A stone from the top

The following is from the New York Times, March 18, 1923:

Why did you want to climb Mount Everest? This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highest mountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.” “But hadn’t the expedition valuable scientific results?”

“Yes. The first expedition made a geological survey that was very valuable, and both expeditions made observations and collected specimens, both geological and botanical. The geologists want a stone from the top of Everest. That will decide whether it is the top or bottom of a fold…”

In 1923, Mallory was lecturing throughout the United States and repeated the same notion during his lecture tour:

Mr. Mallory introduced his speech by asking “What is the purpose of climbing Mount Everest?” He answered his question by saying in jest that it was of no use other than to fulfill the desire of geologists for a stone from the summit and to show physiologists at just what altitude human life became impossible.

Harvard Crimson, February 28, 1923, “Mallory Thrills Union Audience.”

Had Mallory made it to the summit, he would have collected rock samples. These rock samples were not searched for when Mallory was discovered in 1999. Hillary collected rock samples in 1953. The Chinese collected rock samples in 1960. Norton and Somervell collected rock samples from their high point in 1924.

I took up my ice-axe, glanced at Tenzing to see if he were ready, and then looked at my watch — it was 11:45, and we’d only been on top fifteen minutes. I had one job left to do. Walking easily down the steps I’d made in the ridge I descended forty feet from the summit to the first visible rocks, and taking a handful of small stones thrust them into my pocket.

High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest. Edmund Hillary. p. 230

Gonpa tore the sheet of paper from the diary, put it in a white woolen glove and secured it by placing a heap of small stones on it. Then the trio picked nine rock specimens to take to Peking for presentation to their beloved leader Chairman Mao.

Mountaineering in China

So, at 28,000 feet, I sat down and watched Norton go on. But he, too, was not far from the limit of his endurance, and after proceeding for some distance horizontally, but not a hundred feet in vertical height above me, he stopped in the big couloir, looked at the rocks around its top (which are rather steeper than we had thought) and turned back. Soon he was shouting to me to come on and bring a rope, as he was beginning to be snow-blind and could not see where to put his feet. So I went on and joined him, not forgetting to put a specimen of the rock from our highest point in my pocket.

Somervell, T. Howard. After Everest: The Experiences of a Mountaineer and Medical Missionary .

Prior expeditions gathered rocks from their highest points and Pope Pius XI, a former mountaineer himself, was gifted one of these rocks, for which he sent the expedition this hand written thank you note:

The rock was “mounted as a paper-weight on ebony, with the names of the party on a silver shield, and it was always at hand on [the Pope’s] study table.” Alpine Journal 51.

The quest for summit rocks was documented in Holzel & Salked’s 1986 book “The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine” — p.153 and 296. The website of “AFFIMER” — the American Foundation for International Mountaineering, Exploration & Research, which helped fund the 1999 search prominently features the quote “For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all, for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.” Jochen Hemmleb, who was on the 1999 and 2001 expeditions and a co-author of the books for those expeditions has a degree in geology and worked as a geologist documenting the geological structure of mountains in New Zealand in 1996 and 1997. It is not clear why he did not see the importance to look for rocks in the pockets and impart this to the searchers. However, another historian, Audrey Salkeld was asked about the find while the expedition was still on the mountain and displayed no interest in asking about summit rocks.

Hemmleb made a “Research Manual” for the search team that specifically mentioned “Camera”, “Oxygen set” and “Rope” as items to look for, but no mention of rocks in the pockets. It should be noted that none of the other historians or writers about the search expeditions noted the need to search for summit rocks.

Other people, however, did have an interest in rocks from Everest. Not only was the Pope using one as a paperweight, but all the existing samples were stolen from the Royal Geographical Society in 1939. In addition, all notes about the rock samples were destroyed in 1941 — but it is not clear whether this was a deliberate act or part of the war. None of the other records or notes from the expeditions were destroyed in 1941, just the notes of the rocks. As such, it appears to have been deliberate, but I have this as an item to research.

Regardless of whether the 1999 team knew that the altitude of the rocks could be determined, a detailed search for the rocks should have been conducted because the lack of any rocks in the pockets would mean they did not make the summit. It is not realistic that Mallory made it to the summit and did not collect rocks.

Andrew Irvine had zippered pockets — a new invention back in 1924. Had he made it to the summit, the most likely evidence would be summit rocks in his pocket. Even if he was carrying a camera, if the weather was not clear (which it was not prior to 4PM), there is no guarantee he would have taken a picture. It is even less likely the camera survived the fall and has film that can be developed.

My search for Irvine is primarily focused on recovering rocks to establish how high he made it. It is very unlikely that any film from a camera could be recovered and successfully developed.

There is no contemporaneous evidence Mallory intended to leave a picture of his wife on the summit. This piece of the story was provided years later. It is unfortunate that in their rush to find a camera and a photo, the 1999 search team destroyed the evidence that would have shown whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit.

Information about the composition of Everest:

Various layers of Everest.

Summit Limestone.


10 thoughts on “A stone from the top

  1. The Undiscovered series with Jake Norton was a much better attempt than the one on Nat Geo. Looking more and more like Irvine may have slid down the mountain but there is always hope.

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    1. Yes, they did a much better job. But curiously will not share any of their photos. I am reluctant to accept the word of someone who says “Nothing to see here, don’t bother looking. But we need to keep all our photos in case you could actually find something in them.” There is something that mountain does to people.

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      1. Agreed. Although I’m sure there’s a mountain of paperwork stating Discovery owns it because they clearly funded it. Anyway, if Irvine is in a rock slot head down feet towards summit it’s pretty unlikely he has been blown down the North Face. Which means there is hope. If the UK wanted to solve this there is much more that could be done. But altering stated history is something they may not be eager to touch. Btw, I love this font. What is it?

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  2. Many thanks, all you guys, for the wonderful visuals and commentaries – the delight of armchair mountaineers like myself. By the way, I happen to know (and have encouraged) the first Sri Lankan who summitted Chomolongma, who also happens to be the first woman Sri Lankan to have got to that altitude or anywhere near it, so far. Her male climbing partner could not join her on the summit due to some mishap (I believe he ran out of oxygen) but is understood to have summitted in a second attempt later.

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  3. Thanks for the post, Michael. A couple of notes: first and foremost, while we weren’t specifically looking for rocks in Mallory’s pockets in 1999, I can say with a high degree of certainty there weren’t any in there. I went through most of them, with the help of Tap, Conrad, Andy, and Dave, and as you know we found a lot, but no rocks. Andy and Thom went back, found the watch, but no rock either. Again, we weren’t looking specifically, but would have noticed if there were some to be found in there.

    As for the photos from our search in 2019, I have plenty and have never been asked by anyone to see them, no would I deny access to them. Not sure where this is all coming from.

    Have a good day, and thanks. And, sorry for only seeing this now – just came upon it via Facebook post.

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    1. Wow what a treasure to have these pictures of that find. Do you plan on releasing them for public views????? I so wish we could find Mallory and put the pieces together. It for me doesn’t make a difference weather the made that summit, at least for me it’s about them making it as far as they did in such primitive clothing and equipment. They lead the way in my opinion for all mountaineering expositions for future generations. I believe that they did summit but something tragic happened. I still have hope that Mallory is there some where on the mountain, unless he fell in a crevasse. The pictures of that expedition would be nice for us all to see of what all was recovered from his body.

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  4. Thanks for this Michael. Any idea what the latest expeditions plans are to search the area/route the Chinese climber took when he spotted the body?

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