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 most of 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. Also to research exactly which rock samples were stolen and which ones left.

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.

There is also no reason for the climbers themselves to have suspected this was an issue. They were are on large expedition with a geologist in base camp, a historian on the phone, and backing from major publishers, including the BBC. They were told to look for a camera, and they did. As a research item, I am looking into whether not telling them about the need to search for summit rocks was incompetence or was deliberate.

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.

16 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.

    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.

      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?

  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.

  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.

    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.

  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?

  5. Michael can you send me an email? I mocked up the latest photo from YouTube depicting the 75 Chinese. I think I see a body too now.

  6. How do we know the search team destoryed the evidence. We know where the body is, couldn’t a second search armed with knowledge of summit rocks and try to idendify any rocks on his person or stones in the area?

  7. I would love to know if Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit; in fact, I hope they did. So it would be fantastic to find definitive evidence. But rocks aren’t going to tell us much except the climbers pocketed some rocks at some point in their climb. As far as I know, there are no rocks exclusive to the summit; the terrain from the yellow band to the summit is fairly uniform. It seems the 1999 team should be let off the hook on this one because there simply were no rocks to find, and even if there had been, the presence of rocks would not be definitive proof of anything.

    1. Great news. The summit rocks are unique, as I go over in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWujpV2vvkM

      I cover it in that video as primarily being of use in determining whether the 1960 Chinese made the summit. But it could have been used with Mallory. I just don’t like to cover it that much because the 1999 team really messed up and I don’t like saying it over and over. However, people leave comments like this and are well intentioned , but not correct. I feel bad for that team. They were not told to look for the summit rocks. Unfortunately, since then, rather than just saying “Opps, we didn’t know,” they make up stories about how they searched all the pockets. At that point, it is not a good faith mistake. They screwed up the “mystery of the century” and they invent things to cover it up. Sorry you fell for it.

  8. Hey Michael, fan of your work and follow your youtube channel religiously. Was wondering what you made of Thom Pollard’s video obviously referencing you. Do you feel he makes any valid points about how you go about enaging in the discussion on Mallory and Irvine. really you and he and many other parties should be sitting down and discussing together so it’s a shame. It does feel like he and others are trying to avoid hard questions but perhaps the zeal we have with trying to actually solve the mystery is too aggressive and offputting for some? Someone like Thom needs alot of diplomacy and kid gloves etc just a thought as I’d love to see you on podacast debating all these guys.

    1. I have offered numerous times to come onto his channel and debate him, Hemmleb, Jake Norton, or anyone else he wants to have on. If you read some of the comments in his channel, numerous other people have asked for the same thing.

      At some point you have to realize he (or the people behind him) do not want an open debate. His little theories only work if you don’t ask rather simple questions. In any case, my channel currently has more subscribers and gets far more views than Thom’s, and I highly doubt that any critical thinkers watch his channel and yet are unable to find mine.

      One of my criticisms of the 1999 team is that same as that of Conrad Anker — they have turned this into something that is all about them. I am focusing on telling George Mallory’s and Andrew Irvine’s story because they did something worth discussing. Unfortunately, I need to mention these people because they are the ones the botched the “mystery of the century.” They do not like that distinction,nor does Thom like to talk about the Everest World Record he holds — the documented account of stepping over the most living people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. While some people are fooled by his “just be kind” nonsense, as soon as you look into it just a little you will see exactly what type of person he is. In this aspect, I agree with what Chris Bonington said about the 1999 team, “Words can’t express how disgusted I am. These people don’t deserve to be called climbers.” Davis, Wade. Into the Silence (p. 568) The actions of Thom Pollard since then have done nothing but to confirm that.

      Thom may have reached the summit and made it back down alive. But does it really count if you step over people leaving them die when at least one of them was saved by another actual climber?

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