ESSAY: Historical Research on Everest Jochen Hemmleb - Basecamp Sun, March 25, 2001 5:35AM
Besides our doctor, I am the only non-climber on the main team, which sometimes makes you feel a little bit out of place when conversations are centered around loads, camps, fixed ropes and other "mountain stuff". Because I probably wouldn't qualify for an Everest expedition as a climber, my reasons for being here are different:
Time-traveling had been a privilege of science-fiction heroes only or so I had thought. But as a historian you do something similar, recreating in your mind the settings of a by-gone time. You try to envision how people lived back then, how they thought and acted, what they felt. For eleven years before 1999, I had tried to do so with the lives of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine and the circumstances of their disappearance high on Mount Everest almost 80 years ago. I had tried to understand the social and cultural setting in which these pioneering attempts on the world's highest mountain had taken place, had tried to gain a picture of the characters and mind-sets of these early climbers, had asked myself how all of this might have played a role in the outcome of their attempt and how we could find more answers to this greatest mystery in mountaineering history. But even when I left for the "Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition" to Everest in spring of 1999, Mallory and Irvine had to remain characters you could only read about in books or recognize from old b/w photographs, separated from us by a barrier of time.
The crackling radio voice of Dave Hahn from Camp 5 on the evening of May 1, 1999, changed everything." Jochen, you going to be a happy man..." and I knew in an instant that up there, among the rock and snow of Everest's north face at 27,000 ft., he, Conrad, Jake, Andy and Tap had broken through that time barrier and glimpsed back into the past. When two days later they walked back into Base Camp to tell of their discovery, Andy eventually took me to our mess tent to show me the video he had taken at the site. When the pictures started flickering on the small LCD screen, I was tense with anticipation for I knew that within the next minutes the image I had for all the time of George Mallory would be changed forever. And then... There it was: A marble-like figure of whitish-brown bleached skin, partly disintegrated into bone, yet so definitely human, stretched out and frozen into the gray-black gravel. So that was how he looked like, that was what was left of him after 75 years. No longer would he be the graceful man from the old photographs from this moment on this was the new image I, we, the world would have of George Mallory. Later, when we viewed the recovered artifacts, I reflected on how I had always wondered the end of a research expedition might look like. I had hoped that something important had been found, had wished that in some way I could have participated in it. But never in my wildest dreams had it occurred to me that I would end up holding the clothing of George Mallory in my hands... These tangible fragments of disintegrated fabric, damp after being taken from their snowy enclosure and with a smell I will never forget, transformed the man from legend into living being. And if this needed more confirmation, it came two weeks later when Tap returned from an abortive summit attempt to Advance Base Camp, saying he's got an "interesting souvenir". And out of his pack he pulled an old-looking, rusty, cigar-shaped oxygen cylinder a 1924 bottle, one of Mallory and Irvine's, recovered from the summit ridge at almost 28,000 ft. Stunned with disbelief I stood there, holding this piece of history in my hands. More than anything it told us that Mallory and Irvine had really been up there, really climbing along that final ridge on that fateful day back in June, 1924.
It is the possibility of such close encounters with the past that adds a further dimension to the trekking or mountaineering challenge of an expedition it is a journey within the journey, and tracking down some old document or photograph for historical research before the expedition can be as intriguing and rewarding as the expedition itself. It can leave you with the same sense of purpose and fulfillment. So it gave me a chuckle when a famous British climber recently condemned this exploration of a historical mystery as "obsessive". Had he recognized his own obsession as a climber and been able to look beyond his horizon, he might have discovered that inner motivations and feelings in both cases are not too far apart they are just expressed in different ways and areas.
So I am here on another part of my own journey within the greater journey of this expedition. Surely I want to go again partway up the mountain with the team, perhaps to the North Col or even higher. But most of all I want to see whether we can find out more about what happened to Mallory and Irvine, whether we can glimpse even farther into the past. And given what we now know about Mallory's still missing partner, Sandy Irvine, it would be a fitting tribute to his life and character to have a close encounter with him, too. To take him out of this limbo of no-knowledge and be able to tell his final resting place, in the same way we were able to do with George Mallory two years ago. Although whatever the mountain will reveal this time may come as a surprise, and may not necessarily solve the mystery, it will mark a definitive waypoint in the journey.