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.


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:


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:


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:


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.


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.


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