Irvine and Mallory: the fight for Everest

June 06, 2016 4 min read

Mallory and Irvine, Everest 1924
Irvine photographed by G. Binney during the 1923 expedition to Spitsbergen (left); a studio portrait of Mallory (right).

This week marks ninety-two years since Andrew Irvine and George Mallory disappeared high on Everest.

The pair was part of the 1924 British expedition that set out with the ambition of becoming the first to successfully summit Everest. Armed with greater knowledge and experience than previous teams, hopes were high among the men as they began their journey. Their optimism and confidence in the team's ability is captured in this quote from Geoffrey Bruce:

'All was ready for the march: stores packed and forwarded from Darjeeling by the time our last contingent arrived, Mallory and Irvine, Bentley Beetham and Hazard. This our last, and almost most important contingent, Hazard, who had previously served in India as a sapper, and who had a great mountaineering record. Bentley Beetham, a born mountaineer … Then Mallory – the only member of the Expedition who was making his third journey. And finally, our splendid "experiment", Irvine, bringing with him magnificent recommendations … and, further, bringing his own great personality.'

Beginning in Darjeeling – where porters were selected and supplies organised – the team began its journey toward Everest at the end of March 1924. Travelling in two groups, they wound their way through Pedong – where the air ‘seemed full of smoke’ – through the Sikkim forests – where they feasted on the ‘lucious pineapples of Rhenok’ – and on across the plateau, sighting Tibetan skylarks, hares and kiang (wild horses). As they travelled, their days established a rhythm, as observed by E.F. Norton:

'We breakfasted in the open about seven o’clock … by 7.30 or 8 the whole Expedition would be en route, strung out in little parties of donkeys, horsemen and pedestrians over a mile of country … About 11.30 we would sit down by twos and threes, or collect into little parties in some sheltered spot – for by then the inevitable Tibetan wind would be going strong – and eat a light lunch of biscuit and cheese, chocolate and raisins ... '

Arriving at Base Camp, the expedition was running to schedule and reporting a remarkably clean bill of health given the exertions of the approach journey. Little were they aware of the ‘rude buffets’ that lay in store for them. As they began their painstaking advance toward Everest's summit, erecting their camps along the way, weather conditions began to deteriorate, causing delays, which, in turn, led to dwindling supplies.

Two initial attempts at the summit – both made without bottled oxygen – failed due to a combination of health problems, icy winds and disturbances within the Sherpa team. The final attempt was made by Mallory and Irvine, who were firm friends with strong mountaineering ability and technical knowledge. Mallory left a note for Odell reporting it to be ‘perfect weather for the job’ as they set out for their summit push. It was Odell who, around midday on 8 June, last sighted the pair as they disappeared into the clouds high on the northeast ridge.

The loss of the two men – for whom the rest of the team had great affection and admiration – came as an enormous blow and marked the end of the 1924 summit attempt. Reflecting on their deaths, E.F. Norton wrote:

'Mallory's was no common personality ... it was the spirit of the man that made him the great mountaineer he was: a fire burnt in him and caused his willing spirit to rise superior to the weakness of the flesh ... His death robs us of a right loyal friend ... and the greatest antagonist that Everest has had or is likely to have. 

Young Irvine was almost a boy in years he was twenty-two; but mentally and physically he was a man full grown ... Irvine's cheerful camaraderie, his unselfishness and high courage made him loved, not only by all of us, but also by the porters, not a word of whose language could he speak.'

It remains unknown whether the pair reached the summit before their deaths. Recent evidence showing a sudden drop in oxygen levels caused by atmospheric conditions during their climb, suggests it's unlikely that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit. But we cannot be certain. As Odell reflected during the return journey:

The question remains, "Has Everest been climbed?" It must be left unanswered for there is no direct evidence. But bearing in mind all the circumstances … and considering their position when last seen, I think myself there is a strong possibility that Mallory and Irvine succeeded.'

Fight for Everest 1924 book, Mallory and Irvine
The Tingri plain from Sharto, painted by E.F. Norton.

Fight for Everest 1924, book, Mallory and Irvine
Kiang and gazelle sketched by Norton on the plains near Tingri.

Fight for Everest 1924, book, Mallory and Irvine
The ice wall beneath the North Col, with a climbing party at its base.

Fight for Everest 1924, book, Mallory and Irvine
The famous last photograph of Mallory and Irvine, taken by Odell.

Fight for Everest 1924, Mallory and Irvine
Members of the 1924 expedition, photographed at Base Camp shortly before they left Everest. Mallory and Irvine are conspicuous by their absence. From left to right, back row: Hazard, Hingston, Somervell, Beetham, Shebbeare; front row: Geoff Bruce, Norton, Noel, Odell.

Quotes and images taken from the 2015 edition of The Fight for Everest 1924. First published in 1925, and reissued now for only the second time, The Fight for Everest 1924 is the official record of this third expedition to Everest. As well as the full original text and illustrations, the new edition reproduces Norton’s superb pencil sketches and watercolours along with previously unpublished materials from private archives. Together, they add up to complete one of the most fascinating mountaineering books ever written.

Special offer: use code TIBETANSKYLARK for 20% off The Fight for Everest 1924, plus free UK mainland delivery. Offer ends 30 June 2016.

Fight for Everest 1924, book, Mallory and Irvine