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Detectives on Everest

 Detectives on Everest

by Sean Hudson

August 29, 2002

The 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition

Headlines raced around the world when George Mallory's body was found high on Everest in May 1999. And when Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine--the official team book of the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition led by Eric Simonson--was published that fall, it was widely praised in the media. "A beautifully illustrated book...offers refreshing insights...debunks widely held theories." said The Wall Street Journal. "Riveting...the firsthand account of the five men who examined Mallory's remains is powerful reading, and you know they will be forever changed by the discovery," said The Boston Globe. Yet despite the tantalizing findings reported in Ghosts--and publication of our four competing books on the event--many questions went unanswered. An intense debate was reignited: Did Mallory and his partner, Andrew Irvine, make it to the top? And what happened to Irvine? In 2001, Simonson's team returned in search of further clues among the high camps on Everest's north side. Now the story continues in Detectives on Everest: The 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition.

Detectives on Everest tells the story of the search and what they found. Written by team historian Jochen Hemmleb (who has studied the the mystery and history of Everest's north side for more than ten years and who directed the search) and expedition leader Eric R. Simonson, with contributions from other expedition team members, it presents new artifacts and stunning new information on the fate of Andrew Irvine. Irvine's whereabouts have been of particular interest for the famous camera that might conclusively prove once and for all wether he and Mallory made it to the top. Surprisingly, the most tantalizing clue came not from the mountain, but from Beijing. After the expedition ended, interviews with aging Chinese climbers revealed for the first time that the Chinese had probably found Irvine's body in 1960. The body found by the Chinese in 1975, a story more widely known, was probably not Irvine's--as had been previously assumed--but that of Mallory. Details provided by the Chinese climbers, when cross-referenced with discoveries made ont he mountain by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, lead to these conclusions. The probable location of Irvine's body is here revealed for future detectives on Everest.

Detectives on Everest also tells new chapters in the stories of other pioneering expeditions, each of them an inspiring adventure in its own right. George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce's historic first climb using oxygen in 1922. Frank Smythe's daring solo attempt in 1933. The dramatic nighttime ascent by three Chinese in 1960, one of the most enigmatic episodes of Everest history. Some aspects of these expeditions, brought to light by new discoveries on the mountain, in archives, and in recent interviews conducted for this book, are here told for the first time. In addition, artifacts found by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition from expeditions of different periods represent various stages in the development of equipment for high-altitude mountaineering.

Major Findings

  • Chapter 5: Trash and Treasures
    Major Finding: Oxygen cylinders from the 1922 British expedition to Everest, which included George Mallory, are discovered. This documents the first full use of bottled oxygen in mountaineering.

  • Chapter 6: Short Walk into the Past
    Major Finding: The Chinese 1975 Camp VI, from where Wang Hongbao had discovered an "English dead," is conclusively found and identified. No traces of Irvine are discovered in the vicinity, but Mallory's body is now found to be in close proximity of this camp, making it likely that Wang had come across Mallory, not Irvine, in 1975.

  • Chapter 7: Last Camp
    Major Finding: Mallory and Irvine's 1924 Camp VI is rediscovered--and found to be some 200 feet lower than previously assumed, at approximately 26,700 feet. This low position would have added about one hour ot Mallory and Irvine's summit bid in comparison to today's expeditions, half of it over fairly technical terrain. (But this aspect is not necessarily interpreted as evidence that Mallory and Irvine could not have made it to the top. Based on where Simonson's team recovered the pair's first empty oxygen bottle--the famous "Bottle No. 9"--in 1999, at 27,800 feet, the lower position of Camp VI therefore means they had actually covered a greater distance within the time the bottle had lasted. That, in turn, means that Mallory and Irvine had climbed faster than previously assumed, between 200 and 275 feet per hour.)

  • Chapter 8: A Single Trace
    Major Finding: In exploration of the Northeast Ridge and the British 1933 Camp 6--reviewed against accounts of the 1933 summit attempts--analysis of the site where the 1933 expedition found Irvine's ice axe shows that Mallory and Irvine could not have fallen from that spot. Calculating the direction of the fall line from the ice axe to the basin where Mallory was found, the fall would have inevitably been fatal. In fact, the position and condition of Mallory's body suggested that he had survived his fall, if only for a short time. Second, a fall out of the "limestone sidewalk" of the feature known as the Yellow Band would have been unlikely; a normal slip or fall would have been stopped by gravity and friciton.

  • Chapter 9: The Invisible Summit
    Major Finding: Review of previous testimoney from the members of the 1960 Chinese expidition to Everest, analysis of expedition film footage taken from above the Second Step, and 2001 interviews of Chinese team members by authors Hemmleb and Simonson in Beijing provide new clues that the Chinese had indeed made the first ascent of Mount Everest from the North Side. Because many details in original published accounts had seemed to border on the improbable (climbing the Second Step in stockings, surviving a bivouac at 28,500 feet, or reaching the summit in the dark after their oxygen ran out), the Chinese team had remained unsung heros outside their country for more than forty years.
    Knowledge of the differences in design, shape, color of the various oxygen sets used by the Chinese helped the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition to determine conclusively the correct positions and altitudes of the 1960 and 1975 Chinese Camps V & VI, which had so far been known only insufficiently. this in turn enabled them to reconstruct for the first time the route these expeditions had taken on the upper mountain, offering a fresh perspective on Wang Hangbao's find of "an English dead" in 1975 and other discoveries the Chinese may or may not have made during their ascents of Mount Everest.
    The Chinese 1960 high camp was only yards away from where the highest trace of Mallory and Irvine's final attempt--an oxygen bottle--was found. Therefore, the route decisions made by the Chinese above this altitude and climbing times they took above this point, such as on the way to the Second Step (the challenge that many believe was insurmountable by Mallory and Irvine), merit particular interest. And, faced with the same pristine conditions of the route and the same route-finding difficulties as the 1924 party, the Chinese came closer tha nanyone to experiencing the circumstances of Mallory and Irvine's final climb.

  • Epilogue: Revelation
    Major Finding: A surprising post-expedition discovery reveals the probable location of Andrew Irvine's body. "Somewhere in the Yellow Band beneath Mount Everest's North Ridge, probably near the 1933 Camp VI, lies the final resting place of Sandy Irvine--and with him perhaps the solution to mountaineering's greatest mystery."
    Shortly after the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition ended, Hemmleb and Simonson travelled to Beijing to interview team members from the 1960 and 1975 ascents of Everest. Their goal was to fill gaps in the historical record of these climbs. But when talk turned to whether the climbers had seen traces of past British expeditions, they received a suden shock. Xu Jing (deputy leader, 1960) revealed for the first time that they had found a body, lying face up, the apparent remains of a sleeping bag disentegrating around him. The details provided by Xu Jing, combined with discoveries made by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition on the mountain, point to this conclusion: At that altitude, in that pose, it almost certainly was Irvine's body that the Chinese found in 1960. (Mallory was found in 1999 by Simonson's team in another location, lying face down, tangled in broken rope.)

The Rescue Story

On their final push up the mountain, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition team came upon five other climbers trapped on the summit ridge, near death. They risked their lives to pull off one of the highest and most technically difficult rescues in Everest history while other climbers passed them by, refusing to help. Although the rescue effectively ended the expedition, it gave the team new perspective on life and renewed their respect for the mountain and its history. It left them with mixed feelings, however; as the authors noted, "Everest will always attract climbers and will always hold the potential to arouse the best and worst in human nature." (Detectives discusses the debate over commercial expeditions, the client-guide relationship, crowding on the mountain, and deteriorating mountaineering ethics). In recognition for "distinguishing themselves, with unselfish devotion at personal risk or sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers imperiled in the mountains," the American Alpine Club awarded them The David A. Sowles Memorial Award. more information about the rescue can also be obtained at

Detectives on Everest also tells the story of the 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition itself: its goals and aims, the passion that led team members to risk their lives to solve mountaineering's greatest mystery, the drama of the search, and the challenges of archeological work at high altitude. Team members also reflect on the deep personal impact of the 1999 discovery of Mallory's body. They discuss how they dealt with the public attention, the admiriation, and the controversies that ensued. They answer criticism regarding how Mallory's remains were handled and how the historic discovery was documented, noting that John Mallory--who was initially upset by publication of photos of his father's body--is now a supporter.

About the Authors

Jochen Hemmleb was the researcher/historian on both the 1999 and 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expeditions. He currently works as a freelance writer and lecturer in the field of mountaineering history. A mountaineer for twenty years, he has climbed many of the classic peaks in the European Alps, and has also climbed and trekked in East Africa, New Zealand, South America, and the Himalaya. On the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, he reached Mount Everest's North Col at 23,230 feet. Hemmleb's archives on the mountaineering history of the Tibetan side of Mount Everst and the mystery of Mallory and Irvine is one of the most comprehensive private collections. He lives in southwest Germany.

Eric Simonson, 1999 and 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition leader, has been a professional mountain guide since 1973. He is a founding partner of International Mountain Guides and Mount Ranier Alpine Guides, based in Ashford, Washington. Since 1970, Simonson has summited Mount Ranier 265 times, summited Mount McKinley sixteen times, and participated in more than eighty high-altitude expeditions on seven continents. He has conducted twelve expeditions to Mount Everest, summiting via the Northeast Ridge in 1991. He lives in Tacoma, Washington.

(with contributions from team members Dave Hahn, Larry Johnson, Lee Meyers, Jake Norton, Brent Okita, Andy Politz, John Race, Tap Richards, and Jason Tanguay)

For more information, visit the Mountaineers Books website.

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