The mystery of the second step

The 1920s and 1930s attempts to climb the world’s biggest mountains were national enterprises. None succeeded; the giant peaks wouldn’t fall to the equipment and methods of the time. That would come only after World War 2. The prewar British made several attempts on Everest from Tibet via the Northeast Ridge. On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared high on that route, giving rise to a famous mystery. Whether they might have summited may depend on where they were when another member of the party, Noel Odell, briefly glimpsed them at what he thought was the Second Step, although in later years he was unsure. Expedition leader Sir Francis Younghusband’s 1926 book, The Epic of Mount Everest, describes that sighting:

“That evening as Odell from Camp V looked out of his tent the weather was most promising; and he thought of the hopeful feelings with which Mallory and Irvine would go to sleep [at Camp VI above]. Success would seem to be at last within their grasp. Of what happened after that we know little. Owing to some defect in the oxygen apparatus which required adjustment, or from some other cause, their start must have been late, for when Odell, following in rear, caught sight of them it was 12.50 p.m. and they were then only at the second rock step which, according to Mallory’s schedule, they should have reached at 8 a.m. at latest. And the day had not turned out so fine as the previous evening had promised. There was much mist about the mountain. It might have been finer up where Mallory and Irvine were, for Odell looking up from below did notice that the upper part of the mist was luminous. But there was sufficient cloud about to prevent Odell from keeping in touch with the two climbers; and through the drifting mists he had only a single glimpse of them again. As he reached the top of a little crag, at about 26,000 feet, there was a sudden clearing above him. The clouds parted. The whole summit ridge and final pyramid was unveiled. And far away on a snow slope he noticed a tiny object moving and approach the rock step. A second object followed. And then the first climbed to the top of the step. As he stood intently watching this dramatic appearance the scene became enveloped in cloud once more. And this was the last that was ever seen of Mallory and Irvine.”

The Northeast Ridge’s three steps are described in more detail here. The Second Step is at an elevation of 28,249 feet, where breathing is extremely labored. A few days before, another summit team reached their altitude limit at 28,126 on easier ground. The step is a formidable obstacle; when three Chinese climbed it in 1960, it took them three hours, and they surmounted it by one man standing on another’s shoulders. Above the step, one of the climbers was too exhausted to continue. Since 1975, a ladder has been in place, which is visible in the photo below, and all climbers since have used the ladder. But in 1924, no one had ever been there, and there were no ladders or ropes. Mallory and Irvine didn’t even have rubber-soled boots; they were climbing in leather hob-nailed boots. Mallory was a good climber, but Irvine was a novice.

Any reasonable person will conclude the Second Step couldn’t have been climbed in the brief time Odell observed Mallory and Irvine. The First Step (photo, right) is no piece of cake, either. Only the Third Step fits what he saw. If they started late, and struggled on the Second Step, it could have taken them until 12:50 p.m. to reach it. From there, they had about 450 feet to go, about 90 to 120 minutes of climbing, and there were no more difficulties. But it’s questionable whether they could have climbed the Second Step, and if they were still below it at that time of day, they’d have no reason to climb it, as the summit would be out of reach, and they would’ve turned around without climbing it. All the physical evidence from their climb — Irvine’s ice axe, an oxygen bottle, and Mallory’s body — was found below the First Step. Theories abound, but looking at the photo below, and keeping in mind the difficulty of exertion at that altitude, the bitter cold, their lack of modern equipment, and the fact only one of them was an experienced rock climber, it’s not plausible that Odell saw them climb the Second Step, and it was too late in the day for them to only be at the First Step. But I can’t study this photo and believe they climbed it. For what it’s worth, though, none of the three Chinese were experienced climbers; they were chosen for physical strength. And Mallory and Irvine were big, strong guys, both over 6 feet in height.

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