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Adventure Magazine

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Climber Eric Simonson
Eric Simonson
Age: 45
Home: Ashford, Washington
Number of Himalayan Expeditions: 25 and counting

“The last thing we care about is finding another dead body up there.”

Eric Simonson, The Sleuth of Everest

In 1999 renowned guide Eric Simonson led an expedition to Mount Everest in search of the answer to climbing’s greatest mystery: Did long-missing British climbers George Leigh Mallory and his young companion, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, summit the world’s highest peak on June 8, 1924—29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

With few tangible clues to guide them, Simonson’s team astonishingly found the porcelain-like body of George Leigh Mallory frozen in scree, but no evidence of Irvine or that the two had reached the top.

This spring Simonson has returned to Everest, this time in search of the Mallory-Irvine expedition’s camera or cameras—and, they hope, film rolls that will unravel the enigma once and for all. The expedition is spending close to eight weeks high on the mountain, in brutal and unpredictable weather, scouring the region where they found Mallory.

Even if Simonson succeeds, he will face a firestorm back home: Four groups are claiming ownership of any film found.

How are you funding the 2001 expedition?

International Mountain Guides is our primary sponsor. [Simonson is a founder and part owner of the company.] We were originally going to work with MountainZone.com, but their current owner, Quokka Sports, is on the ropes—they’re becoming part of the dot-com carnage.

Every day the landscape is changing, but I think it’s going to work out. It’s all coming together here, this last week or so. To be perfectly honest, doing it ourselves means we can have the content that we want to have.

When MountainZone.com hosted our expeditions, they had their editorial staff working everything over. The dispatches ended up having twists that weren’t in them when we sent them from the mountain.

In 1999 you didn’t intend to find Mallory, right?

Right. We really thought that if we were going to find anyone, it was going to be Irvine, because his ice ax had been found.

I always thought that Mallory had headed for the summit and fallen off the ridge somewhere up high or into a crevasse and would never be found.

Are you hoping to find Irvine’s body?

The spin that we’re trying to impart on this is that we’re not really looking for the body, we’re looking for the camera, or cameras. To be honest, with all the controversy over the 1999 photos of Mallory’s corpse, the last thing we care about is finding another dead body up there.

With such a wide search area, how do you know where to look?

We have high-resolution photos taken by [photographer-explorer] Bradford Washburn in the 1980s. We’ve had these digitized to the extent that one pixel on the film is equal to 25 centimeters [10 inches] on the ground. We also have some much more sophisticated search equipment—metal detectors and stuff like that.

This time we’re going to try to be more systematic and do a very systematic search of the target areas. We have some ideas where we want to look, but we don’t have any burning clues.

How long will you be on Everest?

We hope to be able to be high on the mountain by mid-April, so potentially we could be there for a month. Now, is the weather going to be good every day for a month for searching? No, but will we have some good weather? Yeah.

This’ll be the trick: Get in position and have our supplies ready. Then if we get a favorable forecast, we’ll be able to get our people up there for a few days at a time.

If you find Irvine’s film, who is the rightful owner?

You’ve probably heard about the controversy: Everybody is claiming the camera. We’ve got four different parties asserting ownership, so this will be a field day for all the lawyers when we get back—they’ll all be licking their chops.

Did the response to finding Mallory, in 1999, surprise you?

We knew climbers would be interested, but what really blew us away was how the general public was captivated by the story. This was the first time that they had ever heard about these guys.

It was sort of the same thing as the interest, in the last couple of years, with Ernest Shackleton—people for the first time learning about the story and going, Wow, that’s pretty cool.

How about the controversy that erupted over releasing photos of Mallory’s corpse?

That’s been the frustrating thing. Had we not published the photos, I think everybody would’ve been complaining about that as well. But then you publish the photos, and some people are disturbed by dead-body pictures.

High on Mount Everest, that’s the reality. There are quite a few dead bodies. It’s big and high and hard and people die.

Will the public be able to see the photos if you find the cameras?

Well, I hope so. Whether they made the summit or not, I would think they'd have taken a picture of their high point. With any luck, it would at least let us know how far they got.

The film they had, I think it only had eight shots on a roll, so we're not talking about a huge number of pictures. But maybe there’s a handful from up high that are decent.

Do you think Mallory and Irvine made it to the top?

I think they could have. I don’t think it’s impossible.

Do you think people really want to know? Or do we prefer the mystery?

I’ve had a lot of people tell me, Gee, Eric, I really like the story the way that it is, and if you never solve it, that's OK. It’s a cool mystery.

But on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of people say to me, Well, heck, if there's a camera sitting up there that’s going to answer the question, then you have an obligation to history to try to seek the truth.

I keep thinking that Mallory and Irvine would want the world to know what happened to them. The bottom line for me is that I think Mallory and Irvine would want the world to know what happened on June 8, 1924.

—Katie McDowell

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Read more on Eric Simonson in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure. Subscribe Now!
May/June 2001 Cover

Related Web Sites

Everest 2001: Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition
Follow Simonson’s expedition through late May at the International Mountain Guides site.

Everest: Measure of a Mountain
Relive the National Geographic expedition that discovered the true height of Earth’s highest peak.

National Geographic, 1963: “How We Climbed Everest”
Classic images and excerpts from climber Barry Bishop.

“Out of Thin Air”: How Simonson and Company Found Mallory
Read an excerpt from the Fall 1999 Adventure.

Q&A With the Man Who Found Mallory
Climber Conrad Anker: “I wonder if I could have just walked by George Mallory…and not have ever said anything.”

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