The Adventure

Who First Climbed Everest? Better Left a Mystery

Posted by Topher Donahue on Mon, Oct 03, 2011

A BBC article today titled, “Mallory and Irvine: Should we solve Everest’s mystery?” by Jon Kelly takes a new angle on the old story of who first climbed the world’s highest peak.

The story reveals that the question may not be whether or not Mallory and Irvine summited Everest almost 30 years before Norgay and Hillary's first recorded ascent, but rather whether or not we should even try to solve the mystery.  There is a lot of validity to Kelly's new twist on the old story. 

everest namche bazar khumbu


In 1999 Conrad Anker, the mountaineer who found Mallory’s body in 1999, climbed the last difficult section to Mallory's route, a rock band called The Second Step, and thought it would have been too difficult for Mallory and Irvine.  Anker then went back in 2007 and climbed the Second Step via a slightly different passage.  He found it much easier than the way he went in 1999, inspiring Anker to write this in his journal, “What I have learned is that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed it, and that is worth thinking about.”

As a climber myself, I tend to agree with Kelly in that I like the mystery, and Anker’s conclusion that Mallory and Irvine could have done it is great news.  Graham Hoyland, a filmmaker who was part of the expedition with Anker, is quoted here on NOVA with certainty that Mallory and Irvine did make the summit, has written a forthcoming book that he claims will settle the mystery for good.  I for one hope it falls short of finding the absolute truth.

Sure, it would be great for Mallory and irvine to get credit for the big prize, but in my opinion, in the world of modern mountaineering the summit is not the ultimate achievement anyway, but rather the ultimate achievement is transforming the impossible into the possible.

The climb that best exemplifies this in modern times is the North Ridge of Latok I.  In 1978 Jeff Lowe, George Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini climbed to just short of the summit.  In the 33 years that have passed since their effort, 20 expeditions including some of the world’s best climbers have tried the climb and nobody has yet made it to the 1978 high point.

The 1978 Latok expedition is viewed by the greater mountaineering community as one of the best efforts in mountain sport and yet they failed to reach the summit.  If they had all perished on the descent, would it have lessened their achievement?  Only in the sense that they failed at mountaineering’s most basic goal: to get home alive.  The success of their expedition is still motivating world-class mountaineers today.  Not only did they nearly make it to the top, but they also did something that decades of technological innovations and athletic understanding have not made any easier.

Here’s my point: when somebody finally does climb the North Ridge of Latok I in its entirety, will it lessen the achievement of the 1978 team?  Not one bit. 

By defining achievement in the mountains as pushing back the impossible, what Mallory and Irvine did, regardless if they stood on top or not, was of at least as much significance as any other Mt. Everest climb - including the first ascent and the other revolutionary Everest ascents including Reinhold Messner’s solo ascent in 1980, and blind mountaineer Erik Weinhenmayer’s 2003 ascent.

My guess is that we’ll never know with absolute certainty if Mallory and Irvine made it to the top, but what we do know is that in 1924 Mallory and Irvine demonstrated that it was possible to climb to the top of the world’s highest peak.

If one day it is proven that they either did or did not make the summit, it will rob mountaineering of one of its most inspiring mysteries.  I hope the mystery stays alive because it reminds our goal-oriented society to honor and learn from the visionaries who may have fallen short of their ultimate goals. 

What do you think?  Do you want to know with absolute certainty who first climbed Everest?

Photo of Mt Everest (center peak with cloud plume) and the village of Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region of Nepal by Topher Donahue.

Tags: adventure, CMH Experts