Comments on 2019 search

A recent National Geographic article describes a small search effort for Andrew “Sandy” Irvine 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. Ultimately, the “Holzel” slot turned out to be 9-inches wide and there was no possibility Irvine was ever there.

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 ignored all the information that has come to light since finding Mallory in 1999 — namely that Mallory stated the ridge route is impossible and that he would climb one of two different routes below the ridge.

The largest problem is that the search for Irvine still focused searching for a camera. The main search should be for rocks in the pockets. Had Mallory and 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 search which found Mallory

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. Sir Edmond Hillary stated that what they did was distasteful. Sir Chris Bonington said, “Words can’t express how disgusted I am. These people don’t deserve to be called climbers.” And George Mallory (the grandson) stated the mishandling of the search “makes me bloody angry.” (Into the Silence (p. 568))

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:

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Explorer-Finding-Mallory-Everest-ebook/dp/B00OGUPE8S

The expedition leader, Eric Simonson claims it is “finders keepers” on Everest. The following are all the items recovered: https://affimer.mountainguides.com/artifact-gallery.html. However, Conrad Anker writes in his book The Lost Explorer, “He had the spare pair of fingerless knit gloves in his pocket, but they looked as through they’d never been used.” The above photos, which supposedly are all the artifacts, only contain a single glove. No photos of the second glove have been released and no reason has been given why Anker remembers two gloves being recovered and only one being photographed. The Royal Geographic Society (which holds the artifacts) only has a record of a single glove.

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.” Pollard has not stated whether any photos of the face were taken only that if any were taken, they would never be released.

Problems with the Watch

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.) In “Ghosts of Everest,” it is claimed they searched the pocket for the crystal and missing minute hand. However, no description of how this was done was offered nor an explanation as to why the glass from the altimeter was not similarly searched for. Video should exist of them finding the watch, and it could easily clear up this issue. There is also reason to believe they did not search for the crystal or the missing minute hand — which I will get into in a future post/video.

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 [1999] 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.

Kodak said the film needed to be developed in base camp.

The 1999 search team also had no plans to deal with a camera had one been found. Kodak stated that the film should be developed immediately. This required a darkroom and development lab to be setup at base camp. The 1924 expedition had such a facility, and the 1999 team had professional photographers on the expedition. They could have practiced developing similar film as Graham Hoyland brought a Kodak VPK with him. They could have taken pictures and practiced developing them so that, had they found a camera, they could solve the mystery.

But no such plans were made. At best, one member speculated that they would fly the film to London in a “diplomatic bag” so that it would not be destroyed by x-rays. (Last Hours on Everest: (p. 162).) However, no plans were made to do so, and it was no more than a naive thought. Had they found a camera, most likely the film would have been destroyed while they attempted to get it back to London. Curiously, Kodak gave them detailed instructions that the film should be developed at base camp, and yet this was completely ignored. Kodak did not state to fly the film to London in a diplomatic bag. They said it needed to be developed as soon as it was removed the high altitude environment. More curious is that greed explains most of the other actions, but had they destroyed the film, it would not be of value.

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.

Problems with the Oxygen Bottle

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. And, 22 years after they found it, it is revealed that it had oxygen still in it. This would imply that Mallory and Irvine were using an oxygen bottle caching system, and the people who wrote about it being empty (Hemmleb, Simonson, Anker) knew their analysis was false that had Mallory and Irvine dropping an empty bottle such a short distance from high camp.

Although I am critical of the actions done by the 1999 team, that was over 20 years ago. All of the climbers have done a lot of interesting work since then. Some of it is related to Mallory and Irvine and some is not. In particular, Thom Pollard now runs a fairly interesting podcast and Jake Norton has a lot of content on his website as well. And while I disagree with almost all of their analysis about the Mallory and Irvine climb, this primarily relates to first impression bias. They formed their opinions 20 years ago and before most of the key evidence came out. They have been defending that initial position ever since. They both seem to be very open minded people, so it is interesting to see how this type of bias can affect anyone.

