Mallory’s Route to the Summit

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.

Mallory communicated his final decision on the routes to the expedition photographer, John Noel, so he would know where to point his camera: “Mallory told me himself, when he talked to me of his possible routes up the final pyramid and told me where to watch for him, that he expected to go up the northeast of the final pyramid, but if he found the Gully particularly difficult, or if the west wind were particularly bad, he would take the eastern ridge, missing the Gully by passing across the head of it and gaining better protection from the west wind.”

These two potential routes were identified by Norton: a small gully off to the right and a “zig-zag” route to the left.   The “small gully” route was eventually climbed by the Swedish in 1987 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 across the top of the couloir to meet up with the Third Step.  One potential for this route is shown in red below (photo from modern Camp 3).  In all these photos, east is to the left.

(Please note that a popular website describing the “Routes of Everest” gives simplifications of the routes in order to categorize them.  However, the image of the routes has numerous errors as a result.  The graphic is fine as an overview of different routes, but when analyzing exactly where an expedition climbed, it is of little use.  For instance, the graphic shows the “The Great Couloir aka Norton Couloir (White Limbo) – 1984 Australian” as climbing out of the Couloir at the route marked in blue below.  However, the expedition reports a significantly different route, climbing out well below, which is on page 196 of the book “White Limbo“. )

 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 and had made plans:  Plan A:  Climb the “small gully” out of the couloir.  Plan B: Climb a “zig-zag” route to the east of the couloir.   It is ultimately this Plan B that matches up with Odell’s sighting.  Potential routes for Plan B are shown here:

A close-up shows a variety of ways it could be climbed. Note the climbers descending the Third Step. However, this perspective, known as “foreshortening,” makes the angle appear less steep than it actually is:

Zig-zag route below and to the left of Third Step

The general angle of the route as compared to the First and Second Steps can be seen in this photo taken from modern Camp 3.  Note that the terrain blocks some of the view of the area directly below the Second Step.

Mallory and Irvine followed one of these routes when they are spotted by Odell.  (See video on Odell’s view of Mallory and Irvine heading towards summit.

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 not easily visible from below.  At the “top” of the First Step, you are nowhere 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 — a potential spot for Odell’s sighting.

This leaves the issue of why Mallory did not climb the “small gully” route, as he stated that was his preferred route if there was no wind, and there was little to no wind that morning.  A likely reason is that the “small gully” route looks like the best route when viewed from far away.  However, once you get closer to the ridge, it is apparent that the “small gully” will require a great deal of back tracking.  Not only will it require about 150ft of altitude to be given up, but even if you did mange to traverse across without giving up altitude, you would still traverse away from the summit for a good distance — far more than in the “zig-zag” route.   In any case, Odell’s sighting does not match up with them climbing the “small gully.”

19 thoughts on “Mallory’s Route to the Summit

  1. I would love to hear more about how much oxygen they actually had. From what I have been able to ascertain, they likely went on two cylinders which at low flow maybe gave them about 4 hours of oxygen per cylinder. I have also heard that they did not think the oxygen would be needed on the way down. That said, it seems that they would have run out of oxygen just a couple hours short and maybe a couple hundred feet from the summit. What are your thoughts and do you think they would have climbed the last section with no oxygen or do you think somehow they had enough oxygen. Again my understanding is they did not care about having oxygen on The descent. Mallory did not have an oxygen apparatus attached to him and his goggles were in his pocket so it does feel like he was climbing late and on The descent.

    1. They could control the flow of oxygen to be just about anything they wanted up to 3 or 4 l/m. The two days before, they climbed a total of about 8 hours and used less than one bottle. Given they arrived at Camp VI using less than 4l/m, it is very unlikely they set out immediately on 4 l/m. They made North Col (23000) to Camp 6 (26,700) on 90 atm — slightly less than one bottle. So, likely they could have made 26,700 to 28,000 (1,300 ft total) on approximately that same amount — that is, 90 atm. The climbing above 28,000 (approximately) is much harder and essentially starts the “crux” of the climb.

      The myth that they did not want to use oxygen on the decent was created by Norton. The very design of the system implies it is not true, and Mallory’s detailed plans for oxygen use make it clear he did not believe this. His original written plan has to have two porters heading to the summit to meet them there. The porters would have been carrying oxygen, so it is impossible that Mallory felt it was unnecessary for the descent. The plan was ridiculously reliant on porters and even if it had been successful, it would hardly have been considered a “fair” climb — using 16 porters to get all the oxygen in place. Nothing from the April 19 plan was ultimately used, but it shows that Mallory was willing to do just about anything to make the summit and that he intended to use oxygen on the descent because he wanted to use 2 porters specifically to bring it to the summit.

