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U.S. Expedition Hopes to Unravel 62-Year-Old Mystery of Mt. Everest : Cameras of British Duo May Reveal If They Reached Top

first in a series.

August 31, 1986|ANDREW HARVARD

An expedition embarked for the Himalayas last week in an effort to answer a question that has prompted controversy among climbers for more than 60 years: Did British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924, 29 years before the ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary? In this first article, expedition leader Andrew Harvard explains how the team will attempt to uncover the secret of the fates of Mallory and Irvine, who disappeared just 900 feet below the summit on a summer day 62 years ago. Progress reports will be filed.

Dark as this night is, I can still see the mountain clearly. I don't know how the ice and snow up there can pick up so much reflected starlight, but every feature is distinct and the outlines shimmer where the snow gives way to rock below or the sky above.

It was bitter cold when I wrote those lines in the late autumn of 1980. A glow seemed to emanate from Everest. I sat alone on a rock high above the Kangshung glacier, trying to learn more about this great face of the world's highest peak. I had come there to reconnoiter a new route to the summit on the east side of the mountain, the last face left unclimbed.

Only once before had a mountaineer sat where I was sitting: British climber George Mallory came here looking for a route--any route--to the top of the world in 1921. He had already found what he thought was a way to the summit via the north side, across the East Rongbuk glacier. In 1924, Mallory returned to climb that north face route. Accompanied by Andrew Irvine, an inexperienced climber but a wizard with the rudimentary oxygen equipment of the age, Mallory departed from their tiny camp at 26,800 feet on the morning of June 8, 1924.

Shortly after noon, a colleague of Mallory's stationed at a lower camp, Noel Odell, glanced up at the intimidating face of Everest. Odell, now a 94-year-old professor of geology at Cambridge University, said he remembers the moment well. The clouds sheathing the peak momentarily parted and he saw Mallory and Irvine on a rock step less than 1,000 feet from the summit. It was to be the last glimpse of the men.

Unanswered Questions

Sitting on that rock, I pondered the questions that have haunted climbers ever since the British mountaineers disappeared. Had Mallory and Irvine succeeded in reaching the 29,028-foot summit? They would have done so 29 years before the celebrated ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. And could film in the pocket cameras Mallory and Irvine carried prove they were the first to stand on top of the world? These questions, which have nagged me for six years, are the reasons I have returned to the mountain with 12 other climbers and the man who has inspired renewed interest in solving the mystery, Tom Holzel of Boston.

Our expedition will be the first using modern equipment, including a new oxygen system developed by Holzel, to search the steps and crevasses of Everest's north slope for clues to the fate of the two Englishmen. We will also use metal detectors specially calibrated to home in on the metallic parts of the pocket cameras and oxygen cylinders the two carried.

The Holzel oxygen equipment, a new closed-circuit system never before used at high altitudes, will permit the searchers to stay at extremely high altitudes longer. With conventional open-circuit tanks, climbers can stay above 27,000 feet for no more than a day before their lungs surrender to the stress of extreme dehydration. Our system, which recirculates exhaled air through a purification element, should allow us to work above that altitude for as long as five days.

But before I elaborate on the current expedition, let me conclude my account of the events that led to its undertaking:

That night in 1980, I felt a sudden kinship with those pioneers of the '20s. They had come to Everest clad in tweeds and hobnail boots. With their spirit of adventure, they had carried the 19th-Century drive to seek the "ends of the Earth" into the 20th Century. I could see in my mind's eye the winding yak trains, the struggling porters, the high and windy camps and, far up the ice slopes, the solitary figures moving slowly until they dropped out of sight above the clouds, higher than any man had climbed before.

I returned to Everest in 1981 and 1983 as part of a U.S. team that completed, on our second attempt, the first ascent of the east face of Everest. But after that night on the glacier, studying a route Mallory had called impossible, I have never really felt alone on the mountain. With me is the sense of the presence of those early men of Everest.

By the end of those expeditions, I had found in my teammate and friend, David Breashears, a similar enthusiasm for the legend of Mallory and Irvine. David is the only American to have attained the summit of Everest twice. At 30, he is considered one of the best climbers in the world. He is also an Emmy-winning cinematographer.

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