two men climbing up a ridge as the sun rises behind them

Our team climbed Everest to try to solve its greatest mystery

Were Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay really the first to summit the world’s highest peak? We searched for a camera that could rewrite history.

As the sun rises above the Tibetan Plateau, Pasang Kaji Sherpa (front) and Lhakpa Tenje Sherpa pass 28,700 feet on Mount Everest. The big question: Did George Mallory and Sandy Irvine get this far—or perhaps reach the top—in 1924?
This story appears in the July 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “You’re too tired. It’s not worth it.”

Jamie McGuinness, our guide and expedition leader, looked hard at me with sunken, bloodshot eyes. He had slipped off his oxygen mask and removed his sunglasses. Several days of gray stubble covered his chin. His skin had a sallow, corpselike pallor.

We were sitting on a pile of rocks at 27,700 feet on the Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest—the Chinese side, away from the crowd in Nepal. A couple hundred feet below us was the GPS waypoint that could solve one of the greatest mysteries of mountaineering. New research indicated that legendary British explorer Andrew “Sandy” Irvine may have tumbled and come to rest at that spot. Was his body still there?

Almost a century ago, while descending this ridge, Irvine and his climbing partner, George Mallory, vanished. Since then the world has wondered whether one or both of them could have made it to the top that day, 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were recognized as the first to stand on Everest’s summit. Irvine was thought to have been carrying a Vest Pocket Kodak camera. If that camera could be found, and it held snapshots of the summit, it would rewrite the history of the world’s tallest peak.

I scanned the terrain around me. A series of short, steep cliffs was sandwiched between snow- and rubble-covered ledges in an area of light-colored rock known as the Yellow Band. Fourteen thousand feet below, the arid plain of the Tibetan Plateau shimmered like a mirage.

(Explore Mount Everest and its surrounding area with these stunning 360-degree panoramas.)

I had barely slept in the past 48 hours and was weak and nauseated from the extreme altitude. Since setting off from Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet three days earlier, I had been able to choke down only a few bites of freeze-dried curry, a handful of cashews, and a single bite of a candy bar on Everest’s summit—which I later threw up. I was so tired, my oxygen-starved brain begged me to lie back and close my eyes. But some vestige of clarity and reason understood that if I did, I might never wake up.

A few small rocks clattered from above. I looked up to see photographer Renan Ozturk working his way down the ridge toward us. His arm was wrapped around the skinny purple fixed line that was our umbilical cord to the summit, where we had stood several hours earlier. He skidded to a stop and plopped down beside me.

I turned to face him. “What do you think?”

He didn’t reply right away, his chest heaving in and out. Finally he caught his breath, and I heard his muffled voice through his oxygen mask. “You should go for it.”

I nodded, unclipped from the line, and took my first tentative steps down the sloping ledge of rocks. The moment I left the rope, Lhakpa Sherpa yelled, “No, no, no!”

I waved at him. “I just need to check something out. I’m not going far.”

But he implored me to stop. “Very dangerous, very dangerous!”

As a veteran climber and guide who had summited Everest multiple times, he knew that one bad slip on the loose scree and I could plummet 7,000 feet to the Rongbuk Glacier. Part of me agreed with him and wanted to call it off. After decades of mountaineering all over the world, including as a professional guide, I had promised myself never to cross any line where the objective risk was too high. After all, I had a family back home that I dearly loved.

But I ignored McGuinness, Lhakpa, and my own promise now. The mystery of Irvine’s disappearance was too strong.

I had long known the theory that Mallory and Irvine might have been the first to scale Everest. But I had caught the fever to find Irvine only two years before, after attending a lecture by my friend Thom Pollard, an Everest veteran who lives a few miles from my home in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. He called me a few days later.

“You don’t think you could actually find him, do you?” I asked.

He chuckled. “What if I had a critical piece of information that no one else has?”

“Like what?” I shot back.

He paused for a few seconds. “Like the exact location of the body.”

Pollard had been a cameraman on the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, during which American alpinist Conrad Anker had found the remains of George Mallory on this part of Everest’s north face, where only a few climbers have ventured. The body had been embedded facedown in the gravel as if it had been laid into a slab of wet concrete.

