(ORDO NEWS) — Nearly a century ago, climbers Sandy Irwin and George Mallory died on the planet’s highest peak. Did they manage to get to its top?
“Don’t,” I heard. – You’re too tired. It’s not worth it.”
Jamie McGuinness, our guide and expedition leader, removed his oxygen mask, removed his sunglasses, and was now staring at me with sunken, bloodshot eyes. His chin was covered with gray stubble for many days, and his skin took on an earthy hue.
We sat on a pile of stones at 8,440 meters on the northeastern ridge of Everest, on the Chinese side, away from the Nepalese crowds. A point a hundred meters below the GPS marker could solve one of the greatest mysteries in mountaineering history. According to new data, it was there that the legendary British climber Andrew Irwin (Irvine), nicknamed Sandy, could have died. What if the remains are still there?
Almost 100 years ago, descending this ridge, Irwin and his partner George Mallory disappeared. Since then, the whole world has wondered if they made it to the top – 29 years earlier than Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who was recognized as the first people to conquer Everest. Presumably, Irwin had a Kodak Vest Pocket camera with him. If it were found, and the film turned out to be pictures from the top, the history of the highest mountain in the world would have to be rewritten.
I examined the area. Ranges of low, cliffs protruded from the snow-covered and talus ledges; this area, formed by lighter rocks, is called the Yellow Belt. Four thousand meters below, like a mirage, shimmered an arid plain – the Tibetan plateau.
I had hardly slept for the last 48 hours, and the extreme altitude was causing nausea and weakness. Three days ago, we left Vanguard Base Camp at 6,400 meters, and since then I have only been able to cram a few spoonfuls of freeze-dried curry, a handful of cashews, and I also bit a chocolate bar on the summit of Mount Everest, which later vomited me. I was exhausted, and my brain hungry for oxygen begged me to lie down and close my eyes. But the remnants of common sense said that by doing so, you can no longer wake up.
Several stones rolled from above with a crash. I looked up and saw the photographer Renan Oztürk coming down the slope towards us. With one hand, he grabbed the rope anchored to the slope; like an umbilical cord, it connected us to the summit, abandoned a few hours ago. Ozturk slid down, braking with his feet, and flopped down next to me.
I turned to him: “What do you think?”
Renan did not answer at once, only his chest heaved and fell. When he finally caught his breath, I heard a voice muffled by an oxygen mask: “Try it.”
I nodded, unhooked myself from the rope, and took a few careful steps down the rocky cliff. At the same moment, there was a cry: “No, no, no!” Shouted Lhakpa Sherpa.
I waved to him, “We need to check something. I’m not far. ” But he begged to stop: “Very dangerous, very dangerous!”
One wrong step on the talus – and you will fall 2000 meters to the Rongbuk glacier. I perfectly understood this, and, of course, I was tempted to back down. Decades of mountaineering experience in all corners of the world have taught me the main thing: I promised myself never to cross the line beyond which the objective risk becomes too high. In the end, my beloved family was waiting for me at home.
But this time I ignored the warnings of the guides and the promise made to myself: the mystery of Irwin’s disappearance was haunted.
I heard that Mallory and Irwin could have been the first conquerors of Everest for a long time.
But the obsession with the idea of finding Irwin came only a couple of years ago, after a lecture by my friend Tom Pollard, an Everest explorer who lives a few kilometers from me.
“You don’t think you can find him?” I asked Tom after the show.
He chuckled, “What if I have extremely important information unknown to others?”
“For example?” I immediately grabbed the bull by the horns.
Tom paused for a few seconds and continued, “For example, the exact location of the body.”
I promised myself never to cross the line beyond which the objective risk becomes too high, but this time I ignored my promise.
… Pollard was the operator of the 1999 Mallory and Irwin search expedition, during which the American climber Konrad Anker discovered the remains of George Mallory on a part of the northern slope of Everest, where few climbers dared to climb. The deceased was lying face down, covered with gravel on all sides.
The clothes on Mallory’s back were torn, and the remaining skin was striking clean and white – he resembled a marble statue. The rope tied around the waist left marks on the torso – this could indicate a sharp and hard fall. The right leg was broken just above the boot, the left was intertwined with the right as if covering it. Whatever happened, apparently, after the fall, Mallory remained alive for some time.
Anker and his team members thought it was the body of Sandy Irwin – it lay right under the place on the ridge where, ten years after the climbers disappeared, Irwin’s ice ax was found. Was Mallory attached to his partner when he fell? If so, how did the rope break and why is Irwin’s body not around?
