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Sunday, January 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cloud of mystery; Did George Mallory become the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest before falling to his death in 1924? The discovery of his body last year - 2,000 feet from the top - has only intensified the debate.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Even as a gung-ho mountaineering kid growing up in Tacoma, Eric Simonson knew The Legend. But it's safe to say he never expected a chance to sort through its pockets.

The Legend, of course, is famed British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory, who in the early 1920s led the first serious attempts on the summit of Mount Everest. From the day Mallory, then 37, and his climbing partner, Andrew Comyn "Sandy" Irvine, 22, disappeared into the mists of Everest's North Face in June 1924, the debate has raged in climbing circles: Were Mallory and Irvine the first people to stand atop Everest - nearly 30 years before Edmund Hillary?

Three quarters of a century later, the debate not only lives among mountaineers, but thrives in a new generation of armchair alpinists, thanks to the 1999 expedition led by Simonson, a longtime Mount Rainier guide, and staffed by other Seattle-area climbers.

Simonson's Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition last spring did the seemingly undoable, discovering Mallory's amazingly well-preserved body at 27,000 feet on Everest's North Face. It remains there today, roughly 2,000 feet below the 29,028-foot summit, covered with rocks by the men who found it. But artifacts recovered from the scene - some providing valuable pieces to one of modern history's enduring puzzles - lie quietly at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The exhibit, which will be transferred for permanent display in England at month's end, is a modest collection of artifacts. But the items have launched a massive resurgence of popular Mallory speculation. In a 21st century society starved for tales of human adventure, Simonson's expedition, detailed in a book, "Ghosts of Everest," has ignited new public interest in an old mystery.

"I always anticipated it would be of huge interest among climbers," Simonson said. "But the migration of interest to the more general culture has been phenomenal."

The discovery of Mallory's body hasn't ended the Mallory mystique. It has only served to fuel the argument - and expand the legend.

Mallory was bigger than life when he was alive. And now his frozen body reveals, in great detail, that he couldn't have chosen a more noble way to die. The famed climber was found face down on a rocky scree slope, head toward the summit. His arms, still obviously tanned and muscular, were extended high over his head. His toes were pointed into the mountain; his fingers dug into the loose rock, refusing to let go even as he drew his last breath. A short length of cotton rope - broken - was looped around his waist.

George Mallory - the man who had remarked, probably in jest, that he sought the summit of Everest "because it is there" - lies frozen for eternity in a classic "self-arrest" position familiar to every alpine climber in the world. For 75 years, his grip on the mountain had remained as firm as his grip on the public imagination.

Significant? And how. To climbers and mountaineering buffs, this was no less stunning than finding Amelia Earhart in the pilot's seat of her plane, her hands still grasping the stick.

SUMMIT-OR-DIE ATTITUDE

To grasp just how profoundly this discovery rocked the world of historians and exploration buffs, a backward glance is in order.

In the 1920s, Mallory, by all accounts a superb climber with cat-like physical skills and an unprecedented eye for route-finding, was a full-fledged hero throughout the British Empire and around the globe. A man absolutely possessed with conquering Everest, he bluntly told friends he viewed his third summit attempt as a battle to the death. "I can't see myself coming down defeated," he proclaimed.

The story of his 1924 disappearance with nary a trace, aside from the obvious interest generated by the possible first ascent of Everest, had mystery, drama, romance - and three-hanky tragedy. The questions were compelling and unavoidable: Had Mallory, at long last, conquered his obsession, scaling the peak just before nightfall, known he was out of time? Did he know he was going to die?

The only clue was an eyewitness sighting that fateful, June 8 day by fellow expedition member Noel Odell, who had climbed from a lower camp to await Mallory and Irvine's return from their daylong summit push. From his vantage point, Everest's Northeast Ridge is marked by three prominent, near-vertical rock faces, known ever since as the First, Second and Third Steps. Odell reported seeing Mallory and Irvine at 12:50 p.m. that day, "going strong for the summit" at the top of "the prominent rock-step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid."

What, exactly, did that mean? Which step? The question was crucial. Over the years, Odell was queried so thoroughly that by the time he died, he could scarcely separate memory from speculation.

The legend grew, and the fate of Mallory remained an unsolved mystery. Other British expeditions followed Mallory's footsteps up the North Face, searching for signs. An ice ax discovered by an unsuccessful 1933 British expedition at 27,700 feet, just below the First Step, was the only clue. It later was identifed as Irvine's, creating the longstanding belief that he must have fallen, perhaps dragging Mallory down with him.

For decades, the ghosts of Everest continued to haunt. When New Zealand's Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay finally broke Everest's hold on its summit, scaling the now-traditional, South Col route in 1953, the old climbers were in Hillary's thoughts. He searched for signs of Mallory and Irvine on the summit, saw none, and declared their North Face route "unclimbable." Seattle's Jim Whittaker said he, too, had privately hoped to find signs of Mallory on the summit during the first successful U.S. ascent via the South Col in 1963.

Throughout this period - and indeed for nearly three decades - access to the North Face was closed by the Chinese government, in effect placing any evidence of Mallory's trek in a deep-freeze time capsule.

