When George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine stepped out of sight on Mount Everest's Northeast Ridge on June 8, 1924, legend was born. No one knows if the pair made the 29,035-foot summit or not, because they were never seen alive again. For almost 80 years climbers have tried to match those first explorers' guts and strength, pushing onto the summit and proving that, yes, man can reach the highest points on land.
In 1999, Jake Norton was part of the Everest expedition that found George Mallory's frozen body, and it was hoped that in Mallory's possessions would be the Kodak camera that he and Irvine had carried to capture evidence of their summit. But there was no camera, and the mystery deepened. Norton, a 1996 Colorado College graduate, and up until September, a Colorado Springs resident (he now lives in Boulder), returned to the mountain last spring to try to find more clues. He spoke to the Independent about his experiences.
Indy: What happened the last time you went up?
Norton: It was an interesting expedition. We had two main goals when we set off -- the first was to find the camera that Mallory and Irvine were carrying. That would almost inevitably mean finding the remains of Andrew Irvine, who we're pretty sure would have been carrying the camera on their summit day.
Our secondary goal was to locate all the old camps, the pre-war British camps and those of the 1960s and '70s Chinese expeditions, knowing that in '99 we had kind of opened the door for would-be treasure hunters by letting everyone know that the stuff is still up there. We didn't want to see it disappear into private collections, so we wanted to try and recover as many artifacts as we could. We did very well. We found almost all the old camps, and many fascinating old artifacts that are now going to a museum in Britain. We also found the Chinese camps, which gave us a better idea of where Wang Hongbao was; he was the guy that found the "English dead" in 1975.
Indy: Didn't he go for a walk and spot Irvine?
Norton: As we know it, he went for a "stroll" out of their high camp, walked 20 minutes round trip and came upon a body that he described a couple years later as an "English dead." Based on his description of the body's position, we know that it couldn't have been the body we found in 1999. It had to have been Irvine. And so by finally locating exactly where that 1975 camp was, it gave us a better idea of where he could have walked, where it would have been reasonable for him to go.
Indy: Did you find the body?
Norton: We didn't recover [Irvine's] body or the camera. We searched the upper north face with a fine-tooth comb, as much as is possible up there. Toward the end of the expedition, we had some areas that we really wanted to search based on other findings we had made on the trip, but I guess you could say fate turned against us. We ended up getting involved in a bunch of different rescues that basically zapped our energy and our resources, so we were never able to do a final search.
Indy: But the conditions up there lend themselves to mummifying a body instead of deteriorating it, right?
Norton: Yeah, what happens is that everything -- rather than decomposing -- desiccates, because there's no moisture up there. So, basically, bodies kind of turn into ... beef jerky. Just completely dried-out flesh. That is, if they aren't hit by the goraks, these huge ravens that fly up there because of the food sources.
Indy: That's disgusting.
Norton: Yeah, it is. I've seen them up as high as 28,000 feet. They're very smart birds -- they live in the valleys 10,000 feet below -- but they ride the convection currents up the faces of the peaks.
Indy: What does it feel like, to be up that high?
Norton: The best way I've found to describe what 28,000 feet feels like is if you run up and down your staircase until you're just gasping for breath -- or run up the incline. Get your heart rate up to almost its max, and then try and walk up a normal incline at a comfortable pace without having difficulty breathing. That's kind of what it's like up there. You look at what would be a simple slope or obstacle and it becomes exponentially more difficult. When you're resting, you're out of breath. Your heart rate's racing when you're just lying in your tent ... it's a wonderful, but miserable, place.
Indy: A lot of Everest climbers say that it sits in the back of their mind, waiting for them to come back and see it again. Do you feel that?
Norton: There is something really magical about Everest; it's an amazingly alluring place. I think it's the same with any mountain, just the personal challenge of it all. And I think Everest is even more so, with fairly difficult climbing, this incredible scenery and harsh altitude all combined. You do feel like you want to go back again.
Indy: Will you?
Norton: We're tossing around the idea of going back in 2003. We've learned some more important information since we returned about Irvine and his potential whereabouts that unfortunately I don't even know what it is; our team is very secretive about it. That makes us even more eager to back for one more trip.
Indy: Now for the $64,000 question -- do you think Mallory and Irvine summitted?
Norton: I do. Well, I shouldn't say I think they summitted; I know that they could have. I know that it was within their ability. I personally like to believe that they did, but I think it's impossible for anyone to say that they did or they didn't. I see it as the supreme act of arrogance when I hear a modern climber say that Mallory and Irvine weren't good enough to reach the summit.
-- Kristen Sherwood
Lost on Everest, a slide show and lecture
Presented by Jake Norton
Colorado College's Shove Chapel, 1010 N. Nevada Ave.
Thursday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m.
Admission is free; call 389-6607.