Blog: 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: 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.’

17 thoughts on “The Mystery of Sandy Irvine

  1. Julie, you will have your wish–Irvine will never be found–and now we know that for sure. For all the intriguing details, watch “Lost On Everest,” a film put out by National Geographic detailing the search for Irvine thos pasdt spring by Mark Synnott, Thom Pollard and others. Some the photography is just sensational, including a HUGE drone shot of the entire mountain.

    To premier here on June 30th on the NatGeo and Disney cable channels. Eventually a DVD will become available.

    1. I’m not sad to read that, Tom. I think it’s better to leave the mystery now. It’s been nearly 40 years of searching. Yours and Audrey’s book is still the best.

    2. You cannot say for certain that Irvine was taken off the mountain by the Chinese. There isn’t solid evidence of that. I’ve watched the documentary and he didn’t search but one small area that you believed his body to be. Remember at one time you believed that it was Sandy who fell and Mallory who made it over the second step. Sandy is in the snow buried or he fell of the mountain when Mallory fell. I believe that the Chinese never seen Sandy’s body, I believe it was always George Mallory body they described. Think about it, why take Sandy and not remove George as well. Now I do think they took some artifacts from the mountain and his body. I have a theory but it’s just that a theory. I believe that Odell did see them at the first step at 12:50, I think he seen them on the first step. They didn’t claim at that time a third step. “the last step but one” that means to me the first step. Now I think Mallory had a good head on his shoulder, he knew from that time it wouldn’t be impossible to reach the summit safely. I think Mallory might have had a small accident prior to the fall. They were heading down desending when a slip occurred. Sandy fell or he is buried in the snow. I hope that this new generation of climbers will try to find the body and it’s clues. However if they never do or if in fact they didn’t reach the summit it changes nothing for me because Mallory and Sandy yes, Sandy are my heros and will always remain so. I always wished people would give more credit to Sandy for his part he played.

      1. I am of the same opinion. The Chinese climber that found the body said it had a hole in the cheek. People have taken cheek to mean face. I think he meant cheek as in buttocks which would describe George Mallory body.

  2. If I remember correctly did Mallory not have a picture of his wife in his pocket and said he would leave it on the summit ,when Mallory’s body was found there was no picture of his wife .I personaly think they made it.

    1. I have heard this story often and, as a family member, of course I’m inclined to believe it. There are many people who believe the absence of the photo of Ruth is proof they got to the top. I heard that when Hillary reached the summit he looked around in the snow for the photo! I think the only way we will ever know for sure if there is a picture of Mallory on the Summit on the Kodak vestpocket camera which we all believe to be in Sandy’s pocket. The likelihood of that ever being found is minimal so I think the mystery of Mallory and Irvine is safe. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Yeah, I don’t know. Why take the immense risk of removing Irvine’s body from the mountain? Why not just take the camera? Mallory’s body didn’t solve the mystery, and without photographic evidence neither would Irvine’s. I’m just not persuaded of the allegations against the Chinese. The motive is a bit nonsensical.

  4. Hi Julie –
    I wanted to add a couple of points to the responses above.

    I do believe the information that has come to light about the possible Chinese intervention in the removal of your great uncle’s remains. This is why –

    The Chinese had a vested interest in being the first to climb Everest up the north face. The prestige for the climbers and especially the communist regime was too great to share even if that only meant making public the discovery of a body. If they did do so the possibility of Mallory and Irvine summiting first would still be mooted and I don’t believe for one moment they wanted to share the spoils.

    What reason could there be for removing Irving’s body?
    Simple – the camera was among the possessions found with him thus making the possibility of proving Mallory and Irvine had summited real. They removed Irvine’s body for the reasons outlined above – and they couldn’t risk leaving the camera in case it was ever found and the film inside could be developed. Also if the camera was true and Irvine was missing – where was he?

