Did Mallory Conquer Everest Before Hillary?

Did George Mallory stand on top of Everest three decades before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay? That has been a question that mountaineers have debated for years. Some think that there is no way that Mallory reached the summit back in 1924, when he and climbing partner Sandy Irvine disappeared on the mountain. Others think it’s quite possible that he did indeed reach the top, but died on the way down. We will likely never know for sure.

However, Graham Hoyland thinks he knows the answer in this article from today’s Telegraph. He believes that Mallory and Irvine did summit Everest thirty years earlier than Hillary and Norgay, and will go on record saying so before the Royal Geographic Society in the U.K. today. Hoyland, who has climbed Everest himself, has spent a number of years researching the Mallory climb, and is proclaiming his theory as to how Mallory and Irvine summitted the mountain.

Hoyland believes that the famed climbers didn’t go along the route that most people have assumed they had taken up until this point. It has generally been accepted that the pair climbed along what is now the “normal” route on the North Side, reaching the Second Step and proceeding up from there. In fact, an eyewitness account from Noel Odell, the last person to see Mallory and Irvine alive, claims to have seen them above the Second Step and just 800 feet beneath the summit. It is Hoyland’s assertion that although Odell believed that he saw them above the Second Step, that they had actually taken a different route along the Third Step, which would have been an easier route and also would have likely resulted in one or both of them reaching the top.

The reasons why Hoyland believes this are twofold. First, upon reaching the Second Step, Mallory, who was a skilled and accomplished climbers, would have recognized that Irvine, who was not so skilled, would have great difficulty with the rock face that lay before them. Mallory would not have risked his friends life, or the success of the expedition on such a risky climb. At that point, no one had tried the Second Step, and Hoyland believes that Mallory wouldn’t have either.

His other reason for believing that the pair took a different route, is that Odell remarked that they scrambled up the Second Step in about five minutes, something that would seem impossible given the challenges of climbing that rock face. Hoyland believes that Odell simply mistook the Third Step for the Second Step, and since the Third Step is a much less challenging climb, most historians believe that had Mallory and Irvine gone that way, they would have topped out.

Definitely an interesting theory, and again, one that will be difficulty to prove to be sure. I’m sure we’ll get more details on this as Hoyland’s presentation leaks out to the press. His thoughts run counter to Conrad Anker’s comments, which were that Mallory gave it quite a go, but likely fell short of the summit. Of course, Anker, who recently tried to re-create Mallory’s climb with vintage gear, is operating under the impression that the route ran up the Second Step.

So, what do you think? More fuel for the fire? Anything to this theory? Personally, I subscribe to the adage that getting to the top is only half-way there, so to me Hillary and Norgay are still the first to successfully summit. Just my two cents.

Kraig Becker

15 thoughts on “Did Mallory Conquer Everest Before Hillary?”

  1. I am not sure what the use is of bringing this to the attention of the public. This is just another man’s “theory” as to what took place. I am sure this debate will rage forever unless something positive is found in that direction. As far as my personal thoughts, I find it highly unlikely the two summitted. Ankers own expedition in the style of 1924 this past year, proved that the equipment and clothing would not have stood the drastic temperatures of high elevation–secondly, keep in mind that the temperatures of today may quite possibley be a bit warmer on the mountain than they were in 1924. I do like the theories, but one man’s thought is no better than another until proof is discovered otherwise…which may never happen. Nice post.

  2. I completely agree Jason. Nothing much new here except another theory, unless he revealed something more in his presentation. Guess we’ll have to wait for that, but I doubt there is anything new.

    Anker’s expedition showed how tough it would have been to summit with that gear and he himself has now said that he doesn’t think Mallory made it to the top.

    On top of all that, he still didn’t make it down, which again, for me is part of a successful climb. You have to come home.

  3. I think we have a better chance at finding Jimmy Hoffa’s body (if he’s even dead) than solving the Mallory/Irvine mystery.

  4. I do find it highly unlikely that Mallory and Irvine went up a “new” route that has not been previously discussed. This has been nit-picked so much that I am pretty sure the facts still stand as in relation to 1924. Many people have combed over this issue and this is the first I have heard of a “new” route. To be quite honest, I am not sure why it even matters, other than to Mallory or Irvine’s families. After 70 years, it is hard to turn back history and reeducate everyone. Efforts have been made to prove or disprove Mallory–and all are inconclusive and not worth a damn without that dreaded camera.

    By the way, anyone know what type of camera they supposedly had with them? Was just wondering if a photo would even be feasable from the summit in 1924.

  5. Not a clue on the camera. I’m sure photos at the summit would be possible, but the quality would be pretty poor no doubt.

    I have no idea what evidence he has to support this theory, but without something tangible, he’s just grasping at straws really.

  6. (adding an edit)

    I agree. Hoyland is raising what others have been chewing on for years. Did Mallory take the ridge route or go below? That said, you never know what interesting “new” tidbits may have come to light (believe it or not, they still do crop up). Graham has been very involved for a long while, so it would be interesting to hear what he has to say.

    As for the camera, yes – it took quite decent photos.

    Regarding Anker’s expedition, I’m not sure he “proved” anything. The expeditions were different in every way (including the clothing/equipment). He was there to make a biopic movie about Mallory. Anker definitely has his opinion about M/I’s chances based on his own experience as a climber. Valid, yes. But, like everyone’s, unless a summit photo is ever found, it is still a guess.

