At 12.50, just after I had emerged from a state of jubilation at finding the first definite fossils on Everest, there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.[1]

Andrew Irvine left, George Mallory right

So writes Noel Odell of the last sighting of George Leigh Mallory (“Because it’s there”) and his climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine on Mt. Everest in 1924, just 800 vertical feet below the summit. When the cloud cleared for Odell, the climbers had disappeared and the mystery arrived. What happened to the two intrepid adventurers? Were they first to summit the world’s highest peak? Their fate tugged at the world for 75 years.

In 1999, a team of elite climbers discovered a body 1,500 feet below where Mallory and Irvine were last seen by Odell. Discovering bodies on Everest is like discovering pine cones in the woods – there’s plenty of them in plain sight. What was unusual was that the clothing was old, non specialized for mountaineering. The rope was natural fiber. There was also a brass altimeter, pocket knife, and old style snow goggles.

The body itself was sun bleached white, mummified, but well-preserved in the high altitude. It had been up here a long time. The clothing tags identified the mystery climber as G. Leigh Mallory. He had been found.

It could be that somewhere, at some level, George Mallory now rests easier knowing he’s no longer lost. Everybody lost wants to be found no matter how long it takes. One of the worst Hells has to be abandonment.

But for every found Mallory there’s still a lost Irvine. Those lost are desperate for rescue, waiting, hoping there’s someone who thinks they’re worth the trouble, hoping they won’t give up. And deep down, underneath all the pressing layers, in that place where we can finally get over ourselves, we want everyone found no matter the cost.

In 2009, I’m climbing Mt. Rainier guided by Dave Hahn who has bagged the most Everest summits of any non-Sherpa. We’re taking our first break. One our group says to Dave, “Your name is familiar but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard of you.” Dave, a really quick-witted and funny guy, makes jokes about how he might have become known, but I know something else about Dave that he isn’t mentioning. When there’s a pause I ask, “What I want to know is what was it like to find Mallory’s body 20 years ago?”

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  1. [1] Mallory and Irvine – Mount Everest The British Story. Mount Everest: The British Story. 30 April 2005. Archived from the original on 14 August 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.