Mallory’s entire back was exposed, the preserved skin so clean and white it looked like a marble statue. A severed cord tied around his waist had left rope marks on the torso, a clue that at some point Mallory likely had taken a hard, swinging fall. What struck me most was the way the left leg was crossed over the right, which had broken above the boot top, as if Mallory was protecting the injured limb. Whatever had happened, it seemed clear that Mallory had been alive, at least briefly, when he’d arrived at his final resting-place.

Anker and his fellow searchers initially assumed the body was Sandy Irvine’s because it was found almost directly below the spot where Irvine’s ice ax had been discovered on the ridge nearly a decade after he and Mallory disappeared. Had Mallory been tied to Irvine at the time of the fall? And if so, how did the rope get cut, and why was Irvine not found nearby?

Other details raised more questions. Mallory’s green-tinted goggles were found in his pocket. Did that mean he was descending at night, when he wouldn’t need them? His wristwatch had stopped between one and two, but was that a.m. or p.m.? Mallory had made it known that if he made it to the summit, he would leave his wife’s picture on top. There was no picture of her on his body.

There was also no trace of the camera, which has led many Everest historians to conclude Irvine must have been carrying it. This makes sense considering he was the better photographer and would have known the British public would want photos of their Galahad—as his admirers had nicknamed Mallory—rather than his lesser known partner.

The last person to see the pair was their teammate Noel Odell, who stopped at around 26,000 feet on June 8, 1924, to turn his gaze toward the summit. A thick, cottony veil had obscured the upper reaches of the mountain, but at 12:50 p.m. the swirling clouds lifted momentarily, revealing Mallory and Irvine “moving expeditiously” upward about 800 feet from the summit, Odell reported.

“My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow crest,” Odell wrote in his dispatch of June 14. “The first then approached the great rock step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.”

Until now I had resisted the idea of climbing Everest, turned off by stories about the crowding, the greenhorns who had no business being on the mountain, and the outsourcing of risk to the climbing support team, mostly ethnic Sherpas, who carried the weight of everyone’s egos on their shoulders and sometimes paid with their lives when Qomolangma—the Tibetan name for the mountain—showed its displeasure with storms, earthquakes, and avalanches.

That was one reason I never understood Pollard’s obsession with the peak. But as we continued to talk in the months after his lecture, Mallory and Irvine’s story intrigued me more and more. During one of these conversations, Pollard told me about Tom Holzel, a 79-year-old entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and Everest enthusiast who has spent more than four decades trying to solve this mystery.

Back in 1986, Holzel had led the first expedition to search for Mallory and Irvine with Audrey Salkeld, a preeminent Everest historian. But unusually heavy snows that autumn had kept their team from getting high enough on the Chinese side of the mountain. If conditions had been better, they might well have found Mallory’s body, which was later discovered within a hundred feet of the spot Holzel had targeted.

His next idea was to use an aerial photo taken during a National Geographic–supported Everest mapping project headed by explorer Bradford Washburn to try to pin down the exact spot on the mountain where a Chinese climber claimed to have spotted Irvine’s body. Xu Jing was deputy leader of the Chinese expedition that made the first ascent of Everest’s north side in May 1960. According to Xu’s account, after bailing from the summit attempt, he was taking a shortcut down through the Yellow Band when he spotted an old dead body inside a crevice at approximately 27,200 feet. At the time of this sighting, the only two people who had died this high on the north face of Everest were Mallory and Irvine. By the time Xu gave his account, in 2001, Mallory’s remains had already been found lower on the mountain.

When Pollard and I visited Holzel in December 2018 at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut, he showed us on his eight-foot-wide blowup of the Washburn photo that there was only one route that made sense as Xu’s shortcut. Through a process of elimination and a detailed analysis of the terrain features, Holzel had homed in on a single crevice that he believed to be the location of Irvine’s body and had determined the precise latitude and longitude for this spot.

I pointed to the red circle on the giant photo. “What are the odds that he’s actually here?”

“He can’t not be there,” Holzel said.

It was a fluke, in many ways, that Irvine had even made it to Everest.

