Forever Upward: Sandy Irvine’s Summit

Known to the Nepalese people for centuries as Sagarmāthā, commonly translated as ‘Goddess of the Sky,’ Peak XV or Mount Everest as it was renamed in 1865, after Colonel Sir George Everest, the Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843, has come to symbolise the earth’s stubborn refusal to submit to the will of mankind.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientific and technological advancements shook the notion that scaling Everest was an insurmountable task. Furthermore, as Captain John Noel, who took part in the 1924 British expedition remembered, the bloody four-year conflict that left Britain and much of the globe scarred during the opening years of the latter killed many of the youth of our country,’ and was ‘a terrible loss to our country. The young men under Kitchener’s army had been massacred.’ For a number of Englishmen who had seen active service and survived, conquering Mount Everest became a means by which to restore national pride and reassert the indomitability of the human spirit.

One such Englishman was George Mallory, who, as John Noel believed was absolutely obsessed with the idea of climbing Mount Everest. He set his heart on it. He talked about nothing else at all.’ Following two unsuccessful attempts, in 1921 and 1922, Mallory decided to try one last time, telling his wife Ruth, ‘It is almost unthinkable…that I shan’t get to the top; I can’t see myself coming down defeated.’ Aboard the SS California in February 1924, as he made his way to the Himalayas, Mallory, a 37 year-old teacher from Cheshire, who had mingled with the Bloomsbury Group during his time at Cambridge, became acquainted with Andrew Irvine, known as Sandy, a fellow member of the British expedition.

Born into a well off family in Birkenhead, on 8th April 1902, Sandy, along with his five siblings, attended the co-educational Shrewsbury School, where he excelled at chemistry and engineering. During the First World War, Irvine sent the War Office sketches of two of his inventions – an interrupter for firing machine guns using propellers and gyroscopic airplane stabilizer. Unbeknownst to the schoolboy, both had already been developed, but he received and encouraging note advising him to ‘go on trying.’

After winning a place at Merton College, Oxford, Irvine became a rowing blue and was one of the boat race crew of 1923, the only year from 1913 to 1937 in which Oxford won. Excursions to Wales and the Lake District also led him to develop a keen interest in climbing and in 1923; he went with the Merton College Arctic expedition to Spitsbergen. So impressed by Irvine was the expedition’s leader Noel Odell, that he invited the undergraduate to join him on the third British Mount Everest expedition. Bursting with enthusiasm, Irvine eagerly accepted with his departure leaving a string of broken hearts behind, notably that of Margery Thomson, a 25 year-old former showgirl, and the step-mother of one of his friends, with whom he had engaged in a torrid affair, causing her much older husband to divorce her for adultery. Indeed, Irvine’s dashing good looks and athletic physique made him very popular with the opposite sex and a handful of young ladies would later claim that they had been engaged to him at the time of his disappearance.

All highly experienced mountaineers, the rest of the team included the leader Charles Bruce, Noel Odell, Richard Hingston, John Noel, Howard Somervell, Edward Norton, Geoffrey Bruce, Bentley Beetham, and John de Vars Hazard. By the end of March 1924, they had assembled ready to begin their ascent. Given that the Kingdom of Nepal remained closed to foreigners until 1951, only the north face of the mountain was accessible. On that side, there were three steps leading up to the peak; the first, composed of nearly 100 feet of solid rock, the second even more hazardous, and then the third, a milder slope leading up to the peak itself. Camp positions had been strategically planned with Base Camp at 16,500 feet, Camp I at the entrance to the East Rongbuk Glacier at 17,700 feet, Camp II at 19,685 feet and Camp III at 21,000 feet. At 23,000 feet, Camp IV was erected on 21st May.

Above: Trailer for Captain John Noel’s film The Epic of Everest (1924)

Charles Bruce and Mallory made the first attempt to reach the summit on 1st June, but were forced to retreat after being exposed to overwhelmingly harsh icy winds, however, they managed to construct Camp V at 25,300 feet. A second attempt by Somervell and Norton was similarly abandoned due to a lack of water and oxygen, but they succeeded in installing Camp VI at 27,000 feet. Refusing to accept defeat, Mallory insisted on a third bid, and decided that this time, Irvine would accompany him, describing the young man to Ruth as ‘one to depend on for everything except conversation.’  Although Irvine was ‘rather poetry-shy’ as Odell recalled, he nevertheless ‘seemed to be favourably impressed by the Epitaph to Gray’s Elegy.’ Ominously, the work’s most famous line warned that ‘The Paths of Glory lead but to the grave.’

As Somervell and Norton set off, Irvine had noted in his diary, ‘I hope they’ve got to the top, but by God, I’d like to have a whack at it myself.’ Odell later said of Irvine that whilst his yearning to reach the summit was less all consuming that Mallory’s, He was obsessed to go ‘all out’ on what was certainly to him the greatest course for ‘pairs’ he would ever be destined to “row.”’ Popular with the other members of the team, Irvine had proved his usefulness when it came to his capacity to fix and improve their oxygen apparatus, and his dependability had left Mallory firmly convinced that he was ‘an ideal companion and with as stout a heart as you could wish to find.’ Yet Mallory also acknowledged that the odds were not stacked in their favour, writing to Ruth, ‘it’s fifty to one against us, but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud.’