Not a trace of the camera remained; many Everest historians have concluded that Irwin carried it. This is quite logical: he photographed better.
The last person to see this pair was their companion Noel Odell, who, according to his notes, stopped at an altitude of about 8000 meters on June 8, 1924. Head thrown back, Noel watched the summit. At 12:50 pm, the swirling clouds momentarily parted, revealing to Mallory and Irwin, who was rapidly advancing towards the summit, which remained 250 meters away.
“I was following a tiny black dot on a small snow ridge,” Odell wrote in his June 14 report. – The first man approached the rocky outcropping and soon appeared above; the second followed him. Then the mesmerizing vision disappeared, again enveloped in a cloud. ”
Until now, the idea of climbing Everest has not warmed me: I have heard about crowds of people, about newcomers who have nothing to do on such a mountain, as well as shifting the risk onto the shoulders of support teams. People from these teams, mostly ethnic Sherpas, carry the weight of someone else’s egos on their backs and sometimes pay for others with their own lives.
This was one of the reasons I never understood Pollard’s obsession with Everest. But, as we continued to communicate after his lecture, the story of Irwin and Mallory intrigued me more and more. And one day I heard from Pollard about Tom Holzel, a 79-year-old writer and Everest fan who has been trying to solve the mystery of the dead for over 40 years.
In 1986, Holzel embarked on the first exploration expedition with fellow screenwriters and explorer Audrey Salkeld. The unusually heavy snowfall did not allow them to climb high enough on the Chinese slope – in other weather, they could well have discovered Mallory’s body, which was later found 35 meters from the point marked by Holzel.
Then Tom decided to use materials from a photograph taken as part of a National Geographic-sponsored Everest mapping project. The idea was to try to mark the exact spot on the mountain where the Chinese climber Xu Jing had allegedly seen Irwin’s body. Xu was the deputy leader of the expedition that made the first ascent of the northern side of Mount Everest in May 1960.
According to Xu Jing, abandoning the attempt to storm the summit and descending the short route through the Yellow Belt, he noticed a corpse in a crevasse at about 8,300 meters. At that time, the only people who died at this height on the northern slope were Mallory and Irvine. (When Xu revealed this in 2001, Mallory’s remains had already been found down the slope.)
Pollard and I visited Holzel in December 2018: he showed us in an enlarged 2.5-meter image that there was only one route that Xu could use to cut the road. By analyzing in detail and excluding various elements of the relief, Holzel narrowed the search region down to a specific crevasse, in which, in his opinion, it was necessary to look for Irwin, and determined the exact coordinates of this place.
I pointed to the red circle in the huge photograph: “What are the chances that he is here?”
“He cannot but be there,” was the answer.
Irwin got to Everest in large part due to a coincidence.
The shy, athletic 21-year-old was still studying at Merton College, Oxford when the Everest Committee invited him to join the expedition in 1923. Unlike the more experienced members of the British team, Sandy has only modest peaks in Spitsbergen, Wales, and the Alps – no match for the Himalayan giants.
Nevertheless, by the time the group reached the mountain, the youngest member of the team had already won the respect of his comrades: a talented and skillful engineer, Irwin disassembled and reassembled the oxygen apparatus, making them lighter and protecting them from breakdowns.
… A couple of months before our expedition in 2019, I examined the Sandy Irwin archive at Merton College. I was interested in a diary from Everest, brought here after the disappearance of the owner.
Archivist Julian Reed brought me a 20 by 13 centimeters booklet in black cloth binding and, leafing down to the last entry, said: “When I read this, the hair on the back of my neck began to move.”
Irwin scribbled his last entry on the evening of June 5, when he and Mallory were camping at 7,000 meters on the North Col, a narrow snow-covered pass that connects the northern slope of Everest to the small peak of Change. From there, the next morning, the climbers intended to start an assault on the summit. In his diary, the guy complained that his fair skin was all cracked and burnt to blisters in the sun.
“My face is the most complete agony. Prepared two oxygen apparatus for going out tomorrow morning, ”wrote Irwin.
I experienced the same feelings as Reed: when Sandy disappeared, he was the same age as my eldest son is now.
Before starting our search for Irwin, we had to acclimatize and try out our secret weapon – a small fleet of drones.
Renan Ozturk hoped to use these unmanned aerial vehicles not only to search for the so-called Irvine cleft but also to survey the entire northern slope of the mountain.
