One of the most enduring mysteries in the history of mountaineering and exploration revolves around the 1924 British expedition to Everest. As you may recall, it was on that journey that George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine perished high on the mountain while attempting to reach the top from the North Side. But neither man returned from that fateful climb and their fates have been the subject of much speculation ever since.
There are some who believe that the duo may have actually been successful in their attempt but later died on the descent. This has led to a decades-long search for the camera that they carried with them, which could hold proof of their achievements. The search for that camera as spurred several expeditions over the years, with the hope of solving this mystery once and for all.
But an article published on Salon a few weeks back has revealed an intriguing new layer to this story. According to some accounts, a Chinese climbing team may have found Mallory and Irvine’s camera decades ago, but have kept that discovery a secret.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen on June 8, 1924, roughly 800 feet (245 meters) below the summit of Everest. They were said to be moving upwards at a steady pace before moving over and ridge and out of sight. What happened after that remains shrouded in mystery. Some believe the two men were strong enough to reach the top, while others point out that 800 feet is still a long way from the summit on the world’s highest peak. All we know for certain is that they did not come down from the mountain and that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would complete the first successful summit in 1953.
For years, the debate raged in mountaineering circles as to whether or not Mallory and Irvine got to the summit first. But those “did they or didn’t they” arguments always ended with “if only we could find the camera.” Over the years, this very question spawned a number of expeditions to Everest with the hopes of finding the remains of the famous climbers, with the camera hopefully intact.
In 1999, an expedition funded by National Geographic famously found the remains of George Mallory above 8000 meters (26,246 ft). Unfortunately, the camera was not with his body, although this led to further speculation that Irvine may have been carrying it instead. Naturally, the search would continue, with the Kodak camera becoming the Holy Grail of mountaineering history.
A New Mystery Emerges
Back in 2019—in the pre-pandemic halcyon days of mountaineering—a team of climbers traveled to Tibet to once again search for Sandy Irvine and the elusive camera. The expedition consists of a number of experienced climbers, including writer Mark Synnott. This time, the search party was following up on information they received after combing over hundreds of satellite images. Someone had spotted an usual object at 27,700 feet (8442 meters) that could be the remains of a climber. It was a longshot, but it was worth a look.
The team spent weeks on Everest that spring and eventually made it to the GPS locations they tagged. Only when they reached that point, there was nothing unusual to be found. Just rock and rubble. Disappointed, the group headed home empty-handed once again, and Synnott would go on to write a book about the expedition called The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession and Death on Mount Everest.
After finishing the book, Synnott began to receive word from credible sources that the reason why no one had found Irvine’s remains—or the camera—is that it had already been found. As the story goes, a team of Chinese climbers came across the body in 1975 and actually recovered the camera at that time. According to second-hand accounts, the body was buried under rocks at 8200 meters, but the camera was brought down. It allegedly is now kept under lock and key in a museum in China.
Why a Cover-Up?
Of course, this news begs the question of why would there be a cover-up of this important discovery? Things get a little murkier here, but one theory is that when the Chinese attempted to develop the photos they weren’t successful, which could have been seen as an embarrassment at the time. If the film was ruined during the development process—without asking for assistance from Kodak—there could have been some critical backlash over how the situation was handled.
But another theory posits that perhaps they were successful in developing the film and it did indeed show Mallory and Irvine on the summit. That would mean that the two British climbers reached the top before a Chinese team completed the first successful ascent from the North Side in 1960. Something that is of enormous pride to the Chinese. Conspiracy theorists point to that being a valid reason for not sharing the news of the discovery of Mallory and Irvine’s camera.
The Salon article—which can be read in its entirety here—goes much deeper into the story, including Synotts follow-up investigation. He spoke to an anonymous British diplomat who claims to have heard the story directly from climbers who were involved in the discovery. All of those individuals have now passed away and there are few ways to corroborate the rumor short of the Chinese government revealing the find.
The story is definitely an interesting one and well worth a read for anyone who has taken part in the debate of the Mallory-Irvine expedition over the years. For now, though, it remains just another odd twist to a mystery that has continued to confound for nearly a century.
As for my thoughts, I’ve always believed that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit. They were skilled and able climbers, but no one had ever been to that altitude before and their equipment was crude, even when compared to that of Hillary and Norgay. But even if they had reached the top, that is only halfway to success. Getting down is part of that equation too.
Still, it is a very intriguing story and with this latest revelation, it only continues to enthrall.
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