In 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary – he’d soon be known as Sir Edmund Hillary for the rest of his life – and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay successfully reached the summit of the world’s highest peak, Nepal/China’s Mount Everest, and lived to tell their tale when they successfully made the just as dangerous descent from the top of the world.
But while historians likely won’t ever diminish Hillary’s and Norgay’s accomplishments, it’s possible two climbers preceded the 1953 Everest conquest almost by almost 30 years. For Colorado mountaineer and Everest climber Jake Norton, getting to the bottom of the mystery of the 1924 fate of George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine has consumed him for the better part of 20 years. On Sunday, a new Discovery Channel documentary, Everest’s Greatest Mystery (see a preview above) premieres at 9 p.m. (check local listings). The movie is a part of a new Discovery series known as Undiscovered.
Norton led an expedition to Everest in 2019 to find further evidence of what happened to Mallory and Irvine. What we know: they both died on the mountain, which over the years has become a tragic cost of conquering the earth’s highest spot (there have been roughly 300 deaths of Everest climbers, with almost annual fatalities). And Norton was part of a 1999 expedition that found the remains of Mallory, a far more experienced climber than Irvine.
But two major questions remained as Norton and a team returned to the mountain last year: Where is Irvine’s body and did the pair or either one actually make it to the summit? Observers confirmed that they did get within striking distance of the 29,029-foot summit. But with several short but treacherous spots known as the First, Second and Third steps ahead of them, it’s possible that the men died just shy of the top. We chatted with the 46-year-old Norton (who has also climbed Alaska’s mighty Denali, which we’ll write about in a future issue of ASJ) about his experiences and obsession for solving this mystery high above the clouds.
“There are always things left undone and more to do,” Norton says. “I think what I always come back to – with the story of Mallory and Irvine, which is something I’ve been fascinated with since I began climbing in the mid-1980s – it’s really who these guys were – regardless of whether or not they summited (Everest)… They were such a different breed of explorer and climber.”
As the film depicts, the 2019 explorers were equipped with top-of-the-line equipment, tents and clothing to handle the hazardous weather conditions, including crampons attached to their boots that help gain traction on the slick ice and snow. But when he was part of the team that found Mallory’s remains in 1999, Norton was astonished by what Mallory and fellow Englishman Irvine had to make the dangerous ascent in the 1920s.
“It was almost comical what he was wearing compared to what we were wearing,” Norton admits.
Irvine, the athletic but less experienced mountaineer, was brought along for his contributions toward oxygen sets they’d need to make the ascent and descent.
“They didn’t know how the human body would respond to the rigors of altitude. Some scientists thought it was humanly impossible to go that high,” Norton says, adding in about the clothing. “The down gear that we take for granted today had really just been invented. It wasn’t very good; it was heavy and fabrics heavy and thick. And they were using solid fuel burners without water. They didn’t know the importance of hydration. Just challenge after challenge for the fact that they even got to base camp (17,000-plus feet), which until 1921 no one had been within 40 miles of. It’s just phenomenal that they were anywhere on the mountain, let alone within 1,000 feet of the summit.
Mallory in particular is something of a role model for mountaineers. Some of his philosophical thoughts about why he was such a climbing savant in his day, which made Norton so emotional when the team that was led by Eric Simpson found Mallory – Conrad Anker was the first who reached the remains – at the 26,760-foot level on Everest’s north face (the Tibet side now controlled by China).
Norton, who at aged 14 first climbed Washington’s 14,000-foot-plus Mount Rainier and has since climbed, besides Denali, five of the world’s Seven Summits (highest peaks on each continent), was enthralled by Mallory’s passion to reach the top. I asked if he felt a spiritual connection with the mountaineers he’s looked for in now multiple trips to Everest, most now not looking to reach the summit but solve the mystery of their fates. You get the sense that they almost owed it to those pioneers to find more signs of what really happened almost 100 years ago.
“I feel that way; not in a ouija board-type sense, but I think those of us who have been to the mountain a lot, you can’t help but really begin to revere and feel some degree of connection to those who paved the way and those who came first,” Norton says. “I find myself up on the mountain always thinking about Mallory and Irvine, or (fellow 1924 expedition members Noel Odell and Howard Somervell), all these different climbers, go over there in such a different era. Their experiences do kind of speak to us, and hopefully we’re wise enough to listen to those voices.”
You’ll have to watch the film to find out exactly what they unearthed. Did they find Irvine’s body? Did he and/or Mallory reach the summit 30 years ahead of Hillary and the Sherpa Norgay? But you can imagine the feelings Norton and company had upon discovery of Mallory in 1999.
“I just remember at first the gasps and disbelief, we were just stunned into silence,” he says. “Nobody could really talk and get out a coherent thought for a while. There we were with a hero of all of ours.”