On May 1, 2019, at the Advanced Base Camp at an altitude of 6400 meters, our team sat at a folding table in a dining tent, set up on a stone platform on the edge of the East Rongbuk Glacier. The day was warm, and the entrance to the tent was tied up, which opened up a beautiful view of the northeastern slope of Everest. Like a white dragon’s tail, stretching for several kilometers, a snow plume fluttered from the top.
“This is a Category 4 cyclone,” McGuinness said, pointing to a bright curl in the Bay of Bengal on a laptop screen. “In the next couple of days, he can dump a good foot of snow on us (30 centimeters – Ed.)”.
The next day, we planned to launch the drones into the North Col: we were eager to test their capabilities at high altitude. But McGuinness did not share our optimism: “The wind overhead may be too strong.”
He was right: after a day and a half, the gusts of wind on the pass became so sharp that Ozturk could not even return the drone to the base. I had to land the device nearby and follow it.
We huddled in our tent that night and listened to the storm gathering strength. Our team was already 600 meters above the Forward Base Camp; I felt terrible lethargy, I was torn apart by a cough and a little nauseous – it felt like the flu in a severe hangover. My head ached, the wind was getting stronger, and the fabric tent was shaking. Shortly before midnight, there was such a noise as if a 747 Boeing was taking off overhead. After a couple of seconds, the tent folded up; the squall lasted for a few moments, after which the tent took its former shape, but I knew that this would not end there.
For the next couple of hours the hurricane was gaining strength, and at about two in the morning, when a gust of wind pressed me to the ground, I felt ice under the tent on my cheek. The mountain shook like a volcano before an eruption. It lasted 20 or 30 seconds, and I remember thinking: “This must be how a person feels before dying.” The arcs cracked, their sharp fragments tore the fabric into rags, and I was wrapped in frosty nylon, pieces of fabric began to whip across my face. I prayed that the bamboo pegs with which we anchored on the mountain would stand.
When the sun finally rose, I sat down; my two comrades were curled up next to me, and I poked their feet to make sure they were still alive. When I got outside, I caught my breath from what I saw. All the tents were crushed and torn, and one, taking off like a kite, hovered 150 meters above our heads.
Glancing at the ridge, I saw a group of Indian climbers descending towards our camp. But then, unexpectedly, a new whirlwind flew, everyone screamed at once: four people hung on a 300-meter-high ice wall, like a Christmas garland. A guy from our team rushed to the hook, which held the end of their rope closest to us, and drove his ice ax next to it, thereby strengthening the structure, the rest grabbed another rope to pull the climbers to a safe place.
“We have to get the hell out of here,” I said.
A more successful drone launch took place a week later. Making a final attempt to search the Yellow Belt from the air, we climbed back to the North Col and watched intently as the drone flew to the top. While the device was rising in thin air, I, hanging over the shoulder of Ozturk, told me where to fly and what to photograph. By lunchtime, with the wind picking up, he had already taken 400 high-resolution images of the search area, including close-up Hazel’s point.
In one photo I noticed a cleft, but the angle did not allow me to look inside. Could Irwin’s body be there? The time allotted for the search for an answer was coming to an end.
The first climbing window from the Chinese side opened on May 22nd, finding us at the Advanced Base Camp at an altitude of 6400 meters. After two excursions to the pass, we had already fully acclimatized and were ready to go to the search area in the upper part of the Northeast Ridge. But we were far from alone on the mountain: more than 450 people intended to climb the Nepalese slope, whose Base Camp had already acquired a reputation as a commercialized tent. About 200 more people were waiting with us on the Chinese side. McGuinness, barely casting a glance at this hungry crowd, said: “No. Let’s wait for another window. ”
Over the next few days, nine people lost their lives on Everest: seven on the south side and two on the north (two more died on the south side a week earlier, so there were 11 victims in total). I will never forget the feeling of helplessness that arises when you look through powerful binoculars a train of a couple of hundred hopeful climbers moving to the top, and the radio next to it spits out reports of poor fellows who will never return home to their families.
On the afternoon of May 23rd, we sat down with the support team to discuss the upcoming search. McGuinness assured that the team was aware of our plan, but, apparently, still not completely. When I explained how we were going to find Irwin’s body on the Yellow Belt, someone just threw up his hands, the others argued in Nepali.
“We’re not going to the top? Lhakpa Sherpa asked. – A big problem”.
Ozturk translated for the rest. Firstly, the support team did not want us to move away from the ropes fixed by the Chinese – it would be too dangerous and against the official rules. Secondly, the summit was important for them: there were newcomers in our team who had not yet had time to visit Everest. Third, everyone wanted to spend as little time as possible in the Assault Camp, located at an altitude of 8200 meters, far in the Death Zone, where the air is too thin. “Very dangerous for everyone,” they repeated.