    Why keep Irvine’s body? Why not return it without mention of the camera?
    I believe that the camera really proves that the men reached the summit that day and were returning to camp. There can be no other reason for Irvine’s body remaining in Chinese hands and the Chinese governments continued silence. Of course we have to consider the approbation the regime would face if after all this time they revealed your great uncles remains were in their possession. Also if they did reveal that Irvine’s body was in their possessions it would prove they were actively looking for him. After all the remains were reported to be off the route to the top. Do you believe a lone climber was clambering about on a proven lethal scree just for a jaunt? I don’t. There was a reason he was looking around in that area – and he found what he was looking for.

    Why not remove George Mallory’s remains?
    I would say simply because he did not have the camera in his possession. There was no need to spirit Mallory’s remains away – sad to say that without the camera he wasn’t considered a possible threat to a Chinese first summit. Leaving Mallory where he was confirmed the theory that the two men had fallen it did not confirm a successful summit nor did it confirm if they were going up or coming down – with Irvine missing it was easier to claim that his body was just lost.

    The photograph meant to be left on the summit.
    If the photo was left there are two scenarios- it became water-sodden and simply rotted away or it was blown away. Remember that the jet stream blows across the top of the mountain. The snow feature alters all the time and the wind is ferocious. We are talking almost 30 years from Mallory’s attempt and Sir Edmund Hilary and Tensing.

    As I have said since reading the Chinese climbers claims – for me their behaviour and continued silence is the best proof of a successful summit. I really believe now that they did it.

    When Mallory said he wanted to climb Everest because it was there – I believe he was being a little flippant. I believe his reasons were more personal, more deep rooted and based in the horrors of the Great War. Perhaps it was to prove something still mattered, that humans were capable of such astounding fêtes of courage that didn’t mean slaughter.
    I agree that story telling and myth making have been a part of this story – but what myths, what stories!I can’t prove my theories but I admire Mallory and Irvine no matter what.

    All the very best.

  5. Hi Julie,

    I recently became interested in the mystery of Mallory and Irvine. There are many other mysteries than just “Did they make it to the top?” One that especially interests me is which cameras they may have taken. Sandy had a plate camera. I am wondering what type of camera it was. Was the camera returned to the family with Sandy’s other belongings? Are there pictures of Sandy with a camera? He sent negatives and prints home. The dimensions of the negatives or prints could narrow down the type of camera he used. Are they glass negatives or film? At that time it was usual to make contact prints, so the image area on the negative would be identical to the image area on the print. Sometimes the image area is smaller than the negative area. It would be useful to know both.

    I think I know what type of camera was used. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, with varnished mahogany and polished brass.

  6. So much to comment on above:

    The Chinese did not find Mallory’s body. An international team did.

    What did the Chinese do with Irvine? They took away both the “English dead” body and his camera is what we are asked to believe. I don’t understand why they didn’t simply bury Irvine up there and then take the camera, and simply never admit to finding it. (All sorts of scenarios could be imagined for the camera being lost at the time of the fall.) Then, apparently, the Chinese screwed up again, and ruined the film in development. But if the film had been developed and shown these two on the summit, simply bury all trace of this evidence … as apparently, Voila: the Chinese have! But what if not? What if another scenario? Where is the film? Where IS the film?

    I used to be an old film photographer back in the day. That pocket Kodak would not “rust open” as some have suggested! It would have almost certainly rusted shut, instead, over all these years. Developing old film is a touchy business, but I’m sure the experts at Kodak could’ve done it. Ask any old photographer why they put their film in the freezer… to preserve it! “Age fog” is the gremlin here, but yeah right modern digital photo methods could’ve cleaned a lot of it up.

    I’ve gone back and forth over the years, first believing that Mallory and Irvine made it, and now more recently suspecting that they probably did not.

    This whole sad tale reminds me of the loss of Amelia Earhardt. Any old salt pilot, such as my deceased father-in-law, will tell you that poor glorious Amelia was in way over her head. Same for Mallory and Irvine. One had no climbing experience whatever, and the other was an Alpine climber. Neither had experience in the Himalayas. Neither had experience with the heavy oxygen tanks of the day, or in any event very little but recent training. They were dressed in short pants, Alpine leggings, and several layers of wool. Nowadays people go up there with $800 parkas, down mittens, snow pants, all sorts of wind resistant items, cell phones and radios.