  2. On Mallory’s actual route to the summit, I will state categorically that it was not, and could not have been, the ridgewalk commonly ascribed to him. The matching up of Odell’s sighting with the climbing of the Second Step is possibly the most absurd proposition in all of exploration history. Those who maintain this premise strike me as mentally deficient. There is a classic ‘Elephant in the Living Room’ here that everyone pretends not to notice: Mallory and Irvine broke camp early, according to plan -probably no later than 6:00 am, with the intention of “crossing the rockband…or going up skyline” about 8:00 am. Odell spotted them climbing a rock step at 12:50 pm. If this was the First or Second Step, HOW COULD M&I HAVE TAKEN SEVEN HOURS TO MAKE A TWO-HOUR HIKE? Are we to suppose they stopped to chat and sip tea for five hours? Mallory and Irvine could only have been spotted at the Third Step, after a TRAVERSE of the North Flank of the ridge, which, like Norton’s traverse, would have consumed the 4-5 hours of ‘missing time’ to position them near the base of the Third Step about 12:50 pm. I am glad to see Michael Tracy strongly making the case for the Third Step sighting after a traverse, and I submit the ‘Elephant in the Living Room’ as proof. -S.I. Wells, Donner Pass, July 1, 2021

    1. I’ll just address the issue of the “mental deficiency,” as the issue is more one of gullibility, group cohesion, and making money. For the average person, a “respectable” member of the 1924 team claimed that M&I climbed the ridge route and were likely seen at the first step. I cover this in the video: . With a little investigation, it is clearly a deception. Norton (who propagated the deception) was well aware of the problem you present here and thus also moved the time from 12:50 to 11:00 to make it slightly more believable. This deception was bought into by the early “historians” Holzel and Saulked. Subsequent “historians” borrowed from this and did not bother to research it. The climbing group (Conrad Anker and the others) also bought into this because it made such a great story and fit with the type of climbing they wanted to do.

      The publishers such as Nat Geo liked the story because (1) it was simple to understand and (2) it added a great deal of “mystery” to a story that really lacked any mystery. There will likely always be the “mystery” of whether they made it to the top. But if you accept that they were seen “about the final step before the pyramid,” at 12:50, there really is little mystery to it. But that does not make for a very good story. So, Holzel and Saulked, who were selling their book entitled “The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine,” had plenty of reasons to support a theory that created a mystery rather than simply presenting the facts. Looking at Holzels “work”, he makes stuff up and ignores anything that contradicts his theory. He later uses his supposed “expert” status to back up his claims. In any case, currently, he is saying that although Irvine was not found in the “Holzel slot,” this is because the Chinese removed him. The fact that the slot is 9-inches wide and could not possibly ever had Irvine in it does not stop him. This is not so much driven by money but rather the desire for some last little bit in the spotlight. Listening to him speak today is a good study in how sociopaths operate. He is clearly from an older generation but exhibits all the signs of narcissistic sociopathy that is typical of today’s much younger internet generation.

      The “historians” who push the “mystery” of whether it was the First or Second Step over the years have made money off of it and some of the climbers who go along with it have gone on numerous paid trips to Everest to help solve a “mystery” that did not exist. I don’t think this makes them “mentally deficient.” To the contrary, it is a rather cunning deception and this is simply the way the world works. People with knowledge of something will distort it in order to extract money from an unsuspecting public. The curious thing arises when you point out to the unsuspecting public that the Emperor has no clothes — which is essentially what your post above does. While on this site, you are not likely to receive any ridicule, if you go about posting that on various internet discussion forums, you will be ridiculed. And the opponents of reality have a ready made defense — that Odell saw birds or rocks — also a deception that someone else concocted and they dutifully repeat. I deal with this issue here:

      The larger issue is that throughout human history group cohesion has been far more useful than any truth. That is if Tribe X is going to war against Tribe Y and the leader of Tribe X says, “Our god X-Prime has told me we will win tomorrow, so let’s fight these evil Tribe-Y heathens.” And Tribe Y’s leader says, “I really have no idea what will happen at the battle tomorrow, certainly no mysterious deities are guiding our path.” As long as Tribe X believes their leader, they will win. So, from an evolutionary standpoint, gullibility is built into our DNA. Many other successful species exhibit this same characteristic. For instance, sheep and cows cover the entire globe in massive numbers while tigers and wolves are going extinct.

