Essay: Taking the Heat Eric Simonson - Basecamp Mon, April 23, 2001 1:00AM
I've organized well over 90 expeditions now, and personally led over 75 of them. Putting this 2001 Everest trip together was one of the hardest ones I've done. Raising the money for the search (close to $400K) and doing all the organization was a lot of work, but that is what I do professionally, so it was no big surprise. The thing that really made this one tough was taking the heat from those who thought we should not continue our search for clues to what happened to the early Everest climbers.
I think the moment of truth for me came back in December 2000, three months before our departure. At that time I had (I thought!) several big sponsors that were willing to help underwrite the expedition. Then everything crashed. The economic slowdown in the USA had made the sponsors uneasy. The internet companies all started to look shaky (the .com fallout hit our friends at MountainZone.com and Quokka.com which bums me out!). At the same time some members of the Irvine family, assisted by the UK Alpine Club, declared war by widely distributing libelous garbage about our team breaking Mallory's body in 1999 (what a bunch of crap!) Meanwhile, I had $250,000 in bills due in the next 30 days. It was all starting to look rather depressing from my standpoint.
It was a natural time for me to ask myself, "why bother"? After all, it was hard to imagine that we could build on the success of 1999. I was very happy staying home with my dear wife Erin and our lovely little daughter Audrey, watching her learn to walk and talk. I was making a decent income doing lectures around the country and running my international guide service. Why in the world would I want to subject myself to all this flak and huge financial risk, with the likelihood of success so small? What was the upside?
Success in locating a camera with images would be a very real double-edged sword. After all, four different parties had already claimed ownership rights to "the camera" and any images it might contain, as well as anything else we might find or photograph of any interest. Why go looking for a hot potato and burned fingertips? (Plus, there is no way to even begin to reason with the absurd position of "We've known of your plans to conduct this search for two years and we've maintained contact with you over the course of those two years on a very amicable basis, and then suddenly, 2 months before your departure, we inform you that: 1. No, we don't want you to search, but if you must do it, then: 2. You have to do it our way under our terms and conditions, and: 3. If you find anything, it belongs to us, and: 4. Oh by the way, while you're up there can you risk your life burying our beloved ancestor for us since we've been too cheap and lazy to ever mount an expedition to get the job done, and: 5. Meanwhile we'll sit back and take pot shots at you and call you dogs in the media.")
It seems (at least for me) that every now and then in your life you come to a crossroad or a decision point that forces you to re-examine what you stand for as a person. You know, we are all going to be dead in a few years. What really makes any difference, anyway? What matters? For me, what matters is that we try.
I decided, back in those dark days of December that to pull the plug on this trip would be too easy. I knew this expedition was still possible, but that it was just going to take more work to make it happen. I don't think my wife Erin was quite as enthusiastic (understatement), but over the next two months we worked all day and well into the evening, every day, week after week. Out of all that effort we were finally able to nail down some supporters and organize several treks that added significantly to the budget, to assemble a remarkable team of search climbers, and to put together a cybercast to share our quest with those who share our appreciation for the mystery.
Regardless of what happens here this spring on Mt. Everest, I am totally proud that we were able to pull it off and did so under tough conditions. It would be great to find something significant. Already the team has found the 1922 ABC and re-found the 1960 Chinese Camp 3. The big prize is still up there, though, and we'll do our best to search for it. That prize is not a body and it is not a camera. It is truth.
Maybe we can rewrite history, maybe not. As far as I'm concerned though, the fact that we are up here trying to seek the truth speaks far more poignantly that the shrill voices of a few people who find it easy to make demands, but difficult to make any meaningful contribution to a better understanding of their dearly beloved lost ones. It's too bad some British talking heads can't get over the fact that it took an American expedition, assisted by a German historian, to attempt to uncover the truth about one of their own national heroes.
Ultimately, in the middle of all this noise, I stop to think, "what would Mallory and Irvine have wanted". I keep thinking what it would it have been like, lying on the side of Everest, a couple thousand feet from the summit, dying. Knowing that you would not be going home to your wife or sweetheart and your warm comfortable life. I have to think that if those thoughts were going through their heads, George and Andrew would have been thinking, "I hope some day people find out what happened to me and what I did on June 8, 1924". This is what I think they would have wanted us to do, to find out what really happened that day.
Personally, I think George would be delighted to know that he has been an inspiration to many people. Furthermore, I don't think George would have minded his picture taken. This is, after all, the guy who was extraordinarily fond of skinny-dipping and having his picture taken nude. I think he would have truly appreciated the marble statue quality of the photos of him we brought back to the world.
The story of Mallory and Irvine is an important one, and the mystery of the first ascent of the world's highest mountain is an utterly compelling chapter of our human history on this wonderful Planet. It's worth taking the heat for.