The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest

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9780684871523: The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest

On June 8, 1924, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared somewhere near the summit of Mount Everest, leaving open the tantalizing question of whether they had reached the summit of Everest twenty-nine years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. In 1999, climber Conrad Anker discovered Mallory's body on Everest and helped solve one of the greatest mysteries in the history of adventure and exploration. In The Lost Explorer, Anker and historian David Roberts craft a dramatic account of the expeditions of 1924 and 1999, and ultimately capture the passion and spirit of two men driven to test themselves against nature at its most brutal.

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About the Author:

Conrad Anker is a professional mountaineer who has climbed around the world, from the Himalayas to Antarctica to Patagonia. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Snickers and Tea

I had just sat down to take off my crampons, because the traverse across the rock band ahead would be easier without them. I drank some fluid -- a carbohydrate drink I keep in my water bottle -- and sucked a cough drop. At that altitude, it's essential to keep your throat lubricated.

I looked out over this vast expanse. To the south and west, I could see into Nepal, with jagged peaks ranging toward the horizon. In front of me on the north stretched the great Tibetan plateau, brown and corrugated as it dwindled into the distance. The wind was picking up, and small clouds were forming below, on the lee side of some of the smaller peaks.

All of a sudden, a strong feeling came over me that something was going to happen. Something good. I usually feel content when the climb I'm on is going well, but this was different. I felt positive, happy. I was in a good place.

It was 11:45 A.M. on May 1. We were just below 27,000 feet on the north face of Mount Everest. The other four guys were fanned out above me and to the east. They were in sight, but too far away to holler to. We had to use our radios to communicate.

I attached my crampons to my pack, stood up, put the pack on, and started hiking up a small corner. Then, to my left, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a piece of blue and yellow fabric flapping in the wind, tucked behind a boulder. I thought, I'd better go look at this. Anything that wasn't part of the natural landscape was worth looking at.

When I got to the site, I could see that the fabric was probably a piece of tent that had been ripped loose by the wind and blown down here, where it came to rest in the hollow behind the boulder. It was modern stuff, nylon. I wasn't surprised -- there are a lot of abandoned tents on Everest, and the wind just shreds them.

But as I stood there, I carefully scanned the mountain right and left. I was wearing my prescription dark glasses, so I could see really well. As I scanned right, I saw a patch of white, about a hundred feet away. I knew at once there was something unusual about it, because of the color. It wasn't the gleaming white of snow reflecting the sun. It wasn't the white of the chunks of quartzite and calcite that crop up here and there on the north side of Everest. It had a kind of matte look -- a light-absorbing quality, like marble.

I walked closer. I immediately saw a bare foot, sticking into the air, heel up, toes pointed downward. At that moment, I knew I had found a human body.

Then, when I got even closer, I could see from the tattered clothing that this wasn't the body of a modern climber. This was somebody very old.

It didn't really sink in at first. It was as if everything was in slow motion. Is this a dream? I wondered. Am I really here? But I also thought, This is what we came here to do. This is who we're looking for. This is Sandy Irvine.

We'd agreed beforehand on a series of coded messages for the search. Everybody on the mountain could listen in on our radio conversations. If we found something, we didn't want some other expedition breaking the news to the world.

"Boulder" was the code word for "body." So I sat down on my pack, got out my radio, and broadcast a message: "Last time I went bouldering in my hobnails, I fell off." It was the first thing that came to mind. I just threw in "hobnails," because an old hobnailed boot -- the kind that went out of style way back in the 1940s -- was still laced onto the man's right foot. That was another reason I knew he was very old.

We all had our radios stuffed inside our down suits, so it wasn't easy to hear them. Of the other four guys out searching, only Jake Norton caught any part of my message, and all he heard was "hobnails." I could see him, some fifty yards above me and a ways to the east. Jake sat down, ripped out his radio, and broadcast back, "What was that, Conrad?"

"Come on down," I answered. He was looking at me now, so I started waving the ski stick I always carry at altitude. "Let's get together for Snickers and tea."

Jake knew I'd found something important, but the other three were still oblivious. He tried to wave and yell and get their attention, but it wasn't working. At 27,000 feet, because of oxygen deprivation, you retreat into a kind of personal shell; the rest of the world doesn't seem quite real. So I got back on the radio and put some urgency into my third message: "I'm calling a mandatory group meeting right now!"