I turned to McGuinness. “What’s the matter? I thought you told them about the search. ”
Jamie shrugged his shoulders: because of laryngitis, he practically could not talk. But he made it clear that he discussed our plan with at least some of the escorts back in Kathmandu.
All that remained was to admit that from now on we had a strained relationship with the support team, which included 12 people. However, no one had any illusions that we could climb the mountain without their help. Like any other group, we depended on their support.
“If we go to the top, can I, on the way back or forth, turn off the track to search Irwin’s Cleft?” I asked McGuinness.
“Better than on the way back,” he replied. I was also attracted by this option because it will allow you to see the landscape from the angle from which Xu Jing probably saw it in 1960, when, according to him, he noticed the body.
I called Lhakpa to the dining tent to tell him that we were going to the top. He nodded and mumbled “okay” in Nepali. No one directly said that I could turn off the route during the descent, but, I assumed, Lhakpa understood this, because a few minutes earlier we explained to him: our main goal was to search. We perceived this plan – to climb to the top and then search for Irwin’s remains on the way down – as a reasonable compromise.
Eight days later, our team reached the top of the world and headed back. Lhakpa, who was at the rear of the group, did not take his eyes off me while I carefully studied the terrain and often checked my GPS. And so, as soon as I unfastened from the rope at 8440 meters, he shouted: “No, no, no!”
I froze, trying to decide what to do. Deep down, I understood that it would be wrong to act against the Sherpa, I would behave like another selfish Western tourist. If I fell or disappeared, Lhakpa would have to go in search. If I were killed, he would have to explain to Chinese officials what happened. But even more important was the feeling that by that moment he had grown attached to me. Moreover, the affection was mutual. This was where the catch lay: I knew I could get away with the trick. And that Lhakpa will forgive me this folly.
According to GPS, Irvine’s Cleft was just a stone’s throw away. Under the gaze of Lhakpa and the others, I walked along a narrow ledge covered with layers of limestone that covered the ground like cobblestones. A meter later, the stone slipped out from under my feet, and I staggered.
“Careful!” – shouted Ozturk.
Having traversed about 30 meters, I looked down and saw a narrow ravine cutting through a steep rocky belt to the next snow-covered ledge. I vaguely recalled this relief – we saw it in photographs from a drone. Was Xu here trying to take a shortcut through the Yellow Belt?
I turned to face the slope, assumed the position of my body as if I was about to go down a stepladder, and drove the ice ax into the ice hard as stone. The steel blade clanged through the wind-packed crust. Looking down, I descended into the intoxicating abyss that separated me from the glacier lying far below. A few hundred meters away was the snowy plateau where Mallory was found. Now I was approximately over the place of his death, on the part of the mountain where people do not go if they want to return home alive. I checked the GPS again. The arrow on the compass pointed northwest. Another 15 meters.
Going down a bit, I settled on a fractured block of pale brown limestone. The rock was about two and a half meters high, rolling like a slide on a playground. From the outside, it might seem inconsistent, but at that moment, exhausted, alone, and without a rope, I was frightened. Looking up, I drove away from the thought of going back in the same way that I came down here.
Caution demanded to retreat, but curiosity was stronger. Without removing the tip of the ice ax from the snow, I stepped onto the rock. The cats slithered like nails across the smooth chalkboard.
At the base of the cliff, I took several deep breaths. To the right was a small niche, bordered by a rocky wall – a little steeper and higher than the one from which I had just descended. In the middle, it was cut by a vein of dark brown rock with a narrow crack. GPS reported arrival at the destination. And then I realized: the strip of dark rock is the very “cleft” that we saw from the drone. An optical illusion. The crack in the stone was only 23 centimeters wide – too narrow for a person to be inside. All around was empty.
He is not here.
I clung to the oxygen mask, trying to dispel the fog in my head. High above me, against the background of a pale blue sky, the peak shone, as always unshakable and indifferent.
We explored all the leads, combed the mountain slopes with drones; I risked my life to solve one of the main mysteries of Everest. We still have more questions than answers. What happened to Irwin that day? Where did he find his final resting place? Did someone take his body off the mountain? Or maybe it was washed away by a jet stream or an avalanche?
I had no answers to all these questions. But I learned something very important about the attraction of Everest, the attraction that forces people to exert so much effort: if I had not followed in Irwin’s footsteps, I would never have felt it. Now, with complete certainty, I can only say one thing: the secret of Mallory and Irwin will remain unsolved for now – and perhaps forever. And I accepted it.
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