The conventional wisdom is that Mallory attempted to climb the Second Step and may have been successful. This theory is articulated in The Wildest Dream, Detectives on Everest, and numerous online postings. In contrast, my website puts forth the idea that Mallory would not have bothered with the First or Second Steps because there was an easier route that Norton had already identified.
The “Second Step” theory is based on statements made by Norton and Ruttledge that Mallory advocated a “ridge route.” A review of the actual record of what Mallory said shows that he never intended a “ridge route.” Mallory directly contradicts the “ridge route” theory by saying that a complete ridge route was not practicable and that it would be necessary to deviate from the ridge to avoid the obvious obstacles.
Mallory gave the details of his planned route to John Noel, the expedition photographer, the day before Mallory and Irvine headed up the mountain. The route described to Noel is a climb up the shoulder above the couloir and does not involve climbing on the “ridge” until a point well past the couloir.
Arêtes, Cols, and Peaks
An arête is a ridge that meets up with a col. A “col” is a saddle. In general, I will use “arête ” interchangeably with “ridge.” However, if you are reading Mallory’s reports and you see discussion about whether a ridge is a real arête or not, it is referring to ridges that do no end in a col.
On Everest, the cols and peaks use the Tibetan names of “La” for col and “Tse” for peak. Thus, Chang La is the north col. (Chang means north). Chang-tse is the north peak. Lho-tse, Nup-tse, Chang-tse are all named the same, with Lho=South and Nup=West.
Norton and later Ruttledge said that Mallory intended climb exclusively on the North-East Arete.
The roots of the “Second Step” theory started with Odell’s sighting. Odell stated that he saw Mallory and Irvine climbing a “rock step” but could not be certain of which “rock step” it was. The early expedition reports (1924 and 1933) focus on whether he saw them on the “First Step” or “Second Step.” At the time, the notion of the “Third Step” did not exist. For further research, there is the possibility that the terms “first step” and “second step” were introduced in the 1924 expedition specifically to deal with what Odell saw. The prior descriptions of the north-east ridge did not make any references to the steps, and no climbers had an discussions about the North-East Ridge other than to note that it was not climbable. I’ll have to do more research on this, but it does explain why the numerous other “steps” along the ridge are not named or numbered.
With Odell placing the pair on the north-east ridge, Ruttledge made the statement that “Mallory always intended to climb straight up to the great north-east arête and follow it to the final pyramid, trusting to be able to climb the two nearly vertical steps which guard the way.” (Everest 1933, Ruttledge p.24).
It is impossible that Mallory “always” intended to climb any particular route. Mallory first saw Mount Everest in 1921 and died 3 years later. Mallory spent the entire 1921 expedition scouting out various routes, and we have his comments on several of them, but he specifically said that he hadn’t found the exact route up to the top yet.
It does not appear that Ruttledge ever met Mallory, and he was not involved with the expeditions from the 1920’s. Instead, it appears that Ruttledge got this information from Norton.
Norton stated the Mallory intended to climb along the crest of the ridge in Everest 1924, p.112 noting that the “line [Somervell and I] followed was one roughly parallel to and perhaps 500 to 600 feet below the crest of the North-east Arête; this was the line Sommervell and I had always favoured in preference to the actual crest, which Mallory advocated.” As such, the origin of the statement is from Norton. Whether Mallory ever actually “advocated” a route along the crest in private while publicly stating he intended to divert from the crest is highly suspicious. In addition, Norton questioned Mallory about his choice of taking Irvine, and devotes an entire section to discussing why Odell should have been taken instead. Yet Norton says absolutely nothing to Mallory about climbing the “second step.”
In 1922, while Norton, Somervell, and Mallory were climbing together, they were exploring the route up along the North Ridge, with the general idea to climb to reach the North-East Shoulder. This was a reconnaissance climb with the goal of “following the [north] ridge itself directly towards the great tower capping the north-east shoulder of the mountain.” The trio turned around a couple hundred feet below the shoulder, and perhaps Norton felt that Mallory intended to re-climb that section for some reason.
In terms of what Mallory may have said to Norton in 1924, Norton’s diary entry for the day is “Stone blind all day & in considerable pain. Helped GLM [Mallory] to complete plan for his & Irvine’s attempt with oxygen next day. Talked to porters a little & so on…” In Everest 1924, Norton clarifies that this involved coordinating the porters carrying the oxygen (as he spoke the language the best) and talking to Mallory about his choice of Irvine (as opposed to Odell). In any conversation Norton did have with Mallory about the final route, Norton’s state of exhaustion, pain, and blindness makes it understandable that there was some miscommunication. I’ll have a future post about what likely happened with this miscommunication. For now, we need to look at exactly what Mallory said to see if he ever advocated a full ridge route.