It was not until 1979 that a happenstance encounter of two North Face climbers would provide the first serendipitous link in a chain leading to Mallory's body. That year, a Chinese climber, Wang Hongbao told a Japanese climber what he had discovered on a 1975 summit expedition. Wang said he had taken a short walk from his team's Camp VI, high in the frozen scree on the North Face, and encountered a body, which he called "an English dead," at 26,575 feet.

Wang described (mostly through hand signals, as he spoke no Japanese) a man in a seated position, wearing old-style natural garments, with holes pecked through his cheek by goraks (scavenger birds.) Any attempt to clarify the description or position of the body was forever lost the very next day, when Wang died in an avalanche.

Everest guards her secrets well.

Years passed with no further clues. But eventually, the story of the "English dead" caught the eye of Jochen Hemmleb, a young German climber obsessed with the Mallory mystery. Hemmleb eventually hooked up with Simonson, by now a successful Himalayan guide who had scaled the North Face in 1991 - and happened to possess a permit to return in 1999. A research expedition was born.

EVEREST COOPERATES

Nobody connected with the Simonson team expected the search for Mallory and Irvine to be easy, quick, or, for that matter, necessarily successful. Even if weather cooperated - and on Everest, it usually doesn't - finding a body on the world's highest mountain is a true needle-in-a-haystack proposition.

The group was counting largely on Hemmleb's belief that he had pinpointed, using photographs and other materials, the site of the 1975 Chinese expedition's Camp VI. From here, climbers hoped to fan out in all directions and rediscover Wang's "English dead" - which, because it was roughly in a fall line below the location of Irvine's ice ax - was universally suspected to be Irvine.

For once, Everest cooperated. Simonson's group arrived to find an unusually light snowpack. He believes that conditions were eerily identical to the abnormally snow-free springs of 1924 and 1975, the years of Mallory's climb and the Chinese discovery.

On May 1, after more than a month of lower-mountain legwork, Simonson waited at advance base camp while expedition members Conrad Anker, Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, Jake Norton and Tap Richards arrived near the site of the '75 Chinese Camp VI for their first day of searching. After a brief meeting, they fanned out across the steep, precipitous slopes of the North Face.

The area - a sort of catch basin for everything (and everyone) falling from the northeast ridge above - turned out to be a virtual graveyard, littered with a half-dozen twisted, mangled bodies of modern-era climbers. But within 2 hours, Anker discovered another body with gleaming, exposed skin showing through flaking wool and cotton-canvas clothing: Irvine, he presumed. The body, probably because it had melted out of the snow only a handful of times over 75 years, was amazingly intact.

The climbers took photographs and conducted a careful, thorough examination, but quickly were thrown by a label sewn into the collar of a shirt: "G. Mallory." This prompted one of the weary, oxygen-starved climbers to blurt out a question that no doubt will provide a long-lasting chuckle in the annals of mountaineering: "Why would Irvine be wearing Mallory's shirt?"

Logic, combined with the position of the body - frozen fast into the mountainside, not seated with the face exposed - quickly told the truth: This couldn't be the body discovered by the Chinese. It wasn't Irvine.

"Oh my God, it's George," Hahn blurted.

SMALL TREASURE TROVE

News of the Mallory discovery, broadcast around the globe the next day via the Internet, set the climbing community abuzz. But weeks later, on his way back to to his home in Ashford, Simonson faced more practical concerns over artifacts recovered from Mallory's body. Namely: "What do you do with this kind of stuff? Store it in your garage?"

The Washington State History Museum stepped in, lending its facilities and specialists to catalogue and store the findings until they are returned permanently for display in England.

The collection is small, fragile - and poignant. As historical evidence goes, it's not much. But to Mallory buffs who've been living for decades on written reminiscences of dead men, it's a treasure trove.

A tin of "meat lozenges" - bouillon cubes of the day - was found in a pouch around Mallory's neck. At first, climbers thought the metallic container might be Mallory and Irvine's fabled portable camera, which could still contain a summit photo. No dice. A subsequent search of the body and surrounding area with a metal detector revealed no trace.

A brilliant, blue-and-red handkerchief, in perfect condition, was wrapped around a small cache of letters from acquaintances and family members.

Other items constituted Mallory's version of survival gear: A packet of waterproof matches, still functional. Rusty scissors. A pencil. A bent safety pin. A tube of petroleum jelly. A clump of twine. A strap from an oxygen mask. A pocketknife. Leather boots, with hobnails pounded into the soles for traction. A broken altimeter. A broken wristwatch. Wool socks. Layers of tweed and cotton clothing - remarkably fragile and thin compared to modern gear.

At 28,000 feet on Mount Everest, Hahn later observed, Mallory was wearing less than many people on the streets of Seattle in winter.

Some items were of immediate significance: Mallory's tinted goggles - absolutely vital gear at high altitude in daylight - were tucked into an inside pocket. Wherever Mallory and Irvine had been, they were on their way back, probably in the dark - and heartbreakingly close to their high camp - when they died. The broken rope, still tied to Mallory's waist, suggests the two climbers had been roped together and probably died together, in a short fall as they trudged back to their high camp.

