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.
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. The 2019 team did not attempt to contact me to ask for photos or other information about that area of the mountain.
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.
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. They recovered the contents of his pockets including a handkerchief which likely held the rock samples. However, as rocks could not be sold to the highest bidder, their focus was exclusively on the camera. 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. There never was a need to try to develop its film.
However, the 1999 expedition did not stop at destroying evidence merely on Mallory’s body. 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.
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.
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.
In terms of their search area, it was already covered in 2004 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 O’dells 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. O’dell’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.
- You can turn around any time you want on Everest. The notion that they had to climb to the summit because the Sherpas made them do it is laughable.
- The “conga” line was on the south side. The number of climbers on the North is regulated and typically, you can climb alone if you don’t want to follow the herd. I have numerous pictures of me alone on the mountain — it is not hard to get away from people on the North. Curiously, the photographer also states he was the last person on the mountain. So why the reference to crowds from years ago and a different side?
Ultimately, there are two types of people who search for Irvine — those that want to solve the mystery and those seeking the supposed financial gain from finding the camera. The former group is fairly open and discusses what has been done and shares what they have found. Unfortunately, the 1999 and the 2019 expeditions were not part of this group. (Both were sponsored by National Geographic.)
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, Mark Synnott has a section where he 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, Mark, 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.
Of course, as an experienced mountain climber, you (Mark) knew this. Rather than thanking the large team that fixed the ropes, you decide to act morally indignant about them forming a “conga line” at the “first weather window.” What is wrong with you?
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.