Out of Thin Air
Out of Thin Air
By David Roberts
For 75 years, mountaineering’s greatest mystery has lingered: Did the doomed George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reach the summit of Everest 29 years before the first confirmed ascent? The stunning discovery of Mallory’s body helps answer the riddle.
As Conrad Anker and Jake Norton studied the mummified body lying among the rocks, their three teammates made their way one by one to the site. The going was treacherous; a slip here could mean a fatal fall of 7,000 feet [2,135 meters] to the upper Rongbuk Glacier. As each searcher arrived, the gestalt of the details—the ragged edges of the torn-away clothing, the fingers planted in the scree, a thin white rope tangled about the torso, terminating in a frayed loose end—struck home. Below the base of the back, the right buttock had been eaten away by goraks—the prehistoric-looking ravens that haunt the upper reaches of the Himalaya. The birds had used this orifice to ravage the man’s internal organs. The left foot was bare, the lower leg folded atop its companion, as if to shelter it from further harm—for the right leg, hobnailed boot intact, lay hideously bent, both tibia and fibula plainly broken.
“I was pretty blown away,” recalled Tap Richards. “It was obviously a body, but it looked like a marble statue.”
For half an hour, a sense of taboo hung over the stark tableau. At first, the five men could not bring themselves to touch the body. Instead they took photographs and pointed out nuances that might bear on how the man had met his end. Jake Norton sat down with a flat stone in his lap and began to carve a memorial to Sandy Irvine.
“It didn’t hit me on a personal level until we started working on him,” said Dave Hahn. “Then he became a real man.”
With great care, the men used their axes to chip away at the ice that froze the victim to the slope. As they got closer to the body, they switched to pocketknives, carving with an archaeological delicacy. While Hahn and Andy Politz shot video footage, Richards and Norton bore the brunt of the excavation, as they cut away beneath the corpse in hopes of finding what might lie in his pockets. Then Norton came across a name tag on the collar of one of the man’s garments. It read “G. Mallory.”
“That’s weird,” said Norton to his teammates. “Why would Irvine be wearing Mallory’s shirt?”
Get the answer, and the full story, in the Fall 1999 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE.