The night before Mallory left Camp IV (North Col), he had a conversation with Norton. Norton had just returned from his own summit attempt where he reached an altitude record of 28,126 at the top of the Great Couloir. Norton told Mallory that the route was climbable at that point but that he turned around because (1) he was out of energy, (2) he was out of time, and (3) he was climbing unassisted, as his climbing partner, Somervell, had fallen ill, and Norton climbed on ahead without him.
Norton identified two possible routes out of the couloir: a small gully off to the right and a “zig-zag” route to the left. The “small gully” route was eventually climbed by Messner in 1980 and is shown in blue below. Norton also noted that there is the “possibility of breaking through the lower strata of these two bands east of the great couloir, and traversing along slabs between it and the upper band until it is possible to break through the latter.” This is essentially a zig-zag route up through the cleft above the couloir. This route is shown in red below (photo from modern Camp 3).
Mallory and Irvine headed out from Camp VI towards the North-East Ridge to scout for any route that was easier than the two that Norton had already identified. Mallory’s goal was to climb to the summit by the easiest route possible, not to climb any particular route. Wyn Harris undertook a similar goal in 1933 and climbed up to the First Step to look for an easy ridge route. He didn’t see one and traversed along the top of the upper yellow band until he got to the Couloir. In the Couloir, he encountered the same problems as Norton — he didn’t have enough energy and didn’t have enough time. However, Wyn noted that the route was climbable. Wyn Harris specifically said that if a climber had oxygen in the Couloir, he could climb out of it and then drop the oxygen rig and proceed to the summit. This is on page 177 of the “Everest -1933” expedition book.
While Mallory obviously didn’t know the opinion of climbers from 1933, Norton was clear that the route was climbable, but you needed oxygen, time, and a partner. Mallory would not go off on speculative climbs of the First or Second Step. The only reason he would climb to the ridge would be if he saw a simple route that was easier than the two he has already seen himself and been told about by Norton. Mallory passed just above the modern Camp 3 shown in the picture above. We know what that the weather was clear prior to 10AM on June 8 because John Noel, the expedition photographer, stated that he was at his observation point slightly above advanced base camp and could see clear to the summit up until 10AM on that day — he was there looking for Mallory and Irvine.
Mallory would have seen the same thing you are looking at — a large Second Step with some possible weaknesses and the two routes up through the Couloir. Another very good view of this is provided by Jake Norton’s website
. Jake Norton also provides an excellent panoramic view of the north-east ridge
. While depths and angles do get distorted in any panoramic image, if you were George Mallory looking a that ridge, would you say, “Oh, let me try to scale that 30 foot vertical wall on the Second Step?” Or would you say, “Hmm. It looks like you can walk right up that area to the far right — maybe Norton was right and a little oxygen, a partner, and you are on the summit.”
Given this view, there is absolutely no reason Mallory would climb the First Step — he would go around it. Once past the First Step, he could further scout the Second Step. Every early climber to inspect the Second Step from below immediately concluded that there was no easy access through it. They took a look and thought that perhaps there was a way up the gash visible in the panoramic image. Norton thought that, Wyn thought that, and it is logical to assume that Mallory might have as well. Upon getting closer to the “gash,” it was determined to be too difficult to climb and the climbers moved on to the right. The reason why Mallory succeeded where the others failed is that he was able to find the line. The line is visible in all the photos. If you look at Jake Norton’s pano, you will see the line. His pano only shows that section above the couloir — it does not show how to access the line itself. I show that in some of my pictures, but because of angles, it is not that clear. What is clear is that if you are able to get to the “line” shown in Jake Norton’s pano, you can get to the summit. Jake’s pano shows the best angle of the “crux” of the climb and it can be seen to be essentially a boulder problem slightly less difficult than the First Step — the trick is to find the line prior to entering the couloir. Norton and Wyn missed it and traversed too far. Mallory found it and headed up the zig-zag route prior to entering the couloir.
Mallory would not spend an hour on a speculative climb up to inspect the Second Step because he would have lost too much time to continue on with the easier couloir routes he had already seen. Mallory was not on a reconnaissance climb. Mallory was on a summit bid.
