Travel: Because it might be out there

Graham Hoyland has already conquered Everest. Now he wants to return to search for photographs that were lost back in 1924
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The ultimate package holiday on offer at the end of the 20th century is the pounds 25,000 trip up Mount Everest. You can choose from one of several commercial expedition companies. Given a high degree of physical fitness, some experience of high altitude mountaineering and the need to expose yourself to the one-in-six death rate risked by those climbing to the summit, you too can buy into one of these trips.

I've worked on two of these expeditions on Mount Everest, and the clients are fascinating people. Very often they are successful businessmen who are seeking still more success in another arena. They usually have more climbing experience than is credited to them by the media, but often one feels they are buying a cocktail-party trophy.

It might seem that Everest is trodden to death by all these people, but there is a mystery up there in the snows of the jetstream which I would like to solve, and it involves a small camera.

Everybody knows that the first men to climb the world's highest mountain were Hillary and Tenzing, in 1953. But three decades before, in June 1924, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared into clouds near the summit of Mount Everest, never to be seen again.

They started a controversy that has run ever since. Did they reach the top nearly 30 years before Hillary and Tenzing?

Over the years a few clues have emerged from the heights. An ice axe was found on a high ledge in 1933, possibly marking the site of an accident. And an oxygen-frame was found in a place that suggests that one of the men was very near the top.

Then, in 1975, a Chinese high-altitude porter found the body of an "English dead", whose clothes crumbled in the thin, cold air when touched. This was at around 26,000 feet, and must have been either Mallory or Irvine. He told his story to a Japanese climber, using the few words they had in common, but was himself killed on the North Col the next day.

In his knapsack Mallory was carrying a Vest-Pocket Kodak camera lent to him by T H Somervell, who had returned to the North Col after his own very nearly successful attempt on the summit a few days previously. Mallory would be expected to take a picture of the highest point reached.

Kodak says that a printable image could in theory be obtained, should the camera ever be retrieved. This photograph could solve the mystery.

Somervell, who was my great-uncle, told me the Mallory tale when I was 14. I became fascinated by the story of those early English expeditions through pre-communist Tibet, and vowed to climb Everest myself. My first attempt, in 1990, following the Mallory route. In the course of shooting a film for the BBC I reached 25,500 feet - 500 feet short of the terrace where I believe the body lies.

I eventually climbed the mountain three years later, becoming the 15th Briton to stand on that extraordinary summit. Little larger than a dining- room table, it seemed a strange reason for so many deaths. Never believe anyone who tells you that climbing Everest is easy. I passed four corpses in the snow on the way up, dead from cold and exhaustion, and a Spanish climber I passed on the way down later slipped and was killed in a 3,000- foot fall.

Physically, mentally and spiritually it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and for a long time it left a strange rage and emptiness that I do not want to speculate about. All I can tell you is what it felt like.

Leaving the tents of the highest camp at 2am we stumbled out into the darkness of a blizzard at 26,000 feet. We were sucking on oxygen masks, but my valve kept freezing up from saliva. The leader, Steve Bell, shouted "Lead off, Graham!" but I had to confess that I didn't know the way. Following his boots in a pool of head-torch light we plodded on in our own private nightmares. A couple of figures - Sherpa or Westerner, we couldn't see who - dropped back and gave up during the night. Looking left down into Nepal I saw one tiny glimmer of light from the monastery at Thangboche down in the real world. My torch was just giving up when I noticed a faint glow on my right, away towards Tibet. It was the dawn: the most welcome sunrise of my life.

I sat down and tried to pull my oxygen mask off for repairs, but it was stuck to my beard. To get it off I had to pull off mask, beard and a large patch of skin. I then tried to have a drink, but to my dismay the boiling water I had poured into the insulated bottle in my rucksack had somehow frozen into a block of ice.

On we climbed. I was surprised at just how steep it became. Eventually we reached the South Summit and plodded around it to see the final obstacles - the Summit ridge, the infamous Hillary Step and then in the far distance the summit itself.

The step is a 30-foot rocky hiccup in the narrow summit ridge, first climbed, to his eternal credit, by Edmund Hillary. It is a very scary place, and I had been worrying about it since boyhood. Just as I reached the foot of it my oxygen valve blocked totally and I lost consciousness for a few moments. But I got the mask off again and managed to gasp my way up the ropes that were not hanging there when Hillary climbed his step. Three years later an acquaintance of mine was to die on that very spot, and hung from those ropes for months.

Once above the step I teetered along the narrow, icy summit ridge between Nepal and Tibet, between life and death. The sun was intensely bright and the sky was that inky black of very high altitudes. All around were the icy fins of the world's highest mountains.

Somewhere along that ridge I experienced one of those existential moments that is the reason why you risk your life. The intensity of the moment, the sharp savour of living wholly in the present - no past, no worries. The chop of the ice axe, the crunch of the crampons, the hiss of breath - this is the very stuff of life. Eventually I saw a couple of figures just above me, stepped up, and I was there.

I can't remember much: bright sunlight, a tearing wind, a long flag of ice particles flying downwind of us. A vast drop of two miles into Tibet. We could see across a hundred miles of tightly-packed peaks, and we could see the curvature of the earth. Contorted faces shouting soundlessly, lips blue from lack of oxygen. Doctors prove with blood samples that climbers are actually in the process of dying up there on the summit, but I should say that is where I started to live. Soon we had to turn back, and face the most dangerous part of our climb: the descent. Exhausted by the journey to the top, many climbers make a mistake and fall to their deaths, or sit down in the snow and fall into a long, fatal sleep.

I climbed from the south, Nepal-side of the mountain, so I was unable to search the terrace where it is believed Mallory lies, although from the summit I could see it from above. The grandson of Mallory, another George Mallory, has also climbed the mountain to settle family business, but ran out of time to search the area.

Most climbers at 26,000 feet on Everest have no time or interest in searching for remains - their sights are fixed on the top. So I am setting up an expedition to Everest's North Face specifically to try to find the camera, with people who have already climbed the mountain. Using a new form of radar-imaging device, we have the best chance yet of finding the clue to the 74-year-old Everest conundrum: was it climbed in 1924?

Fact File

OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER are fine months to trek and climb in Nepal; the summer monsoon is over, the air is clear and so the views are wonderful.

If you want to try your hand at climbing a big peak but can't afford pounds 25,000 for the attempt on Mount Everest, a good alternative is one of the 18 so-called "trekking peaks". You could try Mera Peak, at 21,000 feet much bigger than any mountain in Europe. It has the added attraction of lying in a remote area of Nepal.

Commercial expedition companies demand a good level of fitness, and preferably experience of trekking at over 12,000 feet. These expeditions are usually led by qualified mountain guides who will show you how to tie the simple knots you need, and how to do a "self-arrest" with an ice-axe.

Several companies organise treks to Mera, including Classic Nepal (01733 590243), Exodus Expeditions (0181-675 5550), Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions (0114-276 3322), and Peak International (01296 624225). For a three-week trip, you might pay in the region of pounds 2,000-pounds 2,500

Comments