Where we were searching was fairly tricky terrain, downsloping shale slabs, some of them covered with a dusting of snow. If you fell in the wrong place, you'd go all the way, 7,000 feet to the Rongbuk Glacier. So it took the other guys a little while to work their way down and over to me.

I rooted through my pack to get out my camera. That morning, at Camp V, I thought I'd stuck it in my pack, but I had two nearly identical stuff sacks, and it turns out I'd grabbed my radio batteries instead. I realized I'd forgotten my camera. I thought, Oh, well, if I had had the camera, I might not have found the body. That's just the way things work.

When I told a friend about this, he asked if I'd read Faulkner's novella The Bear. I hadn't. On reading that story, I saw the analogy. The best hunters in the deep Mississippi woods can't even catch a glimpse of Old Ben, the huge, half-mythic bear that has ravaged their livestock for years. It's only when Ike McCaslin gives up everything he's relied on -- lays down not only his rifle, but his compass and watch -- that, lost in the forest, he's graced with the sudden presence of Old Ben in a clearing: "It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling."

As I sat on my pack waiting for the others, a feeling of awe and respect for the dead man sprawled in front of me started to fill me. He lay face down, head uphill, frozen into the slope. A tuft of hair stuck out from the leather pilot's cap he had on his head. His arms were raised, and his fingers were planted in the scree, as if he'd tried to self-arrest with them. It seemed likely that he was still alive when he had come to rest in this position. There were no gloves on his hands; later I'd think long and hard about the implications of that fact. I took off my own gloves to compare my hands to his. I've got short, thick fingers; his were long and thin, and deeply tanned, probably from the weeks of having walked the track all the way from Darjeeling over the crest of the Himalaya to the north face of Everest.

The winds of the decades had torn most of the clothing away from his back and lower torso. He was naturally mummified -- that patch of alabaster I'd spotted from a hundred feet away was the bare, perfectly preserved skin of his back. What was incredible was that I could still see the powerful, well-defined muscles in his shoulders and back, and the blue discoloration of bruises.

Around his shoulders and upper arms, the remnants of seven or eight layers of clothing still covered him -- shirts and sweaters and jackets made of wool, cotton, and silk. There was a white, braided cotton rope tied to his waist, about three eighths of an inch in diameter -- many times weaker than any rope we'd use today. The rope was tangled around his left shoulder. About ten feet from his waist, I could see the frayed end where the rope had broken. So I knew at once that he'd been tied to his partner, and that he'd taken a long fall. The rope had either broken in the fall, or when his partner tried to belay him over a rock edge.

The right elbow looked as if it was dislocated or broken. It lay imbedded in the scree, bent in an unnatural position. The right scapula was a little disfigured. And above his waist on a right rib, I could see the blue contusion from an upward pull of the rope as it took the shock of the fall.

His right leg was badly broken, both tibia and fibula. With the boot still on, the leg lay at a grotesque angle. They weren't compound fractures -- the bones hadn't broken the skin -- but they were very bad breaks. My conclusion was that in the fall, the right side of the man's body had taken the worst of the impact. It looked as though perhaps in his last moments, the man had laid his good left leg over his broken right, as if to protect it from further harm. The left boot may have been whipped off in the fall, or it may have eroded and fallen apart. Only the tongue of the boot was present, pinched between the bare toes of his left foot and the heel of his right boot.

Goraks -- the big black ravens that haunt the high Himalaya -- had pecked away at the right buttock and gouged out a pretty extensive hole, big enough for a gorak to enter. From that orifice, they had eaten out most of the internal organs, simply hollowed out the body.

The muscles of the left lower leg and the thighs had become stringy and desiccated. It's what happens, apparently, to muscles exposed for seventy-five years. The skin had split and opened up, but for some reason the goraks hadn't eaten it.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, Jake Norton arrived. Then the others, one by one: first Tap Richards, then Andy Politz, then Dave Hahn. They didn't say much: just, "Wow, good job, Conrad," or, "This has to be Sandy Irvine." Later Dave said, "I started blinking in awe," and Tap remembered, "I was pretty blown away. It was obviously a body, but it looked like a Greek or Roman marble statue."

The guys took photos, shot some video, and discussed the nuances of the scene. There seemed to be a kind of taboo about touching him. Probably half an hour passed before we got up the nerve to touch him. But we had agreed that if we found Mallory or Irvine, we would perform as professional an excavation as we could under the circumstances, to see if what we found might cast any light on the mystery of their fate. We had even received permission from John Mallory (George's son) to take a small DNA sample.

