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3. Enduring Mystery: Everest’s Restless Ghost
George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine's

"With the sole exception of Amelia Earhart in 1937, the vanishing of no explorer in the 20th century has generated anything like the romantic speculation surrounding George Leigh Mallory’s."—"Out of Thin Air," by David Roberts, ADVENTURE Fall 1999

The uncertainty over whether famed British alpinist George Mallory and his novice companion, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, were the first to summit Mount Everest has vexed climbers and historians for more than eight decades. What is known is that the pair were spotted at an altitude of at least 28,000 feet around noon on June 8, 1924, just a thousand feet from the top. Then clouds swallowed the deadly peak. The two men were never seen alive again.

On May 1, 1999, a group that included mountaineer Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s body, facedown as if in self-arrest in a scree field some 2,000 feet below the summit. Affixed to his torso—eerily well preserved, and alabaster white—was a sheared-off rope, indicating that he and Irvine had been roped up until their demise. Irvine’s remains were nowhere to be found. The discovery provided tantalizing clues that only deepened the mystery. Mallory’s tinted mountaineering goggles were tucked in a pocket. Had he put them there in the dark, or merely when the clouds arrived? His watch was frozen near two o’clock, but was it a.m. or p.m.? Had they conquered Everest only to succumb to an avalanche or fall on the way back down?

Most experts agree it’s unlikely that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Anker—who returned to the mountain in 2007 (with British filmmaker Anthony Geffen in tow) to free climb the Second Step, the crux of Mallory’s intended path—pegs the route’s difficulty at 5.10, probably well beyond Mallory’s technical capabilities. Still, he allows for the slim possibility that the pair, outfitted in worsted wool jackets and leather boots but driven by Mallory’s death-wish-like obsession, could have succeeded. Some hope that finding Mallory’s missing Kodak Vest Pocket camera might put the controversy to rest. Six-time summiter Ed Viesturs, however, calls the Mallory question "Irrelevant. It would have been a fairly phenomenal achievement, but they didn’t survive the descent—that’s the most critical part of any climb."

The arguments should only grow louder this year with the appearance of best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer’s book Paths of Glory (which imagines a Mallory triumph) and the release of Geffen’s biopic The Wildest Dream. Anker believes the absence of closure might even be a good thing. After all, he says, "We need a little mystery in our lives."

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