The shy, athletic 21-year-old was still an undergraduate at Oxford’s Merton College when the Mount Everest Committee invited him to join the expedition in 1923. Unlike more seasoned members of the British team, Irvine had limited climbing experience, having scaled modest peaks in Spitsbergen, Wales, and the Alps, far from the giants of the Himalaya.

And yet, by the time the group reached the mountain, this youngest member of the team, whom the Mount Everest Committee had called their “superman,” had won the respect of his teammates and proved his usefulness by completely redesigning their newfangled oxygen gear. A gifted engineer and tinkerer, he had taken the oxygen sets apart and put them back together, making them lighter, less cumbersome, and less prone to breaking.

A few months before our own expedition in 2019, I traveled to England to visit the Sandy Irvine Archive at Merton. (My grandfather, coincidentally, attended Merton a few years after Irvine.) The archive consists of 25 boxes of papers, photos, and other memorabilia, including Irvine’s Everest diary, recovered from the mountain after his disappearance. About eight inches tall by five inches wide, with a black cloth cover, the volume captures Irvine’s youthful enthusiasm.

To make camps more comfortable for clients, Sherpas and other support climbers carry bedding and foam pads up the steep slope to the North Col. Everything from tents and oxygen bottles to stoves, food, and fuel must be carried above Advanced Base Camp. "The fact is, the weight of every enterprise on Everest rides on the backs of Sherpas," said author Mark Synnott.
To make camps more comfortable for clients, Sherpas and other support climbers carry bedding and foam pads up the steep slope to the North Col. Everything from tents and oxygen bottles to stoves, food, and fuel must be carried above Advanced Base Camp. "The fact is, the weight of every enterprise on Everest rides on the backs of Sherpas," said author Mark Synnott.

Archivist Julian Reid brought me the book, laying it on a protective foam pad. He paged to the last entry and said, “When I read it, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

Irvine scribbled his last entry on the evening of June 5, when he and Mallory were camped at 23,000 feet on the North Col, a narrow snow saddle connecting the north face of Everest to the subpeak known as Changtse, where they were poised to begin their summit bid the next day. He complained to his diary that his fair skin had been cracked and blistered by the sun. “My face is perfect agony. Have prepared 2 Oxygen apparatus for our start tomorrow morning.”

I had the same reaction as Reid’s upon reading Irvine’s words, along with a profound sense of sadness. When Irvine vanished, he was the same age as my oldest son.

Before we could conduct our search for Irvine, we had to acclimate to the high elevation and test our secret weapons: a small fleet of drones. Ozturk, a talented filmmaker, is also a self-professed “drone nerd” and hoped to use these unmanned aerial vehicles to search not only the so-called Irvine crevice but also the entire north face of the mountain.

On May 1, 2019, our team sat around a folding table in the dining tent, perched at 21,000 feet on a stone platform at Advanced Base Camp, on the edge of the East Rongbuk Glacier. It was warm, and the tent was tied open, giving me a perfect view of Everest’s northeast face. A plume of snow, like the tail of a white dragon, trailed off the summit for miles.

“That’s a Category 4 cyclone,” McGuinness said, pointing to a brightly colored swirl in the Bay of Bengal on his laptop. “It could dump a foot of snow on us in the next few days.”

Our plan was to fly the drones from the North Col the next day. We were eager to test their capabilities at high altitude. But McGuinness was skeptical. “It might get too windy up there.”

He was right. The gusts on the North Col a day and a half later were so strong that Ozturk couldn’t even bring the first drone all the way back. He had to land it nearby to retrieve it.

That night we huddled in our tent as the storm grew stronger. We were 2,000 feet higher now than Advanced Base Camp, and I had a racking cough and felt listless and slightly nauseous, as if suffering from a combination of the flu and a bad hangover. As my headache built, so too did the wind, until the tent fabric was flapping violently. Sometime before midnight I heard what sounded like a 747 taking off above our heads. A few seconds later the tent was flattened, and I was held down by the hand of an invisible giant. The gust lasted only a few seconds before the tent rebounded, but I knew more was coming.

