A recent National Geographic article describes a small search effort conducted in 2019. The 2019 “search” consisted of climbing to the summit and then descending. Along the decent, a slightly different route was taken in the region near the exit cracks. This same area was searched in 2004 by Jake Norton and by myself and others in 2018 and nothing was found. And the general area was searched by Jamie McGuiness in 2012. (McGuiness was also on the 2019 search).
I was one of three people searching in 2018. The people who searched in 2018 did not attempt to go to the summit (all of us were previous summitters) and we had plenty of time to look around. Unfortunately, 2018 had much higher snow coverage which made it useless to search beyond the close up areas. The intent in 2018 was to search further west, but because of the snow conditions, it was not possible to safely get there. And even if you could get there, the only thing you would have found was snow. As such, most of the 2018 search covered the same area searched by Norton in 2004. Nothing was found, and the 2019 “search” covered this exact same area. Update: This has been clarified that their goal was not to summit but to research the “Holzel spot” using a variety of techniques. While this seems to contradict what they did, it is likely just because none of the photos showed it was worth conducting an extensive search of that area. They could have made this more clear in the article. However, the explanation does make sense — they intended to do one thing and when the photos showed nothing there, they did something else. It looks like they explored the “Holzel Theory” fairly well, but there was never really any way it would work. So, the article ended up without a clear direction.
In terms of the National Geographic article, it has so many inaccuracies and omissions that it is difficult to comment on. The first problem is that it focuses on a search for a camera and uses as a primary source the camera man from the 1999 expedition. Update: This has been clarified to be simplifications of more complex issues — which is common when dealing with a complex subject in a popular publication. To that extent, some of the items below have been modified to reflect this when such a simplification is reasonable.
For instance, “simplifications” are common is dealing with even the most basic facts. You might say “The Earth revolves around the Sun.” That is a simplification. The Earth and the Sun revolve around a common point millions of miles from the center of the Sun that is determined by the Earth, the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and every other particle in the Universe. But you can’t get into that level of detail for basic stories. It appears some of the issues relate to this type of simplifications, and I’ll attempt to clarify.
The largest problem is the general notion of following the 1999 expeditions explanations for the climb and focusing on a search for a camera. The main search should be for rocks in the pockets. Had Mallory and/or Irvine made it to the summit, they would have collected rock samples — just as Norgay and Hillary did and Mallory himself stated he intended to do. If there were no rocks in their pockets, they did not make the summit. If there were rocks in their pockets, the rocks could be analyzed to determine their high point. Rocks provide a reliable method of resolving the controversy. Even if a camera were found, the probability of developing any film to provide conclusive evidence would be remote. It is curious that people fixate on the alleged picture of his wife when a perfectly viable method of resolving the problem existed all along — that is, until the 1999 expedition.
The problems with the 1999 expedition
However, the 1999 expedition was not looking for rocks in the pockets. It was focused exclusively on a camera under what appears to be a mistaken belief that film from the camera would lead to vast financial riches. Instead, the 1999 expedition ripped Mallory’s body apart looking for a camera he didn’t have. Had they simply left Mallory alone, a more circumspect team could have properly recovered the items from his body and the mystery would be resolved one way or the other. There never was a need to find the camera.
Wade Davis, author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, describes the 1999 “search” in an interview. He is highly critical of the “search” and notes they were whacking away at the ice around Mallory while standing on top of him with their crampons. He also describes Thom Pollard climbing underneath Mallory’s body to look at this face. In the interview, Davis mentions that “to his credit Pollard did not snap [photograph] that face.” However, later a photograph shows up. Davis also investigated the claim that the family gave permission for a DNA sample to be taken and states that permission was never given. He also claims the second “search” was done after they realized how much money photographs of the body were fetching.
Davis repeats most of these statements in his book Into the Silence. He also adds comments from various climbers including Edmond Hillary and Chris Bonington which are highly critical of the 1999 search.
Even the “searchers'” own record of the incident leaves little doubt as to what happened. The log of the day (May 1, 1999) indicates a small search was conducted with the most extensive part noting in the transcript: “We’re cutting his sleeves off and exposing his arms. We’re not finding any jewelry or wearing a wristwatch on either wrist.” (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/lost/search/day.html). Shortly after that, they buried him
And Conrad Anker’s account in “Lost Explorer”:
Later, Simonson mentions a “second search effort” and more items show up — including George Mallory’s boot and watch. Simonson claims it is “finders keepers” on Everest. The following are all the items recovered: https://affimer.mountainguides.com/artifact-gallery.html.
