The Crux: Mallory’s Planned Route to Bypass the Second Step

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).

While not critical to Mallory’s climb, as Messner took the route to the right of the couloir, his description is why I put the route as bypassing the dark wall to the left, but that is not the only possibility.

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” 20170414_210718

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.

Summit Pyramid-Noel-Routes

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.

19 thoughts on “The Crux: Mallory’s Planned Route to Bypass the Second Step

  1. Brilliant and historic analysis, hope you get more pics and illustrations, this deserves a book.

  2. This, along with a couple of the videos on Youtube, is the most logical and fact-based perspective on (a) where Mallory and Irvine hiked and (b) where Irvine likely lies. It deserves a full investigation, as it’s very possible that they summitted Everest and their efforts deserve further appreciation.

    1. Everything i have read previously pointed to a no summit theory and I accepted this. This work puts everything in a new perspective and I am not sure what to think. a successful summit at least seems plausible now. If malloryand irvine were on third step at 1250pm I suppose there was nothing stopping them from summitting.

  3. Superb analysis, truly fascinating. I hope you will be able to provide an update soon.

  4. Great read. Makes sense. I believe they made it and had a accident coming down. What amazing adventures in th 1920s

  5. So when George Mallory erroneously wrote 8pm in his note to John Noel, which people have often taken to mean 8am, is it likely he meant 3pm? And I don’t wish to wander into the realms of conspiracy theories here, but is it possible the note might have been altered by somebody? A 3 could easily be changed into an 8, and Norton completely changed the time and location of Noel Odell’s sighting of Mallory and Irvine at what was obviously the 3rd Step at 12:50pm for an unknown reason.

  6. Michael,
    Something occurred to me recently, something about the Second Step, and the embattled attempts to prove that M&I might have climbed it. Those like myself who believe that M&I (or at least Mallory) reached the summit by a traverse of rtathe North Face have sound reasons for thinking so. But any ¨planned route¨ can be changed on site, and still no one knows which route was taken.Others believe that the NE Ridge and Steps may have been M&I´s preferred route. They may be right. Odell described the two figures appearing at the base of one of the Steps. First one surmounted the Step ‘with alacrity’, and then the other did likewise. If this happened at the First or Third Step, or on any other rise along the Ridge except the Second Step, why didn’t they proceed roped together in single file, staying close to each other? Could it be that they climbed a ROPE to the top, which Mallory had set earlier, still obscured by clouds, having free-climbed, with his consummate rock skills, the Second Step? He then would have descended the rope to test it, to convince Irvine, and to pick up his gear, left at the base, for the final ascent. Two climbers on the rope at once would have been hazardous, so they climbed separately, as Odell reported. Odell’s confusion about the Steps and his surprise at the late hour of M&I’s location now becomes understandable, as Mallory must have taken up several hours in performing the feat (like the Chinese in 1960). The seeming ‘synchronicity’ of Odell’s sighting with the climb of the Step was due simply to the opportune break in the weather. The late summiting, and the descent across the Yellow Band after dark, and the consequent mishap now also become understandable.
    [new website:

  7. Has a team combed the zig zag route for any evidence of Mallory and Irvine? It seems this route is not commonly traveled.

    1. No, there have been no searches of this route. I have photos of it, and it does no appear to have anything on it. There is one spot, sort of a “cave” down at the bottom that I’d like to look at, but the route is fairly steep. The oxygen bottle that was found down lower still had oxygen in it and was likely left deliberately as a “cache” — that is, they intended to pick it back up on the way down. For empty bottles, they would just drop them down the mountain — especially if they were descending the zig-zag. No reason to leave a bottle only to have it come loose and hit you on the way down. Drones could be used to search the bottom of the mountain and get an idea of where they dropped their bottles.

  8. The changing Odell story appears to be the weak link, although all post 1924 attempts were attempting the traverse, inter war periods, the idea rests on Odells initial report

  9. I never heard that the O2 bottle found still had oxygen in it even after 70 years or so. Given that it was higher up than Irvine’s axe (but still rather close to the axed), wouldn’t that suggest that they couldn’t find the cached oxygen bottle on the way down due to darkness or storm conditions?

    1. Yes, that is the logical conclusion. I am putting it all together for a new video. Why it took Jake 22 years to revel that the O2 bottle was not empty remains a mystery. . More problematic is that it is very unlikely that he kept the information to himself. Other people on the expedition had to know about it, and yet they all claimed it was empty.

  10. This definitely changes what we know about their path and what happened that day. I know it is hard to determine much from the mitten and sock but they are also in the same area. I would love to hear your thoughts on that as well. Is there any reason why a climber would take off his mitten? Are both of mallory’s mittens accounted for? Was there any blood on them? I look forward to seeing your new video. I am fascinated by this mystery.

    1. Both his mittens as well as the fingerless gloves were not on the body. He had a spare pair of fingerless gloves in his pocket — as reported by Conrad Anker, but only one was handed over to the Royal Geographic Society, so someone pilfered a glove on the 1999 expedition. I don’t think it was any of the climbers, but the problem is that none of the climbers said anything about it. Certainly, they would have a pretty good idea who did it or at least flag that an item was stolen.

      And this gets to the problem with all the “evidence” they supposedly found. We don’t know anything about it. The mitten that was found further up on the mountain was not photographed and the location it was found was not photographed or even clearly identified. Thus, they are free to move its location around whenever they want to suit whatever theory they are putting forward at the time. And they did this with the oxygen bottle. The initial 1999 book places it much further down the mountain than were Jake Norton placed it this year. So, 22 years later, one of their members corrects the location of the bottle and just happens to drop the fact that it still had oxygen in it. It is not worth analyzing things like the mitten or the sock because nothing about their being found is known and certainly cannot be confirmed. If they were more important items — like oxygen bottle #9, it would be worth trying to figure out what happened.

      As you look more and more into this “mystery” you are going to end up with a really bad feeling about the 1999 expedition. I don’t think it was any of the climbers, but someone on that expedition had a definite agenda that aligned with Chairman Mao’s.

  11. I’m looking forward to seeing your latest video. One more question, has anyone ever analyzed the blood stains on Mallory’s jacket to determine if it belonged to Irvine or Mallory? It would be easy to do and it could provide insight on what happened on the descent.

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