmleb, (Check Previous Jochen Hemmleb's article on the subject in the links section)
(2) Hugh Ruttledge, Everest 1933 London Hodder and Stoughton 1945 P.151
(3) Ruttledge, op. cit.; p.167
(4) F.S Smythe, Camp Six London Hodder and Stoughton 1937 reprinted
The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing books 2000 p.615
(5) Smythe, op. cit.; p.627


The author openly thanks eminent Everest researcher Jochen Hemmleb for his perspicacious arguments and debate in relation to these issues. Appreciation also to Bill Lougheed, Jake Norton, Chris Peacock, Pete Poston, Thomas Rost, Eric Simonson and Gareth Thomas for important background discussions, advice and support in
preparation of this paper.

Special thanks extended to the ever accommodating and friendly staff at the Hobart, State Library of Tasmania whose kind and capable assistance was instrumental in this paper's preparation.


Normal (in red) vs. (in blue) routes up the 2nd Step. Photo, courtesy of Franck Pitula.
Same view basically as on upper image, but emphasizing the top part of the 2nd Step. Photo, courtesy of Franck Pitula.
The Second Step in 1924. Back in pre-war days, members of the British expedition were in fact open to both possibilities of climbing the Second Step. Image courtesy of Jochen Hemmleb / (click to enlarge).

Everest's Second Step in 1999. "This was a telephoto shot taken from Advanced Base Camp," reported Jochen Hemmleb in a previous article. Hemmleb explored some potentials pertaining to access routes of the Second Step on Everest's North East ridge in relation to the 1933 British attempts. Image courtesy of Jochen Hemmleb / (click to enlarge).