On the 100th anniversary of the great mystery behind whether or not George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made it to the peak of Everest, we examine what happened to their bodies, and did the Chinese remove them?

China ‘removed the bodies of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine from Everest, and they have the missing camera’

IT should be a time of reflection, commemoration and intrigue – the 100th anniversary of the great mystery behind whether or not George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made it to the peak of Everest.

George Mallory

However, a century on from the day they may – or may not – have been the first people to summit the highest mountain on earth, a deeper and more macabre mystery has developed.

Accusations, theories, and some degree of evidence are suggesting someone has taken the remains of Mallory and Irvine from where they lay, just a few hundred feet from the summit of Everest.

And the fingers of suspicion are being pointed directly towards China.

Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine

In 1924, Mallory and Irvine were last spotted by an observer further down the mountain. The two figures were seen in a break in the cloud, both close to the summit, and moving well. As the fleeting break was swiftly closed by cloud once more, neither Mallory or Irvine were seen alive again.

The sighting was recorded by Noel Odell, a support climber, in his journal entry of June 8 1924…

“At 12:50, just after I had emerged in a state of jubilation at finding the first definite fossils on Everest, there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot, silhouetted on a small snow crest beneath a rock step in the ridge, and the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the crest rock step and shortly emerged at the top. The second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more. There was but one explanation. It was Mallory and his companion, moving, as I could see even at that great distance, with considerable alacrity… The place on the ridge mentioned is a prominent rock step at a very short distance from the base of the final pyramid.”

Even a century on, the question of whether or not they reached the top and then died during the descent, or if they abandoned the attempt and perished, has gripped explorers and adventurers the world over.

The pair had been tackling the difficult North Ridge – a route considered treacherous today. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their way to the top, they created a route through the Khumbu Icefall, then up the Western Cwm and along the Lhotse Face. It’s a route that has been commonly used since.

Enter the Chinese

In 1960, the Chinese were keen to make their mark on Everest and stake their claim by conquering the North Ridge route with a team of the country’s best climbers.

In propaganda terms, success would have been a massive boost for the popularity of China’s leader at the time – Mao Zedong.

During the 1960 expedition, mountaineer Xu Jing, while close to the peak, succumbed to altitude sickness and began to descend on his own to address his low oxygen levels.

Somewhat disorientated, he veered from the established route and encountered a corpse in a rock crevice, lying face-up with its arms against its sides at around 8,350 metres. This would, undoubtedly, have been the body of Irvine.

In 1975, another Chinese expedition reported finding the bodies of three British climbers. One would have been Irvine, again. The second would have been that of maverick Yorkshireman Maurice Wilson who died during a solo attempt in 1934. But the third, at 8,100 metres, could only have been Mallory, who would lay for a further 14 years before being properly identified.

This information from the Chinese only became public in 1979 during what was described as a ‘friendship expedition’ between Japan and China. Chinese climber Wang Hongbao revealed the discoveries to one of his Japanese counterparts.

Realising the significance of the finds, and the potential evidence that British explorers may have reached the peak from the North Ridge, the Japanese team members wanted to know more from Wang about the bodies that were found.

The following day, Wang died in an avalanche.

Around this time, rumours began to circulate that China, keen to claim the North Ridge as its own, and indeed to be in their own record books as being the first nation to conquer Everest by that route, had removed the bodies – and, therefore, evidence – that anyone had attempted the route, let alone succeeded, before they did.

Graham Hoyland

None of the rumours stuck until several years later following the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, founded by Graham Hoyland.

Hoyland led a team of experienced mountaineers to look for the body and artefacts connected to Mallory. In particular, Hoyland was keen to attempt to find the camera that Mallory or Irvine were carrying on the expedition.

Hoyland’s deep interest in the fate of Mallory and Irvine stemmed from his own cousin – Howard Somervell – who had given Mallory his camera.

If a summit was successful, Mallory would have done two things – place a picture of his wife Ruth at the peak, and had a photo taken holding the British flag on top of the world. If anyone could find the camera, then photographic evidence would be irrefutable.

Kodak’s own scientists even said the conditions of the mountains meant mean it would still be possible to print the film contained in the body of the camera.

Ruth Mallory

The Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition was hugely successful. They found George Mallory’s body almost immediately. A search of his clothing and surrounding area revealed two key things. Firstly, Mallory’s picture of his wife was not with him. Secondly, there was no trace of the camera.

As per the wishes of Mallory’s surviving relatives, the team gave a short Christian reading over the body before burying it under stones.

While the missing picture was no way of proving Mallory had placed it at the summit, the fact that no camera could be found was hugely disappointing in terms of providing proof of any success.

“Certainly, if a successful climb by Mallory and Irvine in 1924 could be proved it would trump China’s claim to have first climbed the mountain from the North, Tibetan side in 1960,” explained Hoyland.

