Monday, 30 May 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities: Mystery on Everest 1924

When I look around my office I realise that I am a serial offender when it comes to curiosities. I can’t resist them. I have a shelf, as you can see, full of little objects that mean something to me. 

A gold medal awarded to my great-great uncle for Classics at University College London. Amazing considering his father was illiterate; an origami butterfly made by my youngest son when he knew I was disappointed by a book proposal being turned down (haven’t we all been there?) and a note from my Dad when I stood up to speak impromptu.

The most curious object I used to have in my office, which is now in the collection of Merton College, Oxford, is a copper pressure kettle. It is a beautiful object in its own right – about 9” or 23cm high and sits on a frame under which a burner is placed to heat the water. It came back from 23,500 feet on Mount Everest in July 1924, just a few weeks after my great-grandfather had received the devastating news that his son had been lost somewhere close to the summit. He and his climbing partner, George Mallory, were last seen by Captain Noel Odell ‘going strong for the top’ at 1pm on 8th June. Although Odell made valiant efforts to find the two climbers he failed and the nature of their deaths was unknown for 75 years. The mystery of Mallory and Irvine, Sandy Irvine being my great-uncle, has fascinated generations of climbers and Everest-watchers ever since. There was something romantic in the heroic British failure and it was a full 29 years later that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the top of the world from the south, rather than the north, side of Everest.

Sandy Irvine in his dark blue rowing blazer 1923
Did the two men reach the top? Was 22 year old Sandy Irvine the youngest Briton ever to stand on the billiard table sized summit? We will probably never know the answer. Even the discovery of Mallory’s frozen remains in 1999 did not provide an answer. If anything, it added more questions to the mystery. His watch and altimeter were broken in the removal of the artefacts from his body so we do not know how high they climbed nor at what time Mallory fell. For that much we do know. He was wearing a light weight walking rope around his waist, which means he was roped to Sandy Irvine. The rope was broken, probably on a rock, by the fall. He fell several hundred meters and broke his ankle and knocked himself out with a blow to his forehead. He probably died within half an hour and may never have regained consciousness. Sandy’s body has never been found and there is still speculation that if someone does come across his remains they might find the camera he was carrying and it might, just might, have a photograph of the summit. Or not. Even if they do find the camera and it does not have a photo of Mallory waving a flag, it does not mean they didn’t make it. The camera might have malfunctioned, Sandy might have been too hypoxic to take a picture. No, the only way we will ever know for certain that they did not reach the summit is if they find a note in Sandy’s pocket saying: ‘blow it, we didn’t make it’.

Sandy with mark IV Oxygen Apparatus at
Shekar Dzong © RGS with IBG
But why the pressure kettle? Sandy Irvine was practical and inventive. His role on the expedition was to look after the oxygen equipment. He redesigned the 1922 set in his room at Merton in the autumn of 1923 but Siebe Gorman ignored his suggestions and sent the 1922 design. When Sandy caught up with them in Calcutta he was disgusted and spent the whole of the trek across Tibet fashioning brand new sets in his tent-cum-workshop. They worked. They were 30% lighter and much more efficient and robust. The expedition leader was impressed when he, Mallory and Odell tried them out on rocks below Shekar Dzong. Sandy made a rope ladder to help the porters scale an ice-wall between camps 3 and 4 and the pressure kettle had been his attempt to design a device that would make water boil at a higher temperature than the normal 70°C on Everest. It was delivered by a Birmingham company the night before he left Liverpool for India on 29 February 1924.

When Odell had to go through Sandy’s possessions and discard what they could not carry back to Britain (they had a bonfire at base camp the morning they left) he kept the kettle as a reminder of Sandy Irvine’s brilliant practical mind and his sense of humour. The kettle has been in the family ever since and we are very proud of it. When I showed it to Chris Bonington last autumn he had tears in his eyes as he held it. He said he felt a powerful connection to Mallory and Irvine through it. A curious but wonderful object. The mystery endures and long may it last.
Sandy Irvine (left) and George Mallory at Base Camp, Everest,
April 1924. © Royal Geographical Society with IBG

Fearless on Everest was first published in 2000. I was inspired to write the book having named my youngest son Sandy as, like his forbear, he had blond hair and blue eyes. We were living in California and I saw a picture of Mallory and Irvine in a bookshop window. I became interested in a story I had only ever heard as a child and about which I knew very little. Research led to a fascinating cache of letters, an album of family photographs and finally, a trunk in the attic. That was in 1999. On 4th May I woke up to hear Charlotte Green reading the seven o'clock news: 'Climbers on Mount Everest have found the frozen remains of ...' I nearly jumped out of my skin. I thought they had found Sandy, who I knew they were looking for. '...George Mallory.' For the climbers it was like looking for the treasure map and finding the treasure. But for our family it was relief that Sandy's mortal remains were still hidden on the mountain. There they remain and I, for one, hope with all my heart he is never found. The mystery is so much more romantic for remaining unsolved. And besides, I want to remember him as he looked: young, handsome and curious.


Marjorie said...

How fascinating, and what an exciting person to have in your family tree.
I hope they did reach the summit.

Sue Purkiss said...

Marvellous! There was a documentary on fairly recently about the expedition - such a sad end to it. And your great-uncle was so young!