January 1999 Volume Six, Number One
WERE HILLARY AND NORGAY FIRST?
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became instant celebrities when they first summited Mount Everest in 1953. Hillary was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and Norgay became a hero of the Sherpas and director of India's Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. But some historians question whether they were indeed first. Perhaps George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine summited Everest almost 30 years before, then perished on the descent.
Irvine's ice axe was found on the Northeast Ridge during the 1933 British Everest Expedition close to where the team was last seen struggling "strong for the top" at 28,230 feet on June 8, 1924. But was the axe lost during the summit bid, or did it mark an accident that occurred on the descent? In 1975, Chinese climber Wang Hongbao discovered the corpse of an "English dead" dressed in old-fashioned clothing on a snow terrace at 8,100 meters (26,575-ft.) on Everest's isolated North Face. He revealed the discovery while climbing Everest four years later, but died the next day in an avalanche below the North Col, taking the mystery with him.
In 1986, American researcher Tom Holzel and British historian Audrey Salkeld attempted to find the bodies. Their expedition was thwarted by unsettled weather and the death of Sherpa Dawa Nuru.
In 1995, Mallory's Australian grandson, George Mallory, 35 at the time, participated in an expedition to the North Ridge to complete his grandfather's route. He wondered whether Mallory and Irvine had the technical skills to surmount the difficult Second Step and climb the remaining 1,000 feet to the summit. The younger Mallory felt the challenge was only moderate and could have been possible in 1924, although his own successful bid via the Second Step was aided by a 15-ft. ladder placed there by Chinese climbers in 1975.
This May, on the 75th anniversary of Mallory and Irvine's attempt, the $300,000 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition plans to return to the North Ridge to launch history's most exhaustive effort to solve the mystery. While metal detectors, subsurface imagers, and probes will be used in a grid pattern to cover the most likely location of the bodies, the obstacles are many.
First, the weather in mid-May must be conducive to a search and the bodies have to be located and, if found, identified as those of Mallory or Irvine. Assuming this occurs, how will they know if they reached the summit? The answer lies in Mallory and Irvine's Kodak Vest Pocket cameras, which, hopefully, will be found on the bodies. Film will be developed at an archival laboratory in the U.S., and examined for evidence that the summit of Everest was, in fact, reached.
George Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) was the most prominent of the British pre-war Everest pioneers and is known for his simple quip - "Because It Is There" - to explain the everlasting lure of Everest. Tenzing Norgay honors the British climber in his autobiography "After Everest": "When I think of Mallory in those very ordinary clothes, those very ordinary boots and equipment, and compare them with what I had on during the 1953 ascent, I am amazed and humbled."
Mallory & Irvine expedition leader is Eric Simonson, 43, of International Mountain Guides/Expedition 8000, LLC, Ashford, Wash. The Project Mallory research coordinator is Jochen Hemmleb, 27, a graduate student at the University of Frankfurt who has authored two recognized research papers on Everest mysteries, and will direct the search by radio from lower on the mountain. Climbing magazine has scheduled an August 1999 feature on Project Mallory; Hemmleb and Johnson plan a book; and The MountainZone.com will make this their featured Everest cybercast in spring 1999.
If the bodies are found, and if they contain conclusive photographic evidence, what then of the legacy of Hillary and Irvine? Larry Johnson, 52, expedition coordinator, told EN, "It changes exploration history. It would solve one of the last great mysteries in exploration. But in no way will it detract from Hillary and Norgay's feat ... as Hillary himself has said, 'the getting down is somewhat important.'"
QUOTE OF THE MONTH
New Words - The Atlantic Monthly's popular "Word Watch" column last month picked up Jon Tierney's new catchphrase - "explornography" - that first appeared in the July 26 New York Times Magazine. The executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language calls it a noun meaning, "a consuming fascination with famous and, especially, dangerous explorations." So-called "explornographers" are, typically, 50-year-old outdoorsy amateurs of both sexes, many of whom live and work in urban settings.
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