Over the next couple of hours the tempest built, until around 2 a.m., when a gust squashed my head into the ground, and I felt my cheek pressing into the ice beneath the tent. The mountain trembled like a volcano about to explode. The furious howl pinned us for 20 or 30 seconds, and I remember thinking to myself, Is this what it feels like right before you die? The tent poles cracked, and I was blanketed in frost-covered nylon that snapped in my face as jagged bits of broken pole cut the yellow nylon into ribbons. I prayed that the bamboo pickets securing us to the mountain would hold.

When the sun finally rose, I sat up, propping the crumpled tent with my throbbing head. My two teammates were curled in the fetal position next to me, and I nudged their legs to make sure they were still alive. When I crawled out of the tent, a scene of utter devastation took my breath away. Every tent was smashed and broken, and one, which had taken off like a kite, was flying in the air about 500 feet above us.

I glanced up at the ridge and saw a group of Indian climbers descending toward our camp as another gust hit. Suddenly, everyone was yelling. Four people hung over the lip of a thousand-foot ice wall, like a string of Christmas lights. One member of our team dived onto the picket that was holding the near end of their rope and hammered in his ice ax to back it up, while others used a second line to pull the climbers back to safety.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.

We had better luck with the drones a week later. In one last effort to search the Yellow Band from the air, we climbed back up to the North Col and watched in suspense as Ozturk launched a drone toward the summit. As the craft rose into the thin air, I hovered over his shoulder, directing him where to go and what to take pictures of. By the time the wind started to build in the afternoon, he’d shot 400 high-resolution images of the search area, including a close-up of Holzel’s spot.

In one of the photos, I spotted the crevice but couldn’t see into its interior. Was Irvine’s body inside? We were running out of time to find out.

The first window to reach the summit from the Chinese side opened on May 22 while we waited at Advanced Base Camp. After two trips to the North Col, we were now fully acclimated, ready to set out for our search area high on the Northeast Ridge. But we were far from alone on the mountain. More than 450 people were poised to make an ascent from the Nepali side of the mountain, where Base Camp had turned into a famously commercialized circus. Another 200 or so waited on the Chinese side with us. McGuinness took one look at this summit-hungry crowd and said no. We would wait for the next window.

Over the next several days, nine people lost their lives on Everest, seven on the south side and two on the north (two had died a week earlier on the south side, bringing the total to 11). I’ll never forget the helpless feeling of watching through high-powered binoculars as the conga line of a couple hundred hopeful climbers trudged its way toward the summit and reports trickled in over our radio of some of the unfortunate souls who would never return home to their families.

On the afternoon of May 23, we sat down with our climbing support team to discuss logistics for the search. McGuinness had assured us that the team were familiar with our plan, but apparently something had been lost in translation. When I described our strategy to search the Yellow Band for Irvine’s body, they threw up their arms and began arguing in Nepali.

“We aren’t going to the summit?” Lhakpa Sherpa asked. “Big problem.”

Ozturk translated for the rest of us. Number one, the support team didn’t want us to go off the fixed ropes set by the Chinese. It was too dangerous and against official instructions, they said. Number two, the summit was important to them. Some of our team were rookies who had never summited Everest. Number three, they wanted to spend as little time as possible at Camp III, which is around 27,000 feet, well into the Death Zone, where the air is too thin to survive for long. “Very dangerous for everyone,” they said.

I turned to McGuinness. “What gives? I thought you told them about the search.”

He shrugged, barely able to speak because of laryngitis. He indicated that he had indeed discussed the plan with at least some of our support team back in Kathmandu.

There was no way around the fact that we were now on thin ice with our support team, which totaled 12 men. And no one had any illusions about whether we could climb the mountain without them. Like virtually every other team, we were dependent on their support, and if they walked away, our expedition would be over.

“If we went to the summit, could I veer off the established route to search the Irvine crevice on either the way up or down?” I asked McGuinness.

“On the way down would be better,” he said. Plus, that way, the terrain would appear the same as it did to Xu Jing back in 1960, when he claimed to have spotted the body.

When we called Lhakpa into the dining tent and told him we were going for the summit, he nodded and said OK in Nepali. No one explicitly mentioned the possibility that I might go rogue on the descent, but I assumed Lhakpa understood, considering that a few minutes earlier we’d told him it was our primary objective. We saw our plan—to go for the summit and then do the search on the way down—as a reasonable compromise.

Eight days later, our team reached the top of the world and began our descent. Lhakpa, who was bringing up the rear, watched me carefully as I studied the terrain and frequently referenced my GPS. When I unclipped from the rope at 27,700 feet, he shouted, “No, no, no!”

I stood there, trying to decide what to do. In my heart I knew it was wrong to go against Lhakpa and that I was acting like one more selfish Westerner. If I fell or disappeared, Lhakpa would be obliged to go look for me. And if I died, he would have to explain to Chinese officials what happened. More important, by this point in the climb, I felt he genuinely cared about me. And the feeling was mutual. But here’s the thing: I knew I could pull it off. And that Lhakpa would forgive me this indiscretion.

According to the GPS, the Irvine crevice was now within a stone’s throw. As Lhakpa and the others looked on, I set off across a narrow ledge covered in plates of loose limestone that covered the ground like paving stones. A few feet out, I stepped on a chunk that slipped out from under my foot, and I wobbled.

“Be careful!” Ozturk yelled.

After traversing about a hundred feet, I looked down and saw a shallow gully cutting through a steep band of rock to the next snow ledge below. I vaguely remembered this feature from the drone photos of the terrain. Was this where Xu had taken his shortcut down through the Yellow Band?

I turned to face the slope, positioning myself as one would to climb down a ladder, and jammed the pick of my ice ax into the rock-hard snow. The steel blade squeaked as it punctured the wind-blasted surface. Looking down between my legs, I took in the dizzying void between me and the glacier far below. Several hundred feet beneath me was the snow terrace where Mallory had been found. I was now more or less directly above his resting-place, on a part of the mountain where people don’t go if they want to return home alive. I checked the GPS once again. The arrow on the compass pointed northwest. Fifty more feet.

After down-climbing a few body lengths, I paused on a shattered block of pale brown limestone. The cliff was about eight feet high and as steep as a playground slide. It would have been inconsequential almost anywhere else, but up here, in my depleted state, alone and without a rope, it scared me. I looked up the gully and thought about climbing back up the way I had come. Prudence dictated that I turn back, but my curiosity was stronger. With the pick of my ax still in the snow, I stepped down onto the rock, where my crampons skittered, making a scratching noise like fingernails on a chalkboard.

At the bottom of the cliff, I took a few deep breaths. Ten feet to my right was a small alcove hemmed by a rock wall a bit taller and steeper than the one I had just climbed down. The middle of the wall was striped with a vein of dark brown rock with a narrow crack in the middle. The GPS said I’d arrived. That’s when it hit me: The dark rock was the “crevice” we had seen with the drone. Apparently it was an optical illusion. The crack in the center was only nine inches wide. Far too narrow for a person to crawl inside. And it was empty. He’s not here.

The slope was too steep for me to sit down, so I planted my right foot sideways in a patch of snow and leaned my left knee against the mountain. Hunching over my ax, with my chin on my chest, I sucked on my oxygen mask, trying to clear the fog from my head. When I looked back up, blinking in the midday sun, the crevice was still empty. High above, the summit shimmered against a pale blue sky, immutable and indifferent, as always, to those who sought to unlock its secrets.

We had run down every lead and scoured the mountain slopes with drones, and I had risked my life to solve one of Everest’s greatest mysteries. And like everyone else who had ever tried, we were left with more questions than answers. What happened to Irvine that day? Where did he finally come to rest? Had someone removed his body from the slope, or had the jet stream or an avalanche swept it into oblivion?

To all of these questions, I had no answers. But I had learned something about the pull of Mount Everest that drives people to push themselves so hard, because if I hadn’t walked in Sandy Irvine’s footsteps, I never would have felt it myself. The only thing I could now say for sure was that the mystery of Mallory and Irvine would endure—perhaps forever. And that was OK.

Adapted from The Third Pole by Mark Synnott, to be published spring 2021 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Synnott. Renan Ozturk photographed honey hunters in Nepal in the July 2017 issue.

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