But not until much later did Simonson's group discover what may be the most crucial evidence of their haul: In the margins of one of the letters, Mallory had scrawled a list of numbers and pressure readings - an inventory of oxygen bottles stored at their highest camp. The list suggests the pair actually had far more oxygen at their disposal on the summit day than had previously been believed - three bottles apiece, instead of two. This fuels speculation that the two could have reached the summit, then died on their descent.

Later in the expedition, Simonson directed climbers to an old oxygen bottle he had seen, just below the First Step, on his way to the summit in 1991. They found it exactly where he remembered, in prime condition. The bottle, confirmed to be from the 1924 trip, matched one of the numbers Mallory's scribbled provision list. Finding the others could provide invaluable clues as to how far the pair climbed.

They're still up there - somewhere.

DEBATE RAGES ON

It likely will take that kind of evidence, and more, to fully solve the mystery of Mallory. As "Ghosts of Everest" suggests, Mallory's body answers many questions, but poses even more. In the book, using a series of calculations based on departure times, available sunlight and the duration of old British oxygen cylinders, Simonson's group concludes that Mallory and Irvine could have made it to, or at least close to, the summit of Everest that day. By no means, Simonson points out, does that mean they did.

To assume they made it is to assume they had the ability to free-climb technically harrowing pitches such as the Second Step - without the help of a ladder placed there in 1975 by the Chinese and used by every subsequent expedition. Anker, one of the world's foremost free-climbers, scaled the pitch on his way to the top last year, but now says he doubts either Mallory or Irvine could have done it.

Even if they could have, timelines for a Mallory summit trip and safe descent before dark (both climbers left their lights in their tent on summit day, and descending the Second Step in the dark is believed to be impossible) simply don't add up.

But other circumstantial evidence hints at success. Mallory reportedly was carrying a photo of his wife, Ruth, which he had vowed to leave only at the summit. It wasn't found on his body. Where else could it be?

For now, the mystery remains, the debate rages. Not even all members of the Simonson team agree how far Mallory got, or why. The popular theory is that the duo was turned back by the Second Step, at 28,280 feet.

Crucial keys to the mystery remain hidden high on Everest: The pocket camera, which may be with Irvine's frozen body, could solve the riddle once and for all. (Team members searched the immediate area of Mallory's body for Irvine last spring, but found no trace before weather and new snowfall chased them away.) And the oxygen bottles remain.

Whether they reached the top or not, the detective work by Simonson's group establishes one thing clearly: The 1924 summit push by Mallory and Irvine ranks as one of the most phenomenal exploits in mountaineering - of that era or any other. To push as far as they did, following no established route, was a phenomenal feat of courage and athleticism.

Simonson, asked recently to imagine battling the forces of Everest under similar conditions, paused for a long, long time.

"You'd have to feel hugely exposed," he finally said. "And . . . it's a long way from home."

Two expeditions are scheduled for the North Face this spring. Simonson expects those climbers, weather permitting, to be on the lookout for more clues.

He'll be on Everest's South Col at the same time, but plans to return to the North Face in spring 2001. It's unclear whether that expedition will be labeled, like the last one, a "research expedition," with the stated objection of solving climbing's greatest mystery.

That's all a matter of semantics. The public appetite has been re-whetted. As long as the legend of Mallory endures, the search will continue. Why? "Well, because he's there," Simonson likes to say.

Sooner or later, Simonson will be back there, too. And his people know pretty much where to look for the next big find.

"Obviously, if you happen to be up there," he says, "it's certainly worth at least taking a look for Andrew Irvine."

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To learn more: Exhibit: The George Mallory artifacts can be viewed through Jan. 30 at the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., just off Interstate 5 in downtown Tacoma. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free admission is offered every Thursday evening from 5 to 8 p.m. Details: 1-888-238-4373 or visit the Web site: www.wshs.org Books: "Ghosts of Everest," by Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson and Eric Simonson ($29.95, The Mountaineers) is the definitive story of the '99 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, complete with great color photographs, maps and illustrations. Another thorough history and investigation, "The Last Climb," by climber and Everest-IMAX moviemaker David Breshears and prominent mountaineering historian Audrey Salkeld ($35, National Geographic) was in progress when Mallory's body was discovered, and serves more as a comprehensive Mallory climbing biography. "The Lost Explorer," by Conrad Anker and David Roberts ($22, Simon and Schuster), is a much less comprehensive account of the '99 expedition by the climber who discovered Mallory's body. It's sort of the "unauthorized' version and makes a fun read, but sorely lacks photographs. Online: Eric Simonson is scheduled to appear from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday in an interactive Web session at The Mountain Zone, www.mountainzone.com.

Published Corrrection Date: 01/18/2000 - The recipient of a letter penned by British mountaineer George Mallory was incorrectly identified in a photo caption with this article. The note was sent down from Mallory's Camp Vi on Mount Everest to John Noel, a member of Mallory's 1924 expedition, who had hoped to catch a glimpse of Mallory's summit attempt from below.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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