Monday, June 09, 2014

Remembering Mallory and Irvine

This past weekend marked an important anniversary in the annals of mountaineering in the Himalaya, and on Everest in particular. It has now been 90 years since George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine disappeared on the world's tallest peak, leaving generations of climbers who followed them to wonder whether or not they actually made it to the summit almost 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Mallory and Irvine were last spotted by Noel Odell, a member of their expedition team, on June 8, 1924, as they were heading up the mountain. Odell, who was working support of the summit team, noted on that day that the clouds that shrouded the mountain retreated briefly, giving him a glimpse of the summit. He made out to black specks moving across a patch of snow as they approached one of the prominent steps on the North Side of Everest. In time, the specks climbed to the top of that step, and were last seen moving upwards, before the clouds moved to conceal their progress. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were never seen again.

Since that time, the debate on whether or not they reached the summit has gone back and forth, with some climbers saying they believe that they reached the top before perishing on the descent, while others say there was no way they were able to overcome the infamous Second Step – a technical rock climb at high altitude. We will likely never know for sure if they did summit, but we do know that they helped pave the way for a generation of climbers that followed them. Their efforts inspired men like Hillary and Norgay, and helped to put them on the summit in 1953.

It is difficult to over emphasize Mallory's importance to Everest, and mountaineering in general. At the time of his death, he was probably the preeminent expedition and logistics organizer in the Himalaya, and one of the strongest climbers in the world as well. He was the driving force behind the early attempts on Everest, and his route is still used on the North Side to this day, although a ladder has been installed to help overcome the Second Step.

Mallory's remains remained hidden on Everest until 1999, when a team of climbers traveled to the mountain with the expressed purpose of finding him and his climbing partner. Irvine's body has yet to be found, but Mallory was located at 8157 meters (26,760 ft). It gave no clues as to whether or not the duo topped out, and experts believe that Irvine was carry the camera that would contain summit photos if they exist. The search for that camera continues to this day.

90 years have passed since Mallory and Irvine's passing, and yet their story continues to enthrall Everest historians, climbers, and armchair mountaineers alike. I thought it only fitting to give them a tip of the hat on this auspicious anniversary.

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