Mallory and Irvine reached Camp VI on 7th of June and Mallory giving a note to the porters with them to be delivered to Odell who was at Camp V. It read, ‘We’ll probably start early to-morrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won’t be too early to start looking out for us either crossing the rockband under the pyramid or going up skyline at 8.0 p.m.’ Odell later clarified that Mallory had in fact meant a.m. The next morning, Odell left Camp V to conduct a geological study of the surrounding terrain. Conditions were poor, but by 12:50 p.m. they had improved enough for him to catch a glimpse of Mallory and Irvine just below the northeast Ridge, nearly five hours behind schedule. Odell recorded, ‘I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then climbed to the top of the step….I could see that they were moving expeditiously as if endeavouring to make up for lost time.’

With Conditions worsening once again, at around 3:30 p.m. Odell was forced to retreat to Camp V for the night and when he returned the next day, he found no sign of Mallory or Irvine. It became increasingly clear that they would not be coming back, and on 11th June the expedition made its descent without them. Norton lamented in his diary, which would eventually be published by the History Press in 2014, ‘By now it appears almost inevitable that disaster has overtaken poor gallant Mallory & Irvine – 10 to 1 they have ‘fallen off’ high up.’ Despite the extremely high price his friends had paid, Odell understood their unshakeable determination, confessing that ‘There seemed to be something alluring in that towering presence…he who approaches close must ever be led on, and oblivious of all obstacles seek to reach that most sacred and highest place of all.’

The fate of Mallory and Irvine has been the subject of intense speculation ever since, and fuelled thousands of fantasies, with many subsequent explorers and mountaineers hoping to reveal the truth.  For decades, only a smattering of information was uncovered. In 1933, Hugh Ruttledge’s British Everest expedition found Irvine’s ice axe around 60 feet below the ridge of the First Step, with Ruttledge observing that it seems probable that the axe marked the scene of a fatal accident.’ Just shy of twenty-nine years to the day the Mallory and Irvine were last seen, on 29th May 1953, the New Zealander Edmund Hilary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men in history to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. Hilary paid homage to the lost English climbers, praising them as the ones who really got the ball rolling as far as Everest was concerned.’

In 1975, the Chinese mountaineer Wang Hongbao claimed to have seen a body not far from Camp VI and was convinced the figure he had seen was an ‘old English dead,’ by how it was dressed and equipped. Further details were apparently lost in translation and Hongbao himself was killed by an avalanche in 1979. No other English mountaineers had perished on Everest between 1924 and 1975, suggesting that it may possibly have been either Mallory or Irvine. On 1st May 1999, the body of George Mallory was finally discovered by the American mountaineer Conrad Anker and his team, at about 27,000 feet. Mallory had suffered several injuries, with evidence pointing to him having received a severe blow to the forehead, which was most likely the cause of his death. He had no oxygen equipment with him, nor was he wearing snow goggles, implying that it had been dark when he died. A photograph of his wife, which Mallory had always said he would leave at the top if he made it, was nowhere to be found.

Modern research has presented new ideas as to what happened that June day in 1924. A 2010 report on historical weather data, undertaken at the University of Toronto, indicated that Mallory and Irvine may have been the victims of a ‘perfect storm’ which caused oxygen to plummet to a fatal level. Arnold Lunn, a skier and mountaineer, opined that his close friend Irvine ‘did not live long, but he lived well. Into his short life he crowded an overflowing measure of activity which found its climax in his last wonderful year, a year during which he rowed in the winning Oxford boat, explored Spitsbergen, fell in love with ski-ing, and – perhaps – conquered Everest. The English love rather to live well than to live long.’

Sandy Irvine is still hidden, clasped to the bosom of the Goddess of the Sky. His biographer and great-niece Julie Summers believes it is fitting that he should stay so, stating that I wouldn’t look forward to seeing a picture of desiccated remains. I have in my head an image of a beautiful young man.’ In all likelihood, exactly what happened to Mallory and Irvine will never be completely known; as it stands, their legacy is a timeless example of man’s remarkable capacity for perseverance. Speaking about his desire to scale Everest in 1922, Mallory admitted that, taken at face value, the quest served no tangible purpose, ‘So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.’

Selected Sources:

Ghosts of Everest: The Authorised Story of the Search for Mallory and Irvine – Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, William E. Nothdurft and Eric R. Simonson (2000)

Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine – Julie Summers (2001)

The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest – Mark Mackenzie (2009) 

The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine – Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld (2010)

Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest – Wade Davis (2011) 

The Call of Everest: The History, Science, and Future of the World’s Tallest Peak – Conrad Anker (2013) 

The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest – Conrad Anker and David Roberts (2013)