George Mallory : biography
Reaching the summit
Whether Mallory and Irvine reached Everest’s summit is unknown. The question remains open to speculation and is the topic of much debate and research.
From the discovery of a serious rope-jerk injury around Mallory’s waist, which was encircled by the remnants of a climbing rope, it appears that the two were roped together when one of them slipped. Mallory’s body lay 300 m below and about 100 m horizontal to the location of an ice axe found in 1933, which is generally accepted from three characteristic marks on the shaft as belonging to Irvine. The fact that the body was relatively unbroken, apart from breaks to his right leg (the tibia and fibula were broken about his boot (in comparison to other bodies found in the same location that were known to have fallen from the NE Ridge) strongly suggests that Mallory could not have fallen from the ice axe site, but must have fallen from much lower down. Wang reportedly found Mallory’s ice axe near his body (and took it with him). If this is true then Mallory not only survived the initial fall with Irvine, but was in possession of his axe until the last seconds of striking a rock that stopped his final fall. When found, his body was sun-bleached, frozen and mummified.Ghosts of Everest, J Hemmleb et al, p125
The other most significant find made on Mallory’s body was a severe golf-ball size puncture wound in his forehead, which was the most likely cause of his death. The unusual puncture wound is consistent with one which might be inflicted by an ice axe, leading some to conclude that, while Mallory was descending in a self-arrest "glissade", sliding down a slope while dragging his ice axe in the snow to control the speed of his descent, his ice axe may have struck a rock and bounced off, striking him fatally.
Two items of circumstantial evidence from the body suggest that he may have attempted, or reached, the summit:
- Mallory’s daughter said that Mallory carried a photograph of his wife on his person with the intention of leaving it on the summit. This photo was not found on Mallory’s body. Given the excellent preservation of the body, its garments and other items including documents in his wallet, this points to the possibility that he may have reached the summit and deposited the photo there. On the other hand, no one who has subsequently reached the summit has reported seeing any evidence of this, or any other trace of their presence there.
- Mallory’s snow goggles were found in his pocket, suggesting that he and Irvine had made a push for the summit and were descending after sunset. On his attempt a few days earlier, Norton had suffered serious snow-blindness because he did not wear his goggles, so Mallory would be unlikely to have dispensed with them in daylight, and given their known departure time and movements, had they not attempted the summit pyramid it is unlikely that they would have still been out by nightfall. An alternative scenario is that Mallory may have carried an extra pair and the pair he was wearing were torn off in his fall.
From the location of their final camp (discovered in 2001),, discovery of Camp VI a summit climb may be estimated to have taken them around eleven hours. Assuming they took two cylinders each, they only had about eight hours of oxygen available, so – although this depends on the flow rate, which could be controlled and was not necessarily used on full flow – the oxygen would almost certainly have run out before they reached the summit. The two flow rates available on those oxygen sets were 1.5 and 2.2 litres/min. Both are low rates for active climbing, and it is unlikely the two would have used the lower flow rate. One of their oxygen bottles was found some short of the First Step, which enables their speed of climbing to be calculated (~275 vert-ft/hr. Hillary and Norgay climbed at 350 vf/h at this altitude). It can be estimated that at best they might have reached the base of the Second Step with one-and-a-half hours of oxygen remaining each. Given the vertical distance remaining (~800 vft), the climb to the summit after the Second Step at the same climbing rate would be three hours. But climbing speed drops quickly with altitude (Hillary and Norgay managed only 150 vf/h above 28,000 ft). Thus, even if Mallory had taken Irvine’s oxygen, he would not have had enough oxygen to reach the summit.