He must have died near, or even after, sunset, because he had taken off his goggles and stowed them in a pocket. The unnervingly white skin of his back was bare to the sky where the wind had flayed off his clothing, seven layers of cotton and wool. From the evidence, George Mallory, the first man to attempt the summit of Mount Everest, had fallen to his death, landing several hundred feet below the ridge that leads to the peak. The astounding discovery of Mallory's body answers one question about what happened after he and Andrew Irvine disappeared into the clouds one day in June 1924. If it was near dark, he almost certainly fell on his way back down. But that only raises a second question, still unanswered: before turning around, did Mallory reach the summit?
Among mountaineers, solving this puzzle would be akin to finding a manuscript of "Othello" in an envelope with Shakespeare's return address. Thus, on the morning of May 1, five American climbers fanned out on a steep and rocky slope at about 27,000 feet. They were part of an eight-member team of some of the world's top mountaineers (and a PBS documentary crew), hoping both to find the remains of Mallory and Irvine and to determine if they had reached the summit before dying--29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first recognized ascent, in 1953. A similar expedition looked for Mallory in 1986, without success. But luck was with the searchers this time. As expedition leader Eric Simonson told NEWSWEEK from base camp, "there was very little winter snow, and the temperatures have been moderate by Everest standards," exposing areas usually covered. By Everest standards, "moderate" meant temperatures well below zero, with winds of 30 miles an hour or more.
This was on the north, or Tibetan, face of Everest, not Hillary's route up the Southeast Ridge, where five climbers died in the famous 1996 storm. Compared with the southeast approach from Nepal, Simonson said, the north face avoids the dangerous passage under the teetering ice blocks of the Khumbu Icefall, but it requires a little more climbing expertise and involves more time spent above 25,000 feet. Yet Mallory himself was, in the opinion of the definitive Everest historian Walt Unsworth, "a competent, rather than great, climber." He was experienced, to be sure, a veteran of two earlier British Everest expeditions, as well as handsome, charismatic and athletic. But he was pushing 38, a married man with three young children and a minor appointment at Cambridge. When the British Alpine Club called him to be second in command of its eight-man team, he almost turned it down. "This is going to be more like war than mountaineering," he told a friend--and Mallory had seen combat in the war. "I don't expect to come back." Yet he felt the inescapable lure of Everest. He climbed it, he famously told an American reporter, "because it is there"--a remark that either captured his deeply spiritual approach to mountaineering or (as friends claimed) reflected his exasperation with being asked the same pointless question time after time.
His chosen companion, Irvine, was only 22, a novice climber but exceptionally strong and fit. He was also an expert with the new technologies of bottled oxygen and zippers. Mallory, of the old school, preferred to fasten his anorak with tried-and-true buttons. The expedition (like most of those today) relied on the indispensable Sherpa porters, but Mallory had no doubt which race made the best mountaineers. When conditions turn bad, he wrote in a dispatch quoted in The New York Times, "the splendid fellow who bore his load so proudly has become a veritable child--a child for whom the British officer is at every turn responsible."
On the morning of June 8, the two set out from a camp at 27,000 feet, where they had spent the night alone. Shortly before 1 p.m., another member of their expedition, Noel Odell, spotted from far below two distant figures climbing a rocky ledge. If this was the Second Step, a sheer wall of rock and ice very near the summit, then they almost certainly reached the peak that day. But Odell wasn't certain of what he saw; the climbers may have been at the much lower First Step, with the formidable Second still to come. As Odell watched, the figures disappeared into a cloud. When the weather cleared, hours later, Mallory and Irvine were nowhere to be seen. Nine years later another English expedition recovered an ice ax below the First Step, believed to be Irvine's. But there was no sign of their bodies until 1975, when a Chinese climber spotted what he described as "old English dead" near his expedition's Camp VI. Unfortunately, he kept the news to himself for three years, before confiding in a Japanese climber--and died himself the very next day in an avalanche, taking with him the exact location of the bodies.
Still, that was enough information for Simonson and his team to go on, once they figured out where the Chinese climbers' camp had been. In a posting on the Mountain Zone Web site (www.mountainzone.com), an expedition sponsor, climber Conrad Anker described "looking to the west [and then] I saw a patch of white, that was whiter than the rock... and also whiter than the snow." "George was lying on his stomach," Simonson reported, "head uphill, arms outstretched, like a frozen statue." Anker put out a coded call on his radio--there were scores of climbers on the mountain, and he didn't want to attract a stampede--and his teammates gathered and began carefully digging in the icy gravel.
All along, the climbers had expected to find Irvine, whose ice ax had been recovered nearby. When a tag with Mallory's name turned up, they wondered why Irvine was wearing Mallory's shirt. "Then it hit us," climber Dave Hahn reported on Mountain Zone, "... we were in the presence of George Leigh Mallory himself. THE man of the mountain." The body had evidently fallen some distance; a leg was fractured at the boot top, and he was tied to a broken rope--at the other end of which, presumably, had been Irvine. The climbers recovered a few personal objects, including letters, and collected a tissue sample for DNA analysis. Then, with rocks laboriously gathered from the steep slope, they buried Mallory where he lay on his beloved Everest.
What they didn't find, though, was evidence that Mallory had reached the top, such as a notebook or even his camera, which might have contained recoverable images from a summit picture snapped 75 years ago. Such a discovery could be politically sensitive, since China claims as a matter of national honor the first recorded ascent of Everest from the north, in 1960. If Mallory did it in 1924, the Beijing Youth Daily noted last week, "history may be rewritten."
It may yet be. In 1960 the Second Step was conquered by a climber who found footholds in the rock with his bare feet, sacrificing his toes to frostbite. Modern climbers use a ladder, fixed there in 1975. But sometime this week, Anker hopes to climb the Second Step as Mallory would have done it, without a ladder or ropes, just to see if it can be done. His fellow climbers will search at 27,000 feet again for Irvine. "This expedition," Simonson said, "is not just about going out looking for bodies. We want it to be a celebration of what those guys accomplished 75 years ago in leather boots and tweed jackets." Their achievement, of course, had no practical significance even then. Hillary himself, with a lifetime of honors behind him, said last week he hoped Mallory did make the summit ("but I think it's unlikely"). But who among us, imagining Mallory dying as he hugged the mountain, can help but wonder: at the moment he fell, was he looking down in disappointment--or up at the darkening sky in triumph?