    “Nothing much to see here…Move along now!”

  7. I dont believe Mallory and Irvine summited. The summary provided by Conrad Anker in The Lost Explorer is I think a very well set out summary of the reasons why not.
    As to the Chinese removing a frozen body from the mountain – it’s up there with the story of a World War Two Bomber being found on the moon. There is a reason bodies are left on Everest and that is the danger to others of retrieving them.

  8. If you dig about a bit you will quickly find out that they were seen at the THIRD step
    Maybe even the FOURTH (AKA ”The Citadel”)
    They absolutely made it, without question and the missing photograph is proof
    But as we know the descent is horrendous they then fell into eternal legendary stratospheric status
    It is a great mystery but not one to get too involved in as there are some dreadful egos involved all squabbling over patronising doubts about our heroes ability – THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THEIR ABILITY – OR THEIR CLOTHING – one thing which struck me was how much cleaner their bodies and lungs would have been back then – we are now stuffed with pollution and dreadful food additives sadly and the mountain is sadly now a grotesque tourist spot (and rubbish dump) for the unfortunate wealthy egomaniacs among us.. GOD BLESS THE SHERPAS and GOD REST THE PERISHED CLIMBERS – Sandy is obviously out of sight, under the snow much further down than Mallory – and God rest him too

  9. I recently heard from Julian Reid, archivist at Merton College, where Sandy’s negatives are held. I had asked him about the dimensions of Sandy’s negatives in an attempt to narrow down the identity of the camera used. Julian reported:

    “The negatives are 120 x 87 mm. Sandy Irvine wrapped each negative in a separate sheet of lined writing paper, carefully annotated with a description of the photograph. Sandy sent the negatives to his sister Evelyn in May 1924, who had them printed at Will R. Rose of Chester, photographers.

    The photos are identified by Sandy as follows:

    1. The altar from corner of the Holy of Holies
    2. The large image of Buddah [sic]
    3. Looking from the Temple through heavy wooden doorway to the Holy of Holies
    4. Some of Gods[?] cloths hanging in the temple.
    5. Looking out of Temple Door
    6. View looking down Monastic Main St.
    7. Another Main Street in Monastery
    8. Just inside the Entrance to Monastery
    9. Coming down from Monastery. It’s only approach
    10. Sheka on Left. Sheka Monastery on Right
    11. My Load’s too heavy. [photo of donkey seated on its hind legs]
    12. Everest from first pass after Sheka.”

    These are monochrome film negatives, but they are not Vest Pocket Kodak negatives. The VPK used 127 roll film which produced eight 1 5/8″ x 2 1/2″ images. (41.275 mm x 63.5 mm)

    The closest film match would be Kodak 541 film pack at 3 1/2″ x 4 3/4″ (90 mm x 120 mm). Film pack was a box with several sheets of cut film facing forward. Each sheet had a paper backing attached to the bottom edge that went under a baffle and up the back of the box where a tab projected out of the top. The pack would be put in the camera and the dark slide would be removed to expose the film to the lens. After the exposure was made the paper tab would be pulled, drawing the film under the baffle and into the back of the box. The paper strip would be torn off, leaving the exposed film in the back of the box. This action exposed the succeeding sheet of film to the lens. Kodak 541 film packs contained 12 sheets of film.

    The aspect ratio 120/87 = 1.3793 is a good match with the majority of Irvine’s images at Getty, 1.3776.,rm

    As is often the case in such matters, the answer to a question does not decide the issue, but leads to further questions. This film format does not correspond to any of the cameras Irvine was thought to have used. There were several cameras made specifically for film pack in these dimensions, but there were also adapter backs for plate cameras so they could take film packs. Without additional information, this makes it impossible to know exactly which type of camera Sandy used. The size and weight of these cameras makes it unlikely that this camera would have been taken on the summit climb.

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