Using Google Earth Pro to find the Ice Axe

The story of the ice axe is well know.  Wyn Harris found the axe as part of the 1933 expedition during the first attempt for the summit.  The first attempt met with defeat at about the Norton high point (28,126′ in the couloir).  On the way back, Harris passed by the ice axe again, this time picking it up and leaving his own in its place.  The ice axe was later determined to have belonged to Irvine due to the characteristic scratch marks put on the tool — a marking system that was apparently common as a Sherpa put a cross-mark on the axe so that he could distinguish it from other similar looking axes.

At the time it was found, Hugh Ruttledge, the leader of the 1933 expedition, commented that it was likely the spot of a fall.  Ruttledge spends 4 pages discussing the ice axe and Mallory and Irvine’s climb.   Ruttledge was firmly of the opinion that the axe was not left intentionally noting that “no mountaineer climbing the north face of Mount Everest regards his axe as an encumbrance.  It is his best friend and greatest safeguard.  He uses it to help his balance on the outward-dipping slabs, to anchor himself when the treacherous gusts are tearing at his legs, to clear a foothold on the snow-covered rocks and, on occasion, to cut steps across hard patches of snow.” (Everest 1933, p. 158).

As for the location, Ruttledge stated it was found “on the slabs, one hour’s climbing above Camp VI.” (p.158).  He lists the position as “about 60 feet below the crest of the ridge and 250 yards east of the first step.”  It was lying “free on smooth, brown ‘boiler-plate’ slabs inclined at an easy angle, but steepening considerably just below.” (p. 151).

The problem with pinpointing the location is that the First Step is huge and it is not clear whether he means from the front base, the base where people go up, the main tower, or any other point. Fortunately, Ruttledge also described the position of Camp VI (1933).  “It is some 300 feet below the two fairly prominent towers on the north-east ridge, and about 400 yards east of the first step.”  (p.143).   He notes that Camp VI (1933) is “600 feet higher than Norton’s Camp VI of 1924, and about 400 yards horizontally nearer to the summit.”

Using Google Earth Pro’s “Ruler” tool, the horizontal distance between Camp VI (1924) and Camp VI (1933) is 393 yards, so Ruttledge can accurately estimate distances.

Next we measure out 400 yards from Camp VI to find out which location Ruttledge would have meant when he said the “First Step.”  This comes to a point about half way between the large tower and the east base.

Ruttledge-6toFirstStep

The “Cave” is shown as a reference, and it is fairly well known, as several climbers have died seeking shelter there.   The cave is directly on the standard route, and on the zoomed in images below, you can see the faint trial outline from the standard route.  This is important because Google Earth does not map the elevation of the ridge properly and you can see some of the standard route trail where it looks like it is going down the other side of the mountain.  The standard route does not go down the east face and that is just an issue with how Google is displaying this set of data.

Having the 400 yards out, we need to go back 250 yards to get to the ice axe:

Ruttledge-First-250

This puts the ice axe well east of the cave.  In Detectives On Everest, they describe a search directly below the cave on a sandy bench.  Zooming in, we can see the bench that was searched.  It is not clear if they went as far east as where I place the ice axe:

SandyBenchArea

From the ice axe location, it is a straight fall line to the body.  The slope of the mountain follows the direction of the slabs and is down and to the left in pictures:

GoogleMaps-Ivrine Body

And the same area pictured from the North Col:

Image-IceAxetoBody

From observing this location, Ruttledge noted that “[a] fall once begun is likely to continue.”  In terms of the distance, Google Maps lists it as a straight line distance of 232 ft with an altitude difference of 134 ft.   Pythagoras tells us that the horizontal distance is 190 ft which gives us a slope of 134/190 =  70% or expressed in degrees, approximately 35 degrees.  While not the steepest part of Mount Everest, a 200 ft fall from that location would certainly end your climb.

This is Irvine’s location, based on it being directly below the ice-axe site on a direct route to the First Step with steep cliffs on both sides and the discolored object visible in the image appears to have clothing covering the middle section of roughly a 6 foot object (Irvine was approximately 6’4″).

I also suspect that the “sleeping bag” controversy has been resolved.  The Chinese climber who mentioned a “sleeping bag” was referring to the shape of the rock next to Irvine and not an actual sleeping bag.  The sleeping bag theory has been thoroughly covered by Pete Posten, so I won’t spend any more time on it.  The “sleeping bag” rock is center-left.  Irvine is the discolored object below the ledge to the right with what looks to be clothing over the middle portion of his body.