In contrast, Dave Hahn, who was also on the 1999 team, has kept up with the developments and has a more open view of what might have happened.

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 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. Update: Holzel is now offering his crazy ideas to the French. Although the final “Holzel Slot” turned out to be only 9-inches wide and there is no possible way Irvine was ever there, Holzel is now claiming that the “Chinese” removed him.

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.


25 thoughts on “Comments on 2019 search

  1. Thanks very much.
    It’s baffeling how so many “experts” seem to assume that Mallory intended to climb along the ridge, without any real
    evidence for this. Please keep up your excellent work.

  2. Just watched it. At :55 of an hour show, Mark Synnott, suffering from exhaustion, walks out on the yellow band and stumbles around dramatically a bit and then claims there was nothing there. No camera with him, no conscientious attempt at devoting time to exploring slots. Not even convinced he was in the correct location. He was also clearly exhausted and the attempt was totally incomplete and half hearted, a teaser turned into an afterthought. Literally there was absolutely nothing to see, and much less detail was devoted than has been widely available on YouTube. Really disappointing.

  3. At the very least you’d hope that some of the imaging from the drones would be of some use and the fact that they called the show “Lost on Everest” even though that title was used for the Nova documentary detailing the 1999 expedition.

  4. Facinated by your thoughts on this! Have always thought with sandy along the oxygen would have been well planned and that Mallory was too experienced of a climber to not plan for success. Great thought on the rocks they would have picked up. Do you have more info so I can learn more?

  5. Et les encadrures de bouteilles d’oxygène ? Mallory ne la portait pas sur lui . Si une était trouvée , notamment vers le couloir , son emplacement pourrait nous indiquer des éléments plus intéressants . De plus , d’autres artefacts plus petits peuvent etre retrouvés sous la couverture de neige : un bout d’ongle , cheveu , de la peau , du poil , une trace de marquage urinaire , un crachat , etc etc … et si il s’avère qu ‘ ils se situent vers 8600 m ou plus , quel chamboulement dans l’histoire !

    1. Je vais également rajouté quelquechose qui n’a jusqu’ici jamais été mentionné,à savoir qu’en 1930,des séismes ont fortement modifié les parois des montagnes de l’himalaya . Par conséquent,la configuration du 2ème ressaut avant 1930 pouvait ne pas etre la meme qu’après 1930 . Cela fait près de 50 ans que je suis sur ce mystère de manière à confirmer si oui ou non ils ont fait le sommet et on peut me croire,j’ai un dossier en béton.J’ai plusieurs théories et mises sur la balance,ça fait du 50 – 50 .

  6. Interesting information concerning Green Boots. I read that his body had been recovered and turned over to the family, which makes me happy for the family but sad that Green Boots is possibly no longer on the mountain. Do we have confirmation that he is still there?

    1. You will find that most “information” you hear about Everest is complete bullshit. But you should not take my word for it. Watch the National Geographic special, pause where it shows that part of the mountain — and see for yourself.

  7. Thank you for your take, you seem far more grounded and reasonable than these narcissists who end up getting NatGeo money. Honestly the whole thing screamed ‘me, me, me.’

    The fact that they summitted and then half-heartedly looked around on the way down is all you need to watch to know that they really don’t care for what they’re doing, and makes one glad they did not in fact find him.

    They make a hash out of describing Odell’s sighting; ‘Holzel’s spot’ seems to change multiple times; they still assume that Mallory and Irvine must have gone over the second step; they use the drones once for the sake of some flashy footage for the film, and then they take no pictures whatsoever of the area they supposedly thoroughly searched. Laughable. And then they claim, we didn’t find him, therefore he’ll never be found!

    He must still be there waiting to be discovered, hopefully by far more humble and diligent men, not these egoists.

    1. There are still a couple legitimate people looking. Hopefully there will be news one way or the other some day. But likely not for a couple years because of the travel restrictions.

  8. Thank you Mr. Tracy for all the information provided on your website. Very interesting theory and contents.
    Do you have any plans to provide comments on the 2019 search expedition led by Jake Norton (“Everest’s Greatest Mystery – Discovery Channel Undiscovered”)? He feels the mountain has been extensively searched now, and does not seem optimistic anymore about the likelihood of Irvine’s body being located. He supports the ridge route theory though.
    Your insights will be greatly appreciated.