“This could have profound political ramifications if China were ever to claim further territory around Mount Everest such as the Khumbu valley in Nepal.”

But where are the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine?

Hoyland isn’t necessarily a subscriber to the theory of China removing the bodies.

Plenty of others, however, are quite certain about it.

And much of the thinking centres around two clearly accepted theories. The first, obviously, surrounds the need to have all evidence of an expedition reaching the summit via the North Ridge prior to the Chinese expedition erased.

Jake Norton

The other theory focuses on the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China’s territorial claims on the region.

Mountaineer Jake Norton was part of the 1999 expedition that found the body of George Mallory. He was also part of the team that returned in 2001 in an effort to locate Irvine’s final resting place.

“Until 1999 I don’t think the Chinese had given it much thought. I’m not sure anyone really thought you could find much of anything up there,” he explained to the Observer newspaper.

“My feeling is that Irvine was still there in 2001. I just don’t think the Chinese were worried enough to do anything about it in the early 2000s.”

China’s obsession with Everest reached a crescendo in the three years leading into the Olympic Games.

Ethnic Tibetans, badged with Chinese flags, were tasked with carrying the Olympic torch up to the summit. China occupied Tibet in 1950, so to be certain the 1960 expedition held firm in China’s history books, Mao’s personal interest meant Chinese authorities wanted to ensure there would be no sign of dissent or demonstrations calling for Tibetan independence as the eyes of the world fell upon them for the Olympics.

This, many believe, also meant China wanted to ‘clean up’ its side of Everest.

Jamie McGuinness at Everest’s summit

New Zealander Jamie McGuinness has reached the summit six times, and has decades of experience on the mountain. He’s also been involved in extensive searches for the remains of Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine.

He’s adamant that bodies have been removed.

Five years ago, McGuinness conducted a thorough search for Irvine and also attempted to check on the condition of Mallory’s makeshift grave.

He has now come to the conclusion that, in the last two decades, the remains of the British climbers have been removed.

“His [Irvine’s] body is almost certainly no longer up there,” he said in an interview with Thom Pollard, who was also part of the 1999 team.

“We gave it a good search with drones – not perfect conditions, but still with good visibility – and we spotted several other bodies, so we know we weren’t missing anything of the right size.

“So I don’t think he’s there any more. He’s no longer there.”

He also points to a conversation that took place in 2012 when he approached a high-ranking official with the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA). Asking directly if Irvine’s body had been removed because of the Olympics, he was met with the curt response: “It was thrown off the mountain a lot earlier than that.”

He returned in 2019, met with the same members of the CTMA, and asked further questions about the removal of Irvine. However, the Chinese officials took several minutes to discuss the issue among themselves before telling McGuinness they weren’t prepared to answer his questions.

He also recollects glimpsing into a small private museum run by the Chinese and Tibetans near Lhasa which appeared to display some items from the 1920s.

“This leads me to this point that when I look back at my dealings with people about this question, they might have assumed that everybody knew that bodies had been taken off and artefacts had been found and taken off,” he adds.

“I kind of wonder if they knew all this and were just a bit surprised that we were still looking and floundering about in the dark.”

It’s a story which has been echoed by several other researchers and experienced climbers with an interest in the fate of Mallory and Irvine.

Mark Synnott

American climber Mark Synnott was also part of the 2019 expedition, and has been searching for further information ever since.

He has been told directly that China has removed bodies from Everest, and he was also told about the camera that either Mallory or Irvine were carrying.

Synnot also relayed his story to Thom Pollard: “The story is that the Chinese did find the camera, in 1975. And the reason we know this is because in a meeting at the Chinese Mountaineering Association in Beijing in 1984 there was a diplomat from the British Embassy at that meeting and a woman named Pan Duo who was the first Chinese woman to climb Everest, summiting 11 days after Junko Tabei.

“She told this guy point blank ‘we found a body at 8,200 metres, and it had a camera and we brought that camera home and tried to develop the film but it didn’t turn out’.

“The diplomat wrote a memo – he’s a diplomat, so trained in the British Foreign Service – you write a memo, I do this now, like official, so somebody can look at it later and say okay, that really happened.”

Synnot made the information public, but was surprised no one chased up on it.

“People can make their own assessment here as to what we have, personally, I think I can say with an amount of certainty that I do believe the Chinese found the camera and, not only do they have it, but they had it in a museum,” he said.

“That’s the next step. Someone needs to go to this museum. People have been looking for the camera for a nearly a hundred years. It would be really cool to go to this museum and find the camera.

“We’re never going to know. There’s always going to be this slight chance that they did it. I personally would never say they didn’t, because it’s sort of like saying god doesn’t exist – who knows? How can we say they didn’t do it? There’s no way to know for sure, and it’s that little kernel of ‘maybe’ that stirs the imagination.

“And that’s where it’s ended, and we’ll never know, so the mystery is going to go on and on.”

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