|Happier days: George and Ruth Mallory|
The corpse was frozen to concrete and bleached by the sun. It lay face down in the snow, fully extended and pointing uphill. The upper body was welded to the scree with ice. The arms, still muscular, were outstretched above the head.
Mountaineer George Mallory had last been sighted on 8 June, 1924, when he and Andrew Irvine went missing while attempting to become the first men to reach the summit of Everest.
Whether or not they achieved this goal has been the subject of intense speculation for more than 85 years.
|Base camp: Irvine and Mallory, back row left|
In the spring of 1999, an American named Eric Simonson founded the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Five experienced mountaineers were sent high onto Everest with the aim of finding the bodies of one or both climbers.
They had a few clues to help them in their search. In 1975, a Chinese climber named Wang Hung-bao had stumbled across ‘an English dead’ at 26,570 feet (8,100m).
|The goal: but did they make it?|
Wang reported the find to his climbing partner shortly before being swept away by an avalanche. The precise location of the ‘English dead’ was never fixed.
This did not deter Simonson’s five-strong team of experienced mountaineers. Conrad Anker, Dave Hahn, Jake Norton, Andy Politz, and Tap Richards were determined to succeed.
The odds were stacked against them. Their search was concentrated on a wide snow-terrace the size of 12 football pitches. Tilted at crazy angles, the terrace lay above 26,000 feet. If the men lost their balance, the 30-degree slope would carry down a 7,000-foot drop to the Rongbuk Glacier.
|Training in the alps: George Mallory|
On 1 May, 1999, Conrad Anker was combing the slope when he raised a cry. He’d spotted a corpse, white as alabaster, sticking out of the ice.
The men began chipping the corpse from its frozen resting place. As they dug, they studied the body with care. The tibia and fibula of the right leg were broken, the right elbow was dislocated and the right side also badly damaged. The climbing rope had wrapped tightly around the ribcage.
It didn’t take long to identify the body. When Tap Richards looked inside the clothing, he found a name tag: G Mallory.
‘Maybe it was the altitude and the fact that we’d all put aside our oxygen gear,’ said Dave Hahn, ‘but it took a while for reality to sink in. We were in the presence of George Mallory himself.’
The great unanswered question was whether or not Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit? Did they die on their way up, or on their way down.
The team hoped they’d find Mallory’s camera: experts at Kodak had said that the film, though old, might yet be developed. But when the men reached inside the pouch around Mallory’s neck, they found only a metal tin of stock cubes: ‘Brand & Co. Savoury Meat Lozenges.’
There was other evidence as well: a brass altimeter, a pocketknife, a monogrammed handkerchief and a pair of undamaged sun goggles in an inside pocket.
|Found after 75 years: George Mallory|
The goggles were potentially important. Just a few days earlier, Mallory’s second climbing partner, Edward Norton, had suffered serious snow-blindness because he’d neglected to wear his goggles.
Mallory would not have dispensed with his goggles if he was climbing in daylight; the fact they were in his pocket suggested that the two men had completed their push for the summit in sunlight and were making their descent after dark.
No less interesting was an envelope found on Mallory’s body. It was covered in numbers - the bottle pressures of the oxygen bottles they were carrying.
|Bleached to alabaster|
It had long been believed that the climbers didn’t have enough oxygen to get them to the summit. But the numbers showed that the two climbers were carrying five, perhaps six canisters - more than enough to attain Everest’s peak.
More tantalizing was an item that the searchers had expected to find on Mallory’s body - one that was inexplicably missing. He was known to have been carrying a photograph of his wife, Ruth, which he had vowed to leave on the summit. The photo was nowhere to be found, even though his wallet and other papers were intact.
|Re-enactment: from The Wildest Dream|
The team who found Mallory were able to piece together a plausible scenario as to what happened on the fateful evening of his death. It’s a story of adventure and tragic error - one that ultimately led to his doom.
It’s late in the evening on 8 June - long after twilight - and the two climbers are still high on the mountain. Exhausted and with failing oxygen supplies, they’re desperate to reach safety.
As they cross a notoriously treacherous layer of marble and phylitte known as the ‘Yellow Band’, one of the two climbers slips.
It may well have been Mallory. If so, his fall is halted by the rope, which dashes him into a rocky outcrop. His ribs are broken and his elbow dislocated. But he is held by the rope, dangling in a void.
And then, unexpectedly, the rope snaps and he falls through the darkness.
He lands on a steep shelf of snow, snapping his tibia and fibula.
But still he doesn’t stop. Gravity drags him down the North Face at tremendous speed.
He’s terrified and in appalling pain, but still conscious and trying to save himself. In desperation, he clutches at frozen scree, digging his fingers into the ice.
|Leaving base camp|
Faster and faster he slides until, with unbelievable violence, his forehead smashes into a jagged outcrop of rock. It punctures a hole into his head.
He comes to a standstill at the same time as he loses consciousness. Pain and hypothermia rapidly take over. Within minutes, Mallory is dead.
Irvine, meanwhile, has almost certainly met with a similar fate. He’s fallen, seriously injured, and is also suffering from hypothermia. Within a few minutes of Mallory’s death he, too, has succumbed to the cold.
But did they ever make it to the summit? Were they the first to climb Everest? It’s a question that Eric Simonson’s team were unable to answer with absolute certainty. The discovery of Mallory’s body was a remarkable find - truly extraordinary - but the riddle is likely to remain unsolved until the camera is found.
One person alone has felt able to say whether or not Mallory and Irvine deserve the title of ‘conquerors of Everest.’
Mallory’s son, John, was only three years old when he lost his father. To him, George Mallory’s failure to return home provided all the answers he needed.
‘To me,’ he said, ‘the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don't get down again’.
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. American and foreign editions in 2014
'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.