      This general idea made up the premise for H.G Well’s The Time Machine, and during the early part of 20th century, the issue of whether humans were “evolving” into a species similar to sheep was popular. There are a variety of theories as to who would be controlling the “sheep,” and Francis Younghusband, who was chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, had some interesting ideas about this. Hopefully I can cover some of Younghusband’s life in some upcoming videos, but I have several others that I am working on before I go down that path.

  3. Michael,
    Thank you for your generous and insightful reply. You are right to observe that our society has become tribalized in such areas as politics, history, news reporting and most of academia; it is something I have found unfortunately true even in the realm of hard science. Undoubtably money is a major factor. I say people ‘strike me as mentally deficient’ not because they necessarily are, and should know better, but choose to dwell in denial of obvious facts. Ignore the elephant and pretend to be knowledgeable. None of these ‘experts’ will ever tell us what M&I were doing to waste 5+ hours of the most precious time of their lives. Another example may be found in the Holmesian ‘dog that didn’t bark’: John Noel expertly trained his telescope on the ridge for several hours and saw– NO SIGN of M&I against the bright sky background. Expedition master Hingston later wrote that Norton and Somervell were not spotted on their traverse because one cannot easily see distant figures “against a background of rock” (Wade Davis, Into the Silence, p.536). That they DIDN’T APPEAR against skyline should indicate a similar traverse by M&I. But the denial continues, despite the evidence, so invested in their faulty theories are the ‘experts’. Speaking of whom, hasn’t Holzel been documentably wrong on every one of his predictions?I shall be interested to see your work on Younghusband –an interesting fellow, as were many of those early explorers. S.I. Wells, Donner Pass, July 2, 2021

  4. “Great sleuthing” indeed Michael. The subject of Odell’s sighting is about the most confounding aspect of this whole business: the account seems different every time I come across it. Wade Davis, for example, on page xii of his monumental ‘Into the Silence’ on the last of the maps notes that Norton’s dispatch of June 14,1924 has M&I spotted by Odell at the Third Step (position B on the map), and that Odell’s diary entry June 8, 1924 has them at the Second Step (position A on the map). Somehow the messages seem to have gotten mixed up in the transcribing, sending and publication. (this part also posted on your video page)
    Strange that Odell kept changing his story over the decades, and stranger yet that he made no effort to clear up the matter when on site again in the 1930s. He seems to have been confused himself about his sighting and unable to decide which actual location M&I occupied on the ridge at 12:50 pm. I believe that the ‘Elephant in the Living Room’ revealed to us by Odell’s watch answers the question that Odell could not: M&I were seen at the Third Step. More analysis to follow. Hope to join in on the 1999 Search Comments soon. S.I. Wells, Donner Pass, July 3, 2021
    (p.s., the Hingston reference in my previous message is on page 537 of Davis’ book, not page 536)

  5. Your commentary on the route Mallory and Irvine took, the rationale, the evidence, the tie-in with Odell’s sighting etc are very convincing. But is there a problem in the timing Mallory suggested to John Noel i.e. 8pm? It has been assumed that he meant 8am but he could not have believed, based on Norton’s ascent a few days before, that he would be under the rockband by 8am. 8pm is clearly wrong so do we just ignore it?

      1. Michael, You are so right about message mix-ups –and how much greater is the occurrence liable to be at altitude. This 5-minute video from Xtreme Everest documents how easily even a doctor can unwittingly become confused under hypoxic conditions. This might well explain all the confusion over times, distances, and Steps. It definitely explains all the painless deaths at high elevation.
        On hypoxia:
        [Dr. Kevin Fong decompression test video]
        Loss of mental faculties: concentration, memory; no awareness of danger.
        Hypoxia induces an oddly euphoric state, in addition to mental failing, which explains the confusion in messaging (e.g., “8.0 p.m.” instead of “8.0 a.m.”), and the many casual corpses on Everest.

      2. It is curious that so many people repeat the mantra “history is a set of lies commonly agreed upon.” And if you say this, everyone will say, “yes, yes, we all know that, you are not telling us anything new.” However, when you actually point out specific lies that make up the part of this history that is commonly agreed upon, suddenly everyone thinks it is a radical idea and that in this one case everyone is telling the truth.

        Norton lied about the altitudes and times. Everyone agreed upon these lies. They still do. That is called “history.”

        Similarly, everyone is familiar with the mantra that “history is written by the victors.” And again, everyone will say, “yes, yes, this is nothing new.” And yet, when it is pointed out that after Mallory died, Norton completely made up all the key elements of the “plan” to climb the mountain that directly contradict everything Mallory ever said while he was alive, it is also taken as some radical idea.

