BOSTON — George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine were last spotted near the highest point on Earth. Then clouds covered Mt. Everest, leaving the fate of the British climbers a riddle that drew little interest until Tom Holzel happened on the story.
Now Holzel, a computer engineer, is about to follow in their footsteps to search for proof that they reached the summit in tweed jackets and nail boots in 1924, nearly three decades before Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay conquered the 29,028-foot peak.
With special metal detectors, a portable darkroom and a team of Sherpas and top U.S. climbers, Holzel plans to scour the peak this summer for the 62-year-old cameras that he believes Mallory and Irvine carried. The cameras could solve the mystery.
"Why I am doing it? Because Mallory's there," Holzel said, echoing the British climber's exasperated retort--"Because it's there"--when asked once too often why he wanted to climb the peak on the border of China and Nepal.
That a 45-year-old amateur should put together a $250,000 expedition up a route never before scaled by U.S. mountaineers is remarkable, his colleagues say, more so in light of the criticism Holzel has taken from British climbers.
Also remarkable was the spirit of schoolmaster Mallory and scientist Irvine, who braved the peak's suffocatingly thin air and sub-zero temperatures wearing woolens and leather boots and carrying crude, cumbersome oxygen masks.
"They tried to climb Everest with Wright brothers technology," said David Breashears, 30, a veteran of two Mt. Everest climbs who will film the journey for the British Broadcasting Corp.
What caused mountaineers like Breashears to take Holzel seriously was a hard-won permit granted by the Chinese government and a prediction he made 15 years ago that Irvine's body would be found about 2,100 feet below the summit.
Body Spotted by Climber
In 1979, a Chinese climber told his Japanese leader--by scratching Chinese characters common to both languages in the snow--that five years earlier he had seen the body of an Englishman in tattered clothing where Holzel had predicted. The Chinese climber died the next day in an avalanche.
Holzel holds that Irvine fell off a cliff after splitting from Mallory, who went on to the top alone.
The theory is unthinkable to some.
"It hardly squares with Mallory's character and upbringing," wrote Walt Unsworth in "Everest," published in Britain in 1982. "Even allowing for Mallory's fanatical determination to reach the summit, he would never have sent the young Irvine down the ridge alone.
"Once above the Second Step (at 28,230 feet), they were committed together and would have seen it through together or perished in the attempt."
'Disgusted' by Project
British mountaineer Jim Perrin wrote in HIGH magazine that the Holzel expedition "disgusts me--and this is an entirely personal opinion--as nothing else in mountaineering history . . . ever has done."
Others don't understand why Holzel bothers.
"I would have thought Mallory had the right to be left sleeping in peace on his mountain," said Hillary, New Zealand's ambassador to India, Nepal and Bangladesh, in a talk to the Explorers Club in New York earlier this year.
Mallory and Irvine were two dark specks on the mountain when geologist Noel Odell spotted them "going strong for the top" on June 8, 1924.
Mallory, 37, a decorated World War I veteran, had enlisted Irvine, 22, a weaker climber, for the expedition because of the young man's wizardry with then-novel oxygen equipment.
From where he stood in the camp at 27,000 feet, Odell initially said, the men appeared to be over the last hump on the peak and just 800 feet from the top.
If Mallory and Irvine were over the hump when Odell saw them at 1 p.m., they would have reached the summit only 30 minutes later, Holzel reasoned.
Changed His Story
However, Odell later placed the climbers farther back, behind the hump.
Odell told Holzel in an interview that he changed his mind because, in retrospect, the second step was too hard for the men to climb as vigorously as he saw them climbing.
But Holzel also notes that before his second statement, Odell received a barrage of letters from irate climbers who disputed the initial claim.
Odell, now 95 and living in Cambridge, England, told Breashears that the 1924 expedition was "ancient history" and refused to discuss it. Holzel said Odell characterized his search as "chasing a dream."
Dream Began in 1970
The dream began in 1970 when Holzel read an article in the New Yorker magazine mentioning the Mallory expedition, then read all of the books in the "Everest" section at the New York Public Library.
Few speculated on what happened to the climbers. "It was as if somebody took scissors and cut out the last chapters," he said.
Holzel came up with a hypothesis: Mallory, seeing Irvine weakening on the climb, sent the young man back to the safety of the camp while he went on to the summit alone, carrying Irvine's oxygen supplies.