  7. I don’t think Anker’s expedition proved anything either. It was an interesting study and fun to speculate about, but it still left a lot of things open as well. At this point, he’s only giving his opinion, although, all things considered, I think his opinion is about as valid as any we’ll find.

    Although I would love to be proved wrong, I am of the opinion that they didn’t make it to the top.

  8. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the post, Jason, and good, critical thoughts on the topic. Just wrote about it as well on my blog.

    Like you all, I don’t think Graham’s theory sheds any new light on the story – just one of many theories, like Conrad’s. Without any real proof, we will never know what happened to M&I. We can make guesses about their ability to climb the 2nd Step, that they might have found an alternate route, or whatever. But, in the end, it is just creative story telling, not history and not proof.

    I do hope someday we’ll find the camera (which, by the way, was a Kodak Vestpocket Camera (VPK) and as we were told in 1999 by Kodak would most likely yield images if it was not broken open in a fall) or some definitive evidence of M&I being above the Second Step, but, until then, we can just dream, think, and create theories.

    The bottom line: No one can say with ANY certainty that they did summit or that they did NOT summit. We just don’t know.

    But, that’s what makes a gret mystery, eh?


  9. Sorry! Should have read “Thanks for the post, Kraig, and good, critical thoughts on the topic.”

    Not enough coffee yet this morning!


  10. Thanks for you thoughts and comments Jake! You always have something great to add to the conversation.

    It would be amazing to find that camera and in one piece. It’s like the Lost Ark. No one knows what secrets might be inside, but it sure would clear up this mystery. But then again, where would the fun be in that? We wouldn’t be able to speculate any more! 🙂

  11. Hey Jake, glad you joined in on the discussion. How’s the baby, by the way?

    Here is something of interest..how hard would it be to purchase one of those cameras in working order?

    I still question that in 1924, Kodak was thinking of the elements on Everest when they designed the camera, unless it was a custom built version. Even in today’s times, people routinely have cameras freeze up ect..at high altitude.

    It would be interesting to take up an exact example of their camera and see if it would actually 1) work and 2)how legible the photos would be. I know in older cameras, and I don’t have dates, that you would have to have a very long shutter speed to catch anything. I think I need to do a bit of camera research.

    Would this be at all possible, Jake? Has this question been brought up by you and Conrad in the past? Another question, what is the life of undeveloped film? I know I have been told to keep film in the freezer to prolong it’s life. Would it hold the image indefinately as long as the temperatures were very low?

    Just some thoughts. Now that we have an “expert” thought I would ask.

  12. After doing a bit of personal research today on the camera, I have made a post on my own blog. Now everyone will know what is at stake.

  13. Hey Kraig,

    Thanks for your additional thoughts and latest post – great as always!

    On the camera, you can indeed get one – I bought one on eBay for about $20 a few years back. Haven’t run any film through it yet, but would like to for kicks. Remind me for next time I head to the big E!!

    As for the film, so far as I know Kodak researched it pretty heavily before Tom Holzel’s 1986 Mallory expedition – which was the first and broke a lot of ground – and determined that usable images would be possible so long as the camera was not completely broken open in a fall.

    So, hopefully one day Andrew Irvine will allow himself to be found and, along with him, the camera and more of their story. We shall see!

    And, the little one (Lila) is doing well, thanks, as is life in general. Off to Nepal in the morning for the Everest Rocks trek – should be fun, and you can follow along on my blog and at http://www.everestrocks.com.

    Take care!


  14. Yes absolutely so. Mallory knew he would perhaps never return to Everest again and this was his last chance to succeed. He was determined to succeed at any cost even at the cost of taking avoidable chances. One must understand the psyche of the man to appreciate what I have stated. He deliberately chose the young and relatively inexperienced Irvine as his climbing partner on that fateful day and not the decidedly more experienced Odell who could have perhaps influenced/dissuaded Mallory not to carry on beyond a point. Mallory wanted a partner who would have implicit faith in all his judgements and Irvine aptly fitted the bill. Also, Mallory bypassed the second step as Norton and Sommerwell had done a little while ago. They emerged at the third step when they were ‘spotted’ by Odell during a pause in his fossil finding trip. Having surmounted the relatively easy third step and being pretty close to the summit proper, it is highly unlikely and improbable that Mallory and Irvine would not have pressed on to the summit. It appears that the duo summited sometimes between 4 and 5 pm on that fateful day. As a bivouc was not in vogue those days, they had no option but to try and return to their high camp despite the growing darkness. It was unfortunate that they could not make it and perished not too far from their camp in darkness. The fact that the snow goggles were found on his person indicates that they had been descending in virtual darkness and not earlier in the day as some detractors gleefully point out. Secondly. Mallory had vowed to place a photo of his wife, Ruth, on the summit. The fact that no photo of Ruth was recovered on the person of Mallory is indicative of the fact that Mallory had indeed kept his promise. Also, the evidence gathered by the 1960 Chinese expedition about possible traces of people having come that way high above the second step cannot be dismissed as they(the Chinese) were the first persons at that altitude since 1924. Hillary remarked that he could not find any traces of any earlier climb when he reached the top with Tenzing in 1953. Surely, it is improbable that a photo of Ruth would still be sticking out at the top after a lapse of 29 years. So let us gracefully accept the fact that Mallory and Irvine were the first to summit Everest in 1924.

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