The next issue is oxygen bottle caching. My video
on Mallory and Irvine’s summit covers the issue pretty thoroughly. I’ll assume the bottles last 5 hours, but that is not essential to the analysis. The bottom line is that under no circumstances would a climber head out from high camp with oxygen turned on, wait until a cylinder ran out, drop it and put the next one in. That is the stupidest strategy possible. We will look at it for both 2 bottles and 3 bottles and see that they carried 3.
A climber carrying 2 bottles would not have enough for the whole trip. You climb until you are 5 hours from the summit. You turn the oxygen on. (Note, I am assuming that the climb up times and the climb down times are the same for simplicity. Obviously, they are not, but you just perform your calculations for the estimated times. Mallory would know the estimated times because Norton just told him the times it took Norton for a substantially similar route.) After 2.5 hours, you cache a half used bottle. At this point, you are 2.5 hours to the summit. You go with a single bottle, 2.5 hours up, 2.5 hours down and are back at your half used bottle. Drop the empty one and put in the half used bottle and descend with only one bottle.
For 3 bottles, the concept is the same, except you are on oxygen the whole time. Carry 3 bottles for 2.5 hours, cache your half bottle. Climb with 2 bottles for 2.5 hours and cache your second bottle. Climb to summit and back with one bottle. Drop empty bottle and put in half used from cache, repeat at next point. Using this system, on a 15 hours climb, you are carrying only 1 bottle for 10 hours.
If the oxygen bottles only last 4 hours each, then 3 bottles gives you a 12 hour climb, but you are only carrying 1 bottle for 8 out of the 12 hours. There has been much discussion about the “bloody load” of oxygen bottles, but the obvious solution is to cache them.
This bottle caching system explains why they were returning high on the ridge — they needed to return by the same route they climbed up so they could get their cache. They may have also cached a flashlight at the first bottle cache point. This would give them an extra 2 hours, if daylight was a problem. Norton and Mallory had discussed flashlight signals to be used by the summit party, so it was assumed that a summit party would have a flashlight. Mallory could have left it in the tent or cached it. Carrying a flashlight all the way to the summit would not be productive. I am not sure how much their “electric torches” weighed, but certainly more than a modern headlamp.
The oxygen bottle found below the First Step is only consistent with a 3 bottle caching system. There is simply no way it took 4 or 5 hours to climb to that location. I realize that several publications state that this is a “good” rate of climb, but that is nonsense. Norton made it half way across the face in 5 hours without oxygen, and Mallory climbing 1/3 that distance with oxygen is considered “good?” I’ll provide more analysis on the oxygen bottle location later.
Any bottle cache location would contain 2 bottles. A single bottle would indicate a fully used bottle dropped on the descent. If the climber was out of oxygen, he would drop the apparatus. The apparatus is heavy, there were multiple extra sets of them, and Irvine had previously abandoned a broken apparatus on the ridge below Camp V.
If only two bottles were carried, the oxygen bottle location does not make sense for any drop off point, as they would have run out of oxygen well above that position with only two bottles. The location does make perfect sense for where a bottle would be dropped on the descent by someone using three bottles and a caching strategy.
From this, Mallory’s plan is clear: Search the ridge for an easy route, but if none is obvious, head to the known climbable routes with (1) oxygen, (2) time and (3) and partner. Mallory does this and is able to spot the potential routes above the Couloir, but they are best reached by heading up east of the Couloir, as shown in this photo of the potential routes:
Mallory and Irvine would not be traversing across the ridge at that “Y” snow slope, but heading back towards the crest of the ridge. The logical attack point is the saddle between the “a” and “b” portions of the Third Step. They would crest the ridge and be visible against the skyline. This is one of the few locations where this occurs. For instance, at the top of the Second Step ladder, you are still about 15-20 below the top of the ridge and you are not easily visible from below. At the “top” of the First Step, you are actually no where near the top of the step but only at the top the the lower section. You are not easily visible at that section from below and the First Step is entire blocked from view in the picture above.
What I need your help with is in photographing this section in detail to see if those routes are climbable, and if so, whether they can be climbed in a time that would allow Mallory and Irvine to be at the top of the Third Step at 12:50PM.