Mallory’s published statements show that he never intended to climb the entire crest of the North-East Arete. Instead, he planned on following a route below the ridge in order to bypass the obstacles on the crest. Mallory did not consider climbing the Second Step. Indeed, in all his expedition journals, letters home, and documented conversations, the phrase “second step” is never used. Mallory discussed nearly every other problem of the climb, but he never mentioned the “first step,” nor the “second step.” His only published statement on the “obstacles” on the ridge was that he intended to bypass them below the ridge. (See Pete Poston‘s take on a possible couloir approach. And Gareth Thomas‘ couloir theory).
The published description of his intended route is found in Through Tibet to Everest and the America version The Story of Everest, by John Noel.
There are minor difference between the two, but here I will focus on the America version:
“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. 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.” (Story of Everest p. 227).
In looking at this area, I would like to thank Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson for permission to use his photo. As with all the people who contribute photos, ideas, or time, it is greatly appreciated. Of course, this does not imply that any of the contributors share any of the ideas presented here. Here is a photo taken from the “top” of the First Step along the standard route. I say “top” because, the actual top of the First Step, along the ridge, is not climbed and the highest point along the modern route goes below the main tower.
This photo shows the “ridge” that Noel mentions in Through Tibet to Everest. Here, the North-North-East shoulder/ridge is clearly visible, as is the subsidiary gully leading up to its crest — the route on the right. This is approximately the route climbed by Messner in 1980. In his description of the route, Messner writes, “I continue somewhat further along the rib, where the least of the snow lies. For an hour. Until a dark vertical rock wall bars the way above me. Something draws me to the left, I pass the obstacle, and continue still keeping to the right.” (The Crystal Horizon, p. 243). Update: I have a better determination of Messner’s route in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAhAycFdONg . It has Messner exiting lower on the North shoulder and was worked out after breaking down Messner’s climb times and statements in The Crystal Horizon.
I also note the “Smythe/Norton” high point. It is generally accepted that the 1933 expeditions achieved roughly the same point that Norton achieved in 1924. Fortunately, Smythe took a picture (Page 18) and put an “X” on it, which allows me to place the spot precisely — hence I name it the “Smythe/Norton” point. Norton may actually have been a little higher, but he was still stuck below the ledge at the top of the couloir.
Zooming on on the Smythe/Norton point, I put in a possible “zig-zag” route to illustrate that the “zig-zag” route is not reachable once you enter the couloir. The rock ledges that make up the top of the couloir are not passable straight up. The route climbed by Norton, Wyn-Harris, and Smythe is not the best route, as it has you bumping up against the top ledges of the couloir and you have to traverse across the entire couloir to the west along difficult slabs. As Norton and Smythe both noted, it is much easier to traverse the couloir lower and climb out along the subsidiary couloir to the west (right). Although this route was clearly identified prior to 1933, it is not clear why all of the 1933 climbers did the exact same thing — entered the couloir and then tried to climb directly out its top. All failed at exactly the same spot.
The two potential routes match up with the note that Mallory wrote to John Noel:
“Dear Noel,We’ll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won’t be too early to start looking out for us either crossing the rockband under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8.0 p.m.Yours ever G Mallory”
Looking at a frame from Epic of Everest (for which “fair use” is claimed), we can see both the “skyline” and “rockband”
From this angle, the route likely taken by Mallory looks fairly easy: (Note, the leg out to the right is put in because the rocks at the top of that ledge are very smooth. It doesn’t really show in this B&W image, but climbing a straight route would be difficult because there is no traction on the rocks at that section, while moving to the right is less steep and has a line to follow.)
As discussed in the Odell video, this matches up with Odell’s sighting on the “last step but one” from the final pyramid.
The “skyline” is the large snow triangle in the image. Mallory specifically called this snow triangle the “skyline” in his 1921 expedition report.
In terms of the “rockband,” there are several different “rockbands” that make up the section view-able in this photo. It is not clear which of these “rockbands” Mallory was referring to, and it does not make any difference. Mallory was simply stating that he would go to the left (skyline) or right (rockband). In terms of exactly which “rockband,” the only certainty is that Mallory was not referring to The Beatles.
In this color photo, the various “rockbands” are more distinct, and this possible route bypasses the “dark vertical wall” to the right, as opposed to Messner’s route. The point is that there is no one “route.” There are several viable options. Messner climbed one variation in 1980. The Australians climbed a similar variation in 1984.
The only thing left to do is to climb a route to the east of the couloir and determine whether the route would have been climbable by Mallory and Irvine within a reasonable amount of time.