Will Everest Reveal Its Most Tantalizing Secret?

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"Because it is there" is the famous quip attributed to British mountaineer George Mallory before he set out in 1924 on his doomed attempt to conquer Mount Everest. And because Mallory's body is still there is why a group of climbers set out to find his remains -- and did so over the weekend, some 2,000 feet below the 29,028-foot summit. The discovery has electrified the mountain-climbing community and renewed speculation as to whether Mallory and his climbing companion, Andrew Irvine, were in fact the first to conquer the world's highest mountain -- beating the legendary feat of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay by 29 years.

"This is an exciting find," says TIME science senior writer Jeffrey Kluger. "It is not often that people in the exploration pantheon are in danger of being removed from their place in history. Imagine if that happened to Neil Armstrong or Charles Lindbergh." The expedition, which was backed by PBS and the science program "Nova," will now try to locate the body of Irvine and any other equipment that could help shed light on what the climbers actually accomplished and what happened to them. A camera Mallory and Irvine brought on the trip could be a particularly valuable find -- especially if it contains pictures of the pair at the top of Everest. The environment where the bodies were found, however, is extraordinarily brutal, and it is not clear that film could survive such conditions for 75 years. Still, says Kluger, "lunar film has survived punishing conditions of heat and cold, and it is possible the same could have occurred here." Whatever the expedition ultimately uncovers, it is sure to add to recent enthusiasm for stories of early exploration in extreme corners of the earth, such as that of British Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, the subject of a current exhibition at New York's American Museum of Natural History and an upcoming movie starring Mel Gibson.