This story appears in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
I never imagined I would appear in a Mount Everest photo—but here I am wrapped in a down suit and oxygen mask, 400 feet below the summit.
This may sound like an unlikely admission for a professional climber who’s spent the past two decades pursuing summits all over the world. Many consider a selfie from the highest point on the planet to be the ultimate trophy. To get it, more than a few people have risked everything—including life savings and relationships—and, tragically, many have died on the descent, with their precious images still locked in their cameras.
But over the years, the idea of an expedition to Everest repelled me. The mountain came to represent the opposite of everything that I loved and respected about climbing.
The first mountain I attempted to climb wasn’t even a mountain. It was a 500-foot granite cliff in North Conway, New Hampshire, called Cathedral Ledge that I tackled with a buddy. We were 15 and headstrong and knew absolutely nothing about technical climbing, apart from what we had gleaned from a poster of a climber I had tacked onto my bedroom wall. That craggy-jawed man had a rope tied around his waist. (We didn’t realize it was a vintage photo, from the days before harnesses had been invented.) So we grabbed a clothesline from my dad’s toolshed and headed for the cliff. Somehow we managed to claw and scrape our way a couple hundred feet up the nearly vertical wall to the safety of a small ledge.
Sitting side by side on our airy perch, we stared out over Mount Washington Valley, watching the sun dip toward the horizon and wondering how the hell we were going to get down. That first foray into the vertical world was like a drug. The thrill of doing something most people wouldn’t consider, the satisfaction of figuring out the puzzle of handholds and footholds, the soul-gripping fear of making a mistake, the discovery of the view at the top, and the bond my buddy and I shared after the experience—it all came to define the essence of what I have been seeking in the mountains ever since. It was never about a photo.
In the mid-1980s, when I first started climbing, the Everest guiding industry hadn’t even been imagined yet. Only experienced climbers with long résumés of high-altitude expeditions were invited to join the elite teams that dared to ascend above 8,000 meters into the so-called Death Zone. But as I honed my skills in places like Baffin Island, Patagonia, and the Karakoram, climbing on Everest began to change.
What had once been the ultimate mountaineering objective became the focus of a lucrative commercial guiding industry. Now anyone who could afford the hefty price tag could attempt to scale the world’s tallest peak. The highly publicized deaths of eight climbers during the 1996 spring climbing season, famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, actually fueled the frenzy. Over the years, the crowds at Base Camp grew, leaving behind tons of trash. Whenever I gave talks about climbing expeditions, invariably someone would ask whether I’d climbed Everest. My answer was always the same: not interested.
That’s probably where my personal Everest story would have ended, were it not for an old friend and his obsession with one of mountaineering’s greatest mysteries. In 1999 Thom Pollard was a cameraman on the expedition that found the remains of George Mallory, the legendary British climber who disappeared while attempting to be the first to climb Everest. Mallory and his young partner, Sandy Irvine, were last seen high on the Northeast Ridge, going strong for the summit. Then they vanished into the clouds. Ever since, the mountaineering world has wondered whether they might have reached the top in 1924—nearly 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Irvine—and the Kodak camera he likely carried—had never been found. That’s how I found myself, on assignment for this magazine, searching for a long-lost climber—and, just maybe, history’s first Everest summit selfie.
As I wrote in last July’s issue, our expedition didn’t find the camera, but it did cause me to reconsider Mount Everest. As I packed for Tibet, I expected that our state-of-the-art equipment and bottled oxygen would make the climb manageable, perhaps easy. It’s just a walk-up, I told myself. Wrong. When the top photo was taken, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been on any expedition—and I was fighting the urge to throw up. Along the way, I continuously tipped my hat, not just to Mallory and Irvine—who climbed wearing tweed suits and hobnailed boots—but to anyone who has the drive to push himself or herself up this route.
While I did witness the crowds of inexperienced climbers clogging the fixed lines, the trash dumps, and the government mismanagement on both sides, I found the other climbers to be much more than just self-centered tourists. Over endless cups of tea in various camps, we shared route information, weather forecasts, and family photos—all united around common goals. And the feeling of solidarity I felt with this group was as strong as anything I had ever experienced before in the mountains.
The typical paying client on Everest, I realized, is more likely to be a scrappy dreamer who has scrimped and saved for the chance to do something remarkable than a fat-cat CEO with an outsize ego. Contrary to popular belief, most Everest climbers are looking for the same sublime experience that I first found on Cathedral Ledge as a kid. It was hard not to admire their grit and to revel in our common humanity—as passionate and dangerously flawed as it might be.
This spring it’s unclear how many, if any, climbers will gather in the base camps in Nepal and Tibet to begin the process of climbing the world’s highest peak. But eventually they’ll be back.
I went to Everest seeking physical artifacts of Irvine. But in the end, I found something perhaps more elusive: the spirit that Irvine and Mallory shared. It was hiding in plain sight, right where it has always been: inside the intrepid souls who risk so much to follow in storied adventurers’ footsteps up Mount Everest.
Mark Synnott wrote about searching for Sandy Irvine’s camera in the July 2020 issue. His book The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Everest will be published this spring by Dutton.