Mallory says a full North-East Arete Route is impossible
In 1921, Mallory scouted out the full north-east arête from a point just beyond the foot of Mount Everest. Mallory wrote:
“But the distance from the North-east arête was small enough and we were now looking almost directly up its amazing crest. If any doubts remained at this time as to that line of attack, they now received a coup de grace. Not only was the crest itself seen to be both sharp and steep, suggesting an almost infinite labour, but the slopes on either hand appeared in most places an impracticable alternative; and leading up to the great rock towers of the North-east shoulder, the final section, the point of a cruel sickle appeared effectually to bar further progress should anyone have been content to spend a week or so on the lower parts.” Mallory, George Leigh. Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Leigh Mallory (Kindle Locations 2059-2064)
This corresponds with the “Pinnacles” route — a route which, though climbed, has seen several deaths and is extremely difficult.
By Charles Howard-Bury (UK)(Life time: 15 August 1881 – 20 September 1963) – Original publication: Geographical Journal (UK) Immediate source: http://www.codex99.com/photography/118.html, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43053422
Looking at the above picture, it is easy to see that the ridge below the shoulder is “sharp and steep” and would be difficult to climb. While the higher section is further from view, it does not look any less “sharp and steep.” In fact, the section above the shoulder/pinnacles looks just as sharp and steep as the section below it — with the pinnacles/shoulder being the obviously more difficult part.
Mallory says the prospects for success are small
In a presentation given by the Mount Everest Committee after the 1921 expedition, Mallory provided his insight as to the probability of climbing the mountain:
(www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, Yorkshire Post, December 21, 1921).
Mallory noted that is as “very far from a sanguine estimate of success.” Mallory notes that it could take years of climbers “besieg[ing]” the mountain in order to achieve success. This is hardly an endorsement that he “always” intended to climb the ridge route, as he does not indicate any particular route, and he has not even identified the “ridge route” as having a chance for success.
Mallory says that the final route has not been worked out
Mallory specifically states that the final route has not been worked out:
“The reader who has carefully followed the preceding story will hardly have failed to notice that the route which has been chosen as the only one offering reasonable chances of success remains still very largely a matter of speculation.” Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921 (Kindle Locations 3951-3952).
In 1921 Mallory says the a ridge route is not the best route but thinks a route below the ridge would work
The best indication of Mallory’s formulation of a route is found in the following passage from Everest 1921 — you can download a free Kindle edition and follow along:
“From the North-east Shoulder to the summit of the mountain the way is not so smooth. The rise is only 1,000 feet in a distance of half a mile, but the first part of the crest is distinctly jagged by several towers and the last part is steep. Much will depend upon the possibility of escaping from the crest to avoid the obstacles and of regaining it easily. The South-east side (left going up) is terribly steep, and it will almost certainly be out of the question to traverse there. But the sloping snow-covered ledges on the North-west may serve very well; the difficulty about them is their tendency to be horizontal in direction and to diverge from the arête where it slopes upwards, so that a party which had followed one in preference to the crest might find themselves cut off by a cliff running across the face above them. But one way or another I think it should be possible with the help of such ledges to reach the final obstacle. The summit itself is like the thin end of a wedge thrust up from the mass in which it is embedded. The edge of it, with the highest point at the far end, can only be reached from the North-east by climbing a steep blunt edge of snow. The height of this final obstacle must be fully 200 feet. Mr. Bullock and I examined it often through our field-glasses, and though it did not appear insuperable, whatever our point of view, it never looked anything but steep.” (Wollaston, A. F. R.; Leigh-Mallory, George H.; Howard-Bury, Charles Kenneth. Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921 (Kindle Location 3990)) (emphasis added).
In the above section, Mallory outlines the basics of what will eventually be his final route. He intends to follow the slabs below the ridge in order to avoid the obstacles (the first and second steps). At some point, he has to get to the ridge because that is the only way to the summit. He comments on the “final obstacle” which he identifies as a 200 ft “blunt edge of snow” — this is undoubtedly the “snow triangle.” Modern climbs typically by-pass the top of the “snow triangle” because it is too steep and instead go around the “summit traverse” to access the summit ridge.
Mallory says that climbing the ridge route is too restrictive
Mallory echos the common sense approach that climbing on a ridge would not be the best route because a single obstacle could block your passage, while climbing down on the face allows you to go around obstacles:
“Where the climber is confined to a narrow crest and can find no way to circumvent an obstacle, a very small tower or wall, a matter of twenty feet, may bar his progress. There the general angle may be what it likes: the important matter for him is that the angle is too steep in a particular place. But on a mountain’s face where his choice is not limited to a strict and narrow way, the general angle is of primary importance: if it is sufficiently gentle, the climber will find that he may wander almost where he will to avoid the steeper places.” (Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921 (Kindle Locations 3976-3978).)
