The Mystery of Sandy Irvine

Sandy aged 21 photographed for the Oxford University 1923 Blue Boat

96 years ago, today, 8th June 1924, my great uncle stepped into the pages of history. He was the nd’Irvine of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all times, the junior climbing partner of the great George Mallory. From the moment of their disappearance, somewhere close to the loftiest spot on earth, Mallory and Irvine’s names have been inextricably linked. The question everyone wants to know is this: were Mallory and Irvine the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, 29 years before Hilary and Tenzing?

Two decades ago, I published a biography of Uncle Sandy, as he was always known in our family. It caused a little stir at the time and added yet one more book to the more than 1,000 written about Mount Everest since the 1920s. Sandy was only 22 when he died, Mallory 37. Sandy had had little mountaineering experience while Mallory was judged to be one of the best rock climbers of his generation. All the odds were against Sandy Irvine being an equal partner to Mallory. Yet I found evidence in letters, which had been hiding in a trunk in the attic of a house in North Wales for three quarters of a century, that Mallory had selected Sandy as his climbing partner as early as mid-April 1924. He wrote to his mother on 24th:

I have provisionally been chosen to do the first oxygen climb with Mallory.  Norton & Somervell doing Non ox. on same day.  It will be great fun if we all 4 get to the top at the same time!  I say provisionally because I don’t know that I will be fit at 26,500 ft yet (our kicking off camp). The weather has behaved in a most peculiar manner so far – no one knows if it is a good sign or not.

Prior to this, mountaineering historians had offered a variety of views as to why Mallory chose Irvine, some suggesting it was a physical attraction. I was always of the opinion that Mallory had accepted that it was necessary to use oxygen for the last 3,000 feet of the climb, based on the experience of the 1922 expedition. Sandy, who was a technical whiz when it came to fixing the oxygen sets, was the obvious person to take along if he proved himself at altitude. Mallory had good reason to think he would, as he had shown he was as strong as an ox on the trek and had performed well on the high passes in Tibet. The other thing that Mallory understood was that Sandy, as a top-class rower, would have the courage to push himself to his physical limit. It was a good combination.

Mallory (left) and Sandy Irvine leaving Camp IV on 6 June 1924. It was taken by Noel Odell as they made the final tweaks to their kit. c. Royal Geographical Society

So off they went, on 6th June 1924, to Camp V and the following day to Camp VI, their high camp, which in reality was a tiny two man tent which Sandy instantly turned into a makeshift workshop to prepare the oxygen apparatus for their early start the next day. We will never know for sure what happened when they left their tent but Noel Odell, climbing in support and one camp behind, spotted what he believed was a tiny figure climbing over a patch of white snow just a few hundred feet below the summit. He watched and saw a second figure joining the first. Then the summit was enveloped in cloud and when it lifted 15 minutes later there was no sign of the two climbers. They had disappeared from view.

From that day onwards people have thought, written, argued about what happened and how far they got. Some believe they made it to the summit and died on the descent, others are sure they were thwarted by the Second Step, a steep rock face that now has a ladder attached to it for easier passage. In May 1999, George Mallory’s frozen body was found in the snow some 1,500 metres below the summit. He had taken a fall, broken his ankle and cut his forehead. The discovery of notes in his pocket, a watch (broken), altimeter (broken) and other objects threw no light on the question of whether they got to the top or not. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered.

Sandy’s pressure kettle, designed so he could have a hot cup of tea. It was one of the few objects that came back from the mountain without him.

In four years’ time it will be the 100th anniversary of their climb and disappearance. Surely there will not be anyone still interested in their story. When I wrote my book in 1999, I was able to meet three people who had known Sandy Irvine, but they are all long dead. We have no more information now than we had after Mallory’s body was found. Yet still this mystery – British mountaineering’s greatest – continues to fascinate people. There have been no fewer than a dozen expeditions in the last 20 years which have set out with the express aim of finding Sandy’s body and answering the question for once and for all. None has succeeded.

Recently a young filmmaker, Archie Price Siddiqui, made an eight minute film about the last climb of Mallory and Irvine. It is a very accomplished piece of work and I thought I would share it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0G-RVEnT-E&feature=youtu.be. What it proved to me, if indeed I needed convincing, is that the mystery continues to fascinate people.

This was sent back to my grandmother, Sandy’s sister, in 1933. In this scrap of cloth she found 20 Himalayan garnets. It was a present from Karma Paul, the translator on the expedition who had had the most to do with Sandy while dealing with the porters on the trek.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I think the reason why the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Mount Everest in 1924 still intrigues us is because we love stories and better still, we love mysteries. Some people have tried to explain it away as a celebration of glorious British failure but, frankly, I think that is rubbish. Their deaths came six years after the end of the bloodiest war in history. There was little appetite for glorious failure in Britain in 1924. Believe me, I’ve spent the last six months writing about it for the Royal British Legion. No, this is all about mystery and storytelling. When people ask me if I want Sandy’s body found so we will finally know whether they were the first men to stand on the summit of the earth I say: ‘No. It’s a mystery. Let us leave it at that.’