Tap and Jake did most of the excavating work. We'd planned to cut small squares out of the clothing to take down to Base Camp and analyze. Almost at once, on the collar of one of the shirts, Jake found a name tag. It read, "G. Mallory." Jake looked at us and said, "That's weird. Why would Irvine be wearing Mallory's shirt?"

Sometime on the morning of June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out from Camp VI, at 26,800 feet on the northeast ridge. The day before, the porters who had carried gear and food up to the camp in support of the summit bid brought down a note from Mallory, addressed to the expedition cinematographer, John Noel, who was ensconced at Camp III, more than 5,000 feet below.

Dear Noel,
We'll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won't be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8.0 P.M.
Yours ever,
G. Mallory

Noel had a 600 millimeter lens that the expedition members used like a telescope to track their teammates' movements high on Everest. All subsequent commentators have assumed, as Odell did on reading the note, that Mallory's "8.0 P.M." was a slip of the pen, that he meant to write "8:00 A.M." In that case, Mallory's estimate of where he would be was exceedingly optimistic, for it was rare in the era of early Himalayan campaigns for a pair of climbers to get off from any high camp before 6:30 in the morning.

The 1924 expedition was the third of three attempts -- all British -- on the world's highest mountain; it followed a thoroughgoing reconnaissance in 1921 and a nervy assault the year after. Only Mallory had been a member of all three expeditions. Yet the weather in May 1924 had proved atrocious, defeating a very strong team's best efforts even to put themselves in position for a summit thrust. Later the tea planters in Darjeeling would aver that for at least the previous twenty years, "no such weather had been known at this season."

Then, with the climbers' hopes all but extinguished, the mountain had laid a spell of grace upon them, giving them day after day of fine weather, although the men woke each morning dreading the onset of the inevitable monsoon, which, normally arriving around June 1, would enfold the Himalaya in a four-month miasma of heavy snow.

As Mallory and Irvine closed their canvas tent and headed along the windswept ridge, they were full of a bursting anticipation. Only four days before, their teammate E. F. "Teddy" Norton, at the end of a gallant effort, had reached 28,126 feet -- the highest anyone had ever climbed -- before turning back a mere 900 feet below the summit. Norton had made his gutsy push without the aid of bottled oxygen. Mallory and Irvine were breathing gas, and though Mallory had initially been a skeptic about its efficacy, on the 1922 expedition he had learned firsthand that climbers aided by oxygen high on Everest could easily double the climbing speed of those without.

On the 1924 assault, as he had during the two previous expeditions, Mallory had proven himself the strongest and most ambitious climber. By now, his personal obsession with Everest had cranked as tight as it could be wound. In a letter to his wife, Ruth, written six weeks before from Chiblung, on the approach to Everest, he had predicted, "It is almost unthinkable...that I shan't get to the top; I can't see myself coming down defeated."

If his twenty-two-year-old companion was daunted by Mallory's hubris, he gave no indication of it. In his diary only four days before his own attempt, awaiting the outcome of Teddy Norton's bold summit bid with teammate Howard Somervell, Irvine had written, "I hope they've got to the top, but by God, I'd like to have a whack at it myself."

Ever since 1924, observers have wondered why Mallory chose Irvine as his partner for the second summit attempt, rather than the far more experienced Noel Odell, who had rounded into incomparable form at high altitude during the preceding week. Irvine had very little climbing experience, with only an exploratory outing in Spitsbergen under his belt. (In a letter to Ruth, Mallory had voiced a qualm, "I wish Irvine had had a season in the Alps.") But on Everest, the Oxford undergraduate had proved to be tougher than several of his more seasoned comrades, an uncomplaining worker, and a delightful companion. He was also something of a mechanical genius, who had taken apart the oxygen apparatus in the field and rebuilt it in a lighter and more efficient form. And since oxygen would be the key to Mallory's all-out dash for the summit, it made sense to have Irvine along.

That day, June 8, 1924, among the rest of the team, only Odell, climbing solo up to Camp VI in support of the summit duo, was high on the mountain. A professional geologist, he had chosen the day to wander in zigzags up the...

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Conrad Anker
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Anker, Conrad
Published by Simon & Schuster (2001)
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