For 75 years their disappearance has loomed, like Everest itself, as both a challenge and a mystery, made all the more memorable by Mallory's classic retort when asked why he wanted to risk all to climb the far-off mountain: Because it is there. But did he make it to the top? Or did he falter just short of his goal? Last week an expedition led by veteran American climber Eric Simonson, retracing Mallory's old route on Everest's Tibetan, or north, face, seemed to be tantalizingly close to some definitive answers.
On a rocky, windswept slope some 600 m below the summit, expedition member Conrad Anker spotted a patch of white--brighter, he says, than any of the snow or rocks around it. Sprawled facedown on the mountainside, with arms outstretched and hands dug into the frozen ground, lay the bleached, mummified remains of a man. It was Mallory, his body almost perfectly preserved in the thin, dry air, a safety rope around his waist, and still partly clad in remnants of his tattered cotton, wool and tweed climbing clothes, the ragged collars stitched with markings G.L. Mallory. He had apparently tumbled wildly down the slope, tried to arrest his descent with his hands, then died shortly thereafter--still fighting, still gripping the rock to the end, says climber Jake Norton.
Mallory's leathery skin gleamed so brightly that climber Dave Hahn likened it to a Greek or Roman marble statue. Mallory's face was the only part of his body unexposed. He had a broken right arm, trauma to his shoulder and fractures of both leg bones just above the top of his single surviving hobnail boot. Even so, the climbers were awed by the physical specimen before them. We each noticed the muscular arms of the climber, says Hahn. After all these years, George Mallory still cut an impressive figure.
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The expedition, which is being filmed by a joint Nova/BBC crew and is posting communiqués on two websites (, ), will continue searching in the few remaining weeks of Everest's busy climbing season. Besides Irvine's remains, the expedition is eager to find a Kodak vest-pocket folding camera given to Mallory just before the ascent. If he and his young partner made it to the summit, they would undoubtedly have photographed themselves at the top of the world--and those images would probably still be retrievable from film kept in so deep a freeze even after three-quarters of a century.
Meanwhile the arguments continue to rage over whether Mallory and Irvine made it all the way, beating New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay by 29 years. It's an interesting, romantic thought, but until someone shows a clear image of them at the summit, I'm happy to stick with Hillary and Tenzing, says veteran climber David Breashears. As for the 79-year-old Sir Edmund, he isn't losing any sleep over the matter. Getting to the bottom is an important part too, he told Television New Zealand.
The climbers, although initially skeptical, have changed their mind about Mallory. Just seeing his strength and his obvious tenacity, says Norton, convinces him that Mallory and Irvine both made it and met their demise on their way down. Still, just as the discovery of the Titanic's fragmented hull stripped that timeless tragedy of some of its fascination, so the sight of Mallory's mortal remains somehow makes this larger-than-life figure more human--and more vulnerable.