In my opinion, Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit. For one, Noel Odell, the expedition’s geologist and sole eyewitness to the climbers’ fate, had found the entire North Face under cloud on that noon of June 8 at 12.50 pm. When the clouds had lifted slightly, he noted in his diary, he distinctly sighted the two figures near the Second Step which they had actually planned to reach around 8 am. They were thus four hours late in starting from the last camp. In such a situation, logistically their chances of getting to the top were quite poor.
Also, contrary to reports in some sections of the press that the duo were going up without oxygen, Mallory and Irvine were carrying two bottles of oxygen. And perhaps it was the cumbersome oxygen equipment that delayed their progress by four hours. It’s quite possible, since we too have had problems with our oxygen equipment on the first two of our three Everest expeditions in 1960 and 1962.
Odell also recalled that Irvine’s throat was already suffering much from the cold, dry air and discomfort. It was aggravated by the use of oxygen. Irvine was also very young and inexperienced, while Mallory was driven by the very spirit of Everest. Irvine could have found the going very tough and broken down. Remarkably, the fact that the climbing rope has been found attached to Mallory’s body even after 75 years means that they were not separated.
Odell also noted that when he moved up about 200 ft above Camp VI on June 8, he found the weather conditions extremely poor. There was howling wind, along with snow fall. According to him, visibility was very poor and he could not see beyond a few yards. In such circumstances, progress was bound to be extremely slow and chances of getting to the top quite remote.
And finally, that afternoon, when Odell reached Camp VI, the storm had blown over. The North Face of Everest was clear and bathed in bright sunshine. The uppermost part near the summit was distinctly visible. Odell found absolutely no sign of climbers anywhere. There is thus the possibility that the accident had taken place quite early during their ascent.
In all the dramatic search for Mallory and Irvine, Odell’s support role has been a shining example of mountaineering spirit. Odell spent seven days above North Col, and put up a performance which has never been surpassed. In the course of four days, he reached a height of 27,000 ft twice, all alone. There is a possibility that Mallory and Irvine returned to Camp VI but were unable to move further down.Mallory’s body has been found at a height of 27,000 ft, and it will be interesting to know whether this location was near the last camp.
Be that as it may, Everest history could still be rewritten should Mallory’s camera be found near the summit. There are several dead bodies, equipment like fixed ropes, used oxygen bottles and cylinders, that get buried deep under the fresh snow falling every year. The snow melts during the summer months, exposing bodies and equipment moving slowly along the glacier. That’s probably how Mallory’s body has resurfaced; some parts of it blackened because of exposure to the sun, but otherwise well preserved in the cold temperatures of the Himalaya’s upper reaches.
Whether Mallory and Irvine reached that peak or not, the most important outcome of the 1924 expedition was that Mallory, with his indomitable courage and willpower, made one of the most heroic attempts in the saga of Everest, and that the Mallory spirit, if not the man, has survived to inspire climbers for years to come. And what of Hillary, the displaced hero? Ever the gracious mountaineer, he said: "I don’t think it would worry me too much if it was discovered (he) had been there before me."
The writer, Capt. M.S. Kohli, led the record-breaking Indian Everest expedition in 1965 and is a former president of the Indian Mountaineering Federation