Mallory says that even small obstacles will disrupt your breathing
Mallory was well aware of the problems of climbing at high altitudes and notes that while climbing obstacles might be possible, they would exhaust the climber:
“But in any case it is to be expected that efforts above 23,000 feet will be more exhausting than those at lower elevations; and it may well be that the nature of the ground will turn the scale against the climber. For him it is all important that he should be able to breathe regularly, the demand upon his lungs along the final arête cannot fail to be a terrible strain, and anything like a tussle up some steep obstacle which would interfere with the regularity of his breathing might prove to be an ordeal beyond his strength.” (Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921 (Kindle Locations 4015-4017)).
In other words, Mallory is not going to “tussle” with the Second Step.
Mallory says any “ridge route” is doomed to failure
Mallory understood that time was a key factor in any ascent of Mount Everest. Climbing obstacles, while possible, would slow the climber down and it was better to avoid them and take the easy route:
“If ever the mountain were to be climbed, the way would not lie along the whole length of any one of its colossal ridge. Progress could only be made along comparatively easy ground, and anything like a prolonged sharp crest or a series of towers would inevitably bar the way simply by the time which would be required to overcome such obstacles.” (Kindle Location 3142).
It is irrelevant whether Mallory could climb the Second Step. Mallory himself understood this. Even if he could climb the Second Step, the amount of time involved would make the summit impossible. Modern climbers who “free climb” the Second Step are no doing so in the same conditions as Mallory. They know the route and they have budgeted their time around climbing the second step. In addition, they know full well what the ground above the step looks like. Given that Mallory had already said that he couldn’t waste time on any obstacles and that the best route was to descend off the ridge to avoid the obstacles, that is most likely what he did.
In 1924 Mallory says he is NOT climbing the “ridge route.”
A curious item is missing from all the “Second Step” theories. Namely, the description of the route as told by Mallory. This route description is printed in John Noel’s Through Tibet to Everest, published in 1927:
“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 North-East Ridge 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. Such a route would bring him along the knife-edge of the Eastern Ridge. This ridge is corniced by the continual action of the west wind.” (Through Tibet to Everest p. 275).
In the Story of Everest, which is the same book re-printed for distribution in the USA (they added a bunch of pictures for us Americans as well), makes a small change in this portion of text:
“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
North-East Ridge northeast of the final pyramid, but if he found the gGully particularly difficult, or if the west wind were particularly bad, he would take the Eeastern Rridge, missing the gGully by passing across the head of it and gaining better protection from the west wind. Such a route would bring him along the knife-edge of the Eeastern Rridge. This ridge is corniced by the continual action of the west wind.” (Story of Everest p. 227).
The change in capitalization is consistent throughout the book. The removal of the word “ridge” is not. That edit was done intentionally to clear up the confusion about the two ridges. The “Eastern Ridge” is what is commonly called today as the “North East Ridge.” This was a common problem in the early days of Everest, and Mallory sometimes refers to it as the “East Arete” and other times as the “North-East Arete.” Mallory makes a footnote saying “It had not yet been established that the true direction of this arête is North-east.” (Kindle Locations 2958-2959).
With these explanations, Mallory has both a primary plan and a backup plan. Plan (A): Take the couloir (gully) to the northeast section of the final pyramid. This will put him directly on the north face and he will only take this route if there is low wind. This is essentially the Messner 1980 route. I’ll have pictures and more analysis of the route later.
Plan (B): Cross above the top of the couloir and head up to the “east” ridge — which is the north-east ridge. This location would be above the couloir, which is well beyond the Second Step. This corresponds to the various possibilities of the “zig-zag” route outlined in the video.
Conclusion and further research
Mallory’s detailed reports from the 1921 reconnaissance indicate that his preferred route was a line below the north-east ridge which avoided any obstacles on the ridge. He outlined his plan to climb below the ridge and access the final summit pyramid either by passing cross the couloir and heading up the shoulder above the couloir or by crossing above the couloir and accessing the skyline route.
In future posts, I intend to cover how confusions about “ridges” and “shoulders” led to Norton’s confusion about what Mallory said his route was. I’ll also, hopefully, have a completed analysis of the term “second step,” as it appears that Mallory himself never used this term and never discussed any details with anyone about climbing it — though, as noted above, he clearly described a route going around it.