More details of the “second search” can be found here: http://affimer.mountainguides.com/hemmleb6.html
The following is a screen shot where it describes that “Politz and Pollard reopened the grave and, using the White’s metal detector they had brought along this time, scanned the body and its surroundings.”
This “second search” was more extensive than the first, as it was noted, “Shortly before re-interring Mallory, Andy Politz lifted the frozen body high enough for Thom Pollard to take an oblique look at Mallory’s face. It was the first time anyone did, because out of respect for the dead and the wish not to disturb him more than necessary the first search team had never turned the body around.”
No footage of this “second search” has been released, but Pollard allegedly has pictures of Mallory’s face. It is not clear if he was trying to sell these, but fortunately, no one wants anything to do with them. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/may/16/everest.nepal.
According to Wade Davis, the second search was performed on May 16. He provides an account that paints an unflattering picture of the “searchers” having “pried up the cadaver like a frozen log, and Pollard slithered on his back until his body lay supine beneath that of the corpse.” He reported “Mallory’s eye were closed, and a stubble of whiskers covered his chin.”
No information is provided about how the outer-pants pockets were searched. Apparently, the May 1 team did not search Mallory’s pants pockets, as that is where the watch was later found. The May 16 team had a metal detector which signaled metal in the pocket. There is no description of how that pocket was searched nor whether the other outer-pants pocket was searched (assuming his pants had two pockets). The crystal cover for the watch was missing and there is no report of the broken crystal being in the pocket. The crystal would be useful to know if the watch was broken while being worn and then put into the pocket — in which case there would be no crystal. Or placed into the pocket and then broken — in which case the smashed crystal would be in the pocket. In Last Hours on Everest, Graham Hoyland, who was on the 1999 expedition but was kicked off for unexplained reasons, notes, “They found a watch in Mallory’s pocket, but somehow the hour hand fell off between the search site and Advanced Base Camp.”
There are several theories around the watch and the crystal. See the theory that the watch was broken in a climbing maneuver. And the response that just about anything could have knocked the crystal out. Both theories suffering from the problem that no one has any idea if the broken crystal was in the pocket. A photograph was taken of the watch when it was found. Unfortunately, the full photograph has never been released and no explanation has been offered as to why. (Note, a low resolution is available and seems to indicate the hour hand pointing roughly between one and two — as is noted in Wim Kohseik’s article above.)
Similarly, the glass covering of the altimeter was missing and no broken glass was reported. Given that it is extremely unlikely that Mallory would take an altimeter out of his pocket, smash the glass covering, and then put the broken altimeter back in his pocket, it is far more likely that small items, such as broken glass or crystal, were discarded and not recorded.
Conrad Anker later expressed regret for how the 1999 expedition was handled. Years later, he said, “We were a bunch of punch-drunk kids at altitude. And it was about us, not Mallory. When I watch the  film now, I just cringe.” It takes a lot of courage to say you messed up, so I do not want to come across as berating. But it is the elephant in the room when talking about the 1999 expedition.
Please note that the scene of finding Mallory’s body from “The Wildest Dream” is a re-creation. ( https://youtu.be/lpwBQlOSJ3I?t=40 ) That is not Mallory’s body and that is not the correct location on the mountain. Conrad Anker is wearing a different colored down suit (yellow) in the re-creation than in the original (red). If you zoom in on Mallory’s boot, it does not match with photos from the Royal Geographic Society of the boot that was taken from Mallory’s body. And you can easily see the body location does not match up with known photos of Mallory’s location.
There is also an issue with Oxygen Bottle #9. Higher up, they found an oxygen cylinder which they felt a need to bring back with them. Unfortunately, they did not take any pictures of where it was found nor what state it was in — that is, did it look like it was deliberately placed there, dropped, or fell from another location. They also failed to record the exact location where it was found — merely that it was some place below the first step.
While the oxygen bottle would not solve the mystery by itself, it would have told where Mallory and Irvine were at one point in time. The ice axe tells us one point, the oxygen bottle would have told another. However, that information is lost.