    1. I’ll try to post some comments on the Norton search. But I do not think he searched the mountain extensively. He was primarily interested in the theory that Irvine survived the fall and tried to traverse over the “warts” where he died. This theory is not believable, and in any case has been ruled out by the numerous times that area has been searched.

  9. Mr. Tracy,

    Thanks for digging up new angles and perspectives. I was in contact with Hemmleb during the 90’s after I had read everything I could find about 1924. Your ideas, new to me, make sense and finally I can believe it more probable they summited than not. Some questions:

    How did you come to learn of Mallory’s plan to collect rocks from the summit? More importantly, how did a guy like Hemmleb not know of this possibility?

    Have any other oxygen bottles from the list been found?

    Why have historians and authors, since 1924 assumed they had to surmount the 2nd step?

    Thanks.

    1. Mallory’s statements about collecting rocks are from the newspaper article in which is says “because it is there.”

      I do not have insight into what Hemmlib did, but it seems he was rather marginalized on the expedition. I don’t think they expected to find Mallory so quickly. Hemmlib was down at basecamp. They headed out, found Mallory, searched him, and burried him all in the same day. They were paranoid about using the radio, so Hemmlib was not consulted. He did not find out about what happened until later.

      At some point, someone said, “You didn’t search well enough and you have to go back.” So, another team goes back, digs him up and finds some more items. I think they were all so focused on the camera and had not really thought the thing through. In any case, Hemmlib needed those guys to write his books because they have the artifacts and the photos. In any case, if he had written about how they screwed up the 1999 search, they likely wouldn’t have invited him back in 2001. So, even if he did know about it, he had no incentive to say so.

  10. I very clearly remember reading about the discovery of George Mallory’s body in a newspaper dated 10th May 1999, I have a very good reason for remembering the date which I won’t go into, and I’m absolutely certain to this day that a photo was published showing Mallory’s face. I believe it was taken from the side, his right, and the mouth was open. I don’t remember with 100% certainty which newspaper it was but was most likely The Sun (UK), I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to check the archives of the major UK newspapers to verify this. Given how certain I am that I saw this image I’m surprised never to have seen it elsewhere, maybe it was the one and only time it was published and later withdrawn out of respect.

  11. Thanks for the fantastic work Michael. Fact-based and forensically dissected, a breath of fresh air in a post-truth world.

  12. Thanks for your excellent work on this topic.

    The recent book the third pole speculated that the bodies of irvine and mallory were removed by the Chinese the hide evidence of a potentially successful north face summit back in 1924, noting a drone in 2019 was unable to find mallorys body despite exact gps coords.

    This seems extraordinary to me but i would be interested in your thoughts on this theory. Thanks Alex

    1. You know what they say about treasure hunters. If they tell you there is no gold in the mountain, most likely they found a whole bunch.

  13. Thanks again for your diligent work, Mr. Tracy. I’d like to ask another question.

    While reading a particular document mentioned in the comments section of one your Youtube videos (https://www.alpinejournal.org.uk/Contents/Contents_1961_files/AJ%201961%2028-41%20Chan-Chun%20Chinese%20on%20Everest.pdf), I was intrigued with something seen on page 37:

    “It may be of interest to add some particulars culled from other reports. For example, in Soviet Sport of June 15, 1960, it is reported that ‘At the base of a cliff the climbers found the body of a man dressed in a faded green suit of English cloth. These were obviously the remains of the English climber who, twenty years ago, tried to reach the summit of Chomo Lungma from the north. In spite of their fatigue and the blizzard the Chinese sportsmen dug a grave with their pick-axes and buried the English alpinist who died so tragically.’ The point at which these remains were found is not fixed accurately, but according to this account was somewhere between 5,900 m. and 6,400 m.”

    Is that generally considered inaccurate or unrelated to Andrew Irvine? Thanks in advance for your perspective.

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