Sleeping Bag Rock

 

This image, taken from the summit ridge shows the steep cliff — Irvine’s location is between the two black rocks at the center of the image and he would have fallen over the cliff just to the right.  If Irvine did briefly survive that fall, he did not get up and walk around, as some theories suggest.

Irvine from summit ridge

This area is frequently covered in snow and Irvine is not visible most of the time.  You can verify this by using Google Earth Pro — set the historical data and look at that location — it is frequently covered with snow, even during the “climbing season.”

This image is from 4/25/2014 and Irvine would not be visible with this amount of snow — he is in the gully between those two rocks.

GoogleEarth-4-25-14

And from 5/12/15 — nothing is going to be visible with that snow cover.  I had to use the graphic overlay just to locate the approximate spot.

GoogleEarth5-12-15


11 thoughts on “Using Google Earth Pro to find the Ice Axe

  1. Amazing discovery, I have been a great follower of M&I search, it is very interesting to see that you have got photographic evidence of the body of Irvine. It seems that you have taken all the photos from North Col; or someother location on the mountain. I am very curious to know, if you have even better pictures of the body location. Most of all I would like to know, if you have used any GPS tags to point your camera at. Thanks.

  2. Amazing discovery, I have been a great follower of M&I search, it is very interesting to see that you have got photographic evidence of the body of Irvine. It seems that you have taken all the photos from North Col; or someother location on the mountain. I am very curious to know, if you have even better pictures of the body location. Most of all I would like to know, if you have used any GPS tags to point your camera at. Thanks.

  3. Very interesting. So, has anyone actually physically been to this location to verify what is there? Could a high altitude drone be deployed to check this out?

    Thanks
    Richard

    1. I got pretty close in 2018 and it did not look like anything was there. But there was too much snow. The National Geographic team flew a drone up there, but on the day they used the drone there was too much snow. When they did their “search” further to the East, there was low snow, but they did not search any locations that offered a realistic possibility of finding Irvine. There is an issue of whether he was there in 2013 and not there in 2018. The earthquake (2015) dislodged some rocks in other places on the mountain. The photos from that area do not entirely match up — but the 2013 photos are rather limited and all taken from North Col. I could do a video on it, but it would be largely just speculation. Photo’s of Everest present a number of problems and any photo “analysis” can pretty much come to any conclusion you want. Such manipulation has routinely been done by various authors seeking to “prove” a theory. Depending on the angle of the photo and where it was taken from, you can completely distort the actual topography.

      In terms of another search, the main problem is simply one of luck. If there is moderate to significant snow cover, Irvine is likely covered in snow. For him to stop that high on the mountain, there needs to be on some type of ledge or relatively flat spot. These are frequently covered in snow. I suspect this is the reason Irvine has been visible at some times and not others. Of course, he could have fallen down the mountain, etc.

  4. Facinating! It does appear to be a body and makes sense. Any way to get closer or convince someone to detour there?

    1. I climbed up pretty close and it does not appear that Irvine is in that location. There was a lot of snow, so it still remains a possibility.

  5. Great work here.
    Is it possible to get better definition on the pic of irvines body? Its hard to make out the detail, though I agree it doesn’t look like a natural rock formation.

    1. I have high resolution photos from 2018, but there was too much snow and the pictures show nothing more than a rock largely covered in snow. I have pictures taken from further away in 2018 when there was less snow and the issue is that there are differences in the rocks and that particular formation does not show on any of the photos. This could be the angle of the photos, or it could be changes from the earthquake. Unfortunately, none of the “searchers” from 2019 took any photos of this area that they are willing to share. Likely photos from 2019 (or any other low snow year) could determine if what was in the 2013 photo was just a rock formation. Jake Norton (and others) have stated they would share any photos of that area, and while Jake has high-resolution photos of just about everywhere else on the mountain, for some reason he didn’t take any of this area in 2019. Synnott was asked to share the drone photos and he stated that if it was up to him, he would, but that they are held by Nat Geo. Curiously, Thom Pollard used a drone photo in his presentation — though it is of the area searched by Jake in 2019 and Jake thoroughly ruled that area out. So, Nat Geo will allow certain people to use them, but not others. I find it curious that the area under the ice axe is the least photographed part of the mountain by all the “searchers.”

  6. Thanks Michael
    The spot you have identified looks very promising and everything matches up with a fall line from the ice axe.

    I agree it would be interesting to see the drone photos from 2019 as they claim to cover a wide range at high resolution. From what I read and from the 2021 book and the 2019 documentary, no trace of irvines body could be found and they concluded he was no longer on the mountain. I have heard various theories on what happened to the body. The chinese moved the body theory is interesting but I am not convinced.

    Hopefully the search will continue.
    Thanks

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