He Climbed Everest to Try to Solve Its Biggest Mystery

Mark Synnott goes in search of Sandy Irvine's remains
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 8, 2020 4:08 PM CDT
Updated Jul 11, 2020 2:00 PM CDT
He Climbed Everest to Try to Solve Its Biggest Mystery
Everest is seen in this file photo.   (Getty Images)

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Everest. Unless they weren't. In a lengthy piece for National Geographic, longtime climber and professional guide Mark Synnott explains what took him to Everest, a mountain he had long had no interest in climbing, "turned off by stories about the crowding, the greenhorns who had no business being on the mountain." But he was intrigued by another story: that of British explorers Andrew "Sandy" Irvine and George Mallory, who disappeared on their 1924 summit attempt some 29 years before Hillary made it to the top. The question is whether they died going up or coming down. Mallory's remains were found in 1999 on the Chinese side of Everest. His goggles were discovered in his pocket—was that because "he was descending at night, when he wouldn’t need them?" questions Synnott, who hoped the best evidence would be found with Irvine.

The pair were believed to be carrying a Vest Pocket Kodak camera. It wasn't found on Mallory's body (nor was the picture of Mallory's wife, which he said he planned to leave at the summit). If Irvine had it, and if Synnott could find his remains, it could hold proof as to whether they made it. And Synnott possibly had something that was bigger than a clue: the purported GPS location of Irvine's body. A Chinese expedition leader in 2001 told of coming upon a body inside a crevice at approximately 27,200 feet during a 1960 climb; in 1960, only Irvine and Mallory were known to have died that high on the mountain; Mallory was found below that altitude, suggesting it was Irvine. Synnott connected with 79-year-old "Everest enthusiast" Tom Holzel, who had himself pursued the mystery and who shared an 8-foot-wide aerial photo of Everest that he had used to pinpoint the crevice that he thought was the one. Synnott ultimately made his way to it. (Read the fascinating full piece to learn what risks he took to do so, and what he found there.)

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