        Mallory said he was never going to climb the ridge because it was impossible. Norton lied and says he always intended to do so. Norton was successful in his deception because he was alive and Mallory was dead. This is called “history.”

    1. Stewart, You might consult my series of comments posted on M. Tracy’s video page
      On Norton’s diary entry:
      If the entry accurately reports Odell’s message, Norton betrayed his own design to falsify the message later. But perhaps Norton mis-reported Odell’s message in his diary, to boost the status of M&I on the mountain, then later attempted to correct it. Perhaps both Norton and Odell were confused about the sighting, and were unable to sort out the details.
      It does look like Norton wanted the sighting to have been on the 1st Step, which, being lower than his own climb, credited him with the altitude record for all expeditions. But then why didn’t he destroy the evidence of his telltale diary entry?
      On the oxygen bottles: On June 8, 1924, five or six bottles left Camp VI toward the summit. Bottle #9 was dropped empty somewhere below the NE ridge and east of the 1st Step. I believe this was where M&I concluded to abandon the skyline route and traverse the north flank of the ridge in the general direction of the 3rd Step. The area above 28,000 ft. between the Norton Couloir and the crest of the NE Ridge beyond the 2nd Step would be a viable search area for another two empty oxygen bottles. This search area could be extended to the lower part of the pyramid. Two more empty bottles can be sought higher on the pyramid. A full bottle may have been cached somewhere between the 3rd Step and the lower pyramid. It may have been used on the descent and dropped at a lower elevation anywhere above the point of Mallory’s final fall, or it may have been abandoned in place, full and unnecessary for the descent. Norton certainly did give the impression that oxygen was unnecessary for descent below 28,000 ft.
      The important point here is not the veracity of Norton’s and Odell’s statements, nor whether or not full oxygen bottles were cached; the important point is to FIND the missing 4-5 oxygen bottles, along with any other traces, along with the body of Andrew Irvine, whose heavy coat may carry a camera in one zippered coat pocket, stones from the summit in another zippered coat pocket, and a tell-all diary in an interior coat pocket!

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  7. You make good points about lies and history, and I must concede the possibility that Col. Norton lied about the times and locations of Odell’s sighting: at any rate his June 14 dispatch is incorrect, whether by deception or by mistake.
    The lowest elevation I could find for the base of the 2nd step is 28,120 ft.

    It is more frequently, and realistically, set at 28,250 ft,  but these sites never declare whether they mean the top or base of the step.Arnette places the base at 28,140 ft.

    In any case, a gain of a few dozen feet from the base would be a simple matter for anyone ‘going strong for the top’ after the 1st Step, where Norton wrongly places Odell’s sighting in his June 14 dispatch. Thus, Norton’s 28,126 ft. ‘record’ was easily broken by M&I even if they had only surmounted the 1st Step.Besides all this, Somervell must have exceeded Norton’s high point when he ascended to belay Norton out of his distress in the Couloir, as Wade Davis, among others, reports. Combined with his tell-tale accurate diary entry of Odell’s sighting, could Norton realistically have expected to get away with the altitude lie in the company of so many experts? I find the argument for cognitive impairment stronger than deliberate deception –though I cannot prove it. (But then I believe everyone who cannot see the ‘Elephant in the Room’ of Odell’s sighting time to be cognitively impaired.) Did Norton ever concede a higher altitude to M&I, or did he maintain his earlier claim the rest of his life? The point is now moot, I think we agree, since all the real evidence points to a traverse and an appearance by M&I at the 3rd Step. I only hope we can persuade the scientific community to mount a proper search for traces of M&I past the 3rd step some day soon. S.I. Wells, Donner Pass, 21 July 2021

  8. Mallory would have considered Norton’s climb and thought, well that’s close and I can do just that bit better (oxygen plus natural self regard). So similar route, no way up the Ridge.

  9. This has been my principal thesis all along, in close agreement with yours. However, I cannot rule out the alternative ridge climb. I believe Mallory did possess the skills to surmount the Second Step solo, and hence could have succeeded by the ridge route, had he so chosen. At this stage, I do not believe anyone can be certain about what happened that day –except that Mallory tragically died.

  10. Also, as I remarked on Jake Norton´s site, a ridge climb past the Second Step could explain the purported sitck, peice of rope, and two 1924 oxygen bottles claimed to have been found by the Chinese beyond the Second Step in 1960 –if only they would produce the items for examination.

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