Back to the 2019 Search
With this in mind, the 2019 team seemed to have two distinct and contradictory goals: (1) to make it to the summit and (2) to find the camera. They achieved (1) but not (2). In 2019, the snow cover was very low providing excellent searching opportunities. However, returning from the summit is not the time to begin a search. Update: This has been clarified that their initial goal was to search the “Holzel spot”, but the use of drones and normal photography lowered the priority of actually searching this area. This makes sense, but it leaves initial readers wondering why they went to the summit. This could have been better clarified in the article.
In terms of their search area, it was already covered in 2004, 2012, and again in 2018. One reason it is covered so frequently is that it is easy to climb in. In addition, you must cross through it to get to any of the more likely locations for where Irvine might be — which is what was tried in 2018.
I will comment briefly on various inaccuracies in the National Geographic article.
- They place Odell’s location much higher than he reported and in a location from which the first step would not be visible. Their location can be seen on the photo above as the slight depression above the 8000m snow field. Odell’s location was covered fairly extensively here.
- Holzel‘s location for Irvine is stated as “the bowling pin object 80-ft below the Ice Axe Site and 265 yds east (left) of the peak of the First Step.” The map on the NG site shows the “search” route well to the east of the ice axe. (The ice axe was 250 yards east of Fist Step.) This location does not match with the description given by Holzel, and it is no where near the ice axe or any fall from the ice axe. Apparently, GPS was used to locate the crevice, but no indication is given about who programmed the GPS or where the coordinates came from. Searching 80ft below the ice axe site would be a good place to search, but it is very hard to get there. I have photos of that area and there are no obvious locations — but plenty of places he could be.
- Mallory’s stated route was not along the ridge.
- The 1924 expedition had crampons — they just chose not to use them on the rocks higher up. They were used to climb to North Col.
- There is no contemporaneous record of Mallory stating he intended to leave a picture on the summit. This popular piece of the myth was provided years later.
- Posing for a photo with a corpse in the background is poor taste. Using it as your main photo makes one question the moral compass of the people involved. The photo is from the Third Step, and has nothing to do with Irvine or any search. It is also one of the few places bodies still remain on the North side. Occasionally, it is necessary to use photos with bodies to show a particular part of the mountain, but this was not the case with the NG photo.
- Update: They present several issues with Sherpas and “crowds” which are trying to present more complex issue of conducting a search. This really is a complex issue and they just should have left the entire thing out.
Update: After reviewing the 2020 “Lost on Everest” show.
The hour long show is an sensationalized display of everything that is wrong with society today. Much like the print article, it is riddled with obvious errors — such as the location of the ice axe. It does not even discuss anything other than the idea that Mallory and Irvine climbed the Second Step. And it blatantly distorts facts to present a view they believe their viewers wish to hear.
For instance, a section describes a “conga line” to the summit and decries that so many people went at the first weather window. Curiously, it then cuts to pictures from the south side of the mountain. In any case, the reason there is a large “conga line” at the first weather window is because a team of climbers needs to fix more than 1 mile of rope that makes the final connection from high camp to the summit. That much rope weighs several hundred pounds which is obviously well beyond the ability of a small group of climbers to carry. The reason they are moving slowly is because they need to attach the ropes to the rocks or drive steaks into the snow. Prior to fixing the ropes, they have to either rely on old frayed ropes or no ropes at all. They do this at the “first weather window” because it would not make sense to fix the ropes after everyone had climbed the mountain.
In terms of the use of drones, although the drone provided some interesting views, they apparently only used the drone at higher altitudes on one day. This day was early in the season and there was significant snow coverage. The pictures were lower resolution than could be achieved with a telephoto lens, but the drone provided a better angle. Unfortunately, the only thing the photos show are any potential locations covered in snow. When they finally did make their summit push, there was extremely low snow, but they did not take any drone pictures (at least that they showed).
In terms of Holzel’s ever changing theory, it changed again for the show. This time, Mallory was dangling by the rope and Irvine cut him loose. In addition, the “Holzel slot” is shown at different locations at different times in the show. They eventually climb out to what is supposed to be the “Holzel slot” and find nothing. There is no footage of this.
They keep changing locations of the ice axe and the “Holzel slot” to try to come up with a theory of how Irvine could get into a location he ultimately never was. They didn’t find Irvine, nor did they take any drone photos on the day that would have been useful. The most useful thing that came out of the expedition is that we no longer have to listen to Holzel’s crazy theories.
Ultimately, it appears the reliance on the Holzel theory undermined the entire expedition. As it became more and more apparent there was nothing in the Holzel slot, there wasn’t a plan to switch and search any of the other areas.