Essay: Following 77 Year Old Footsteps Brent Okita - Basecamp Fri, May 04, 2001 2:30AM
Our first search mandate involved climbing the North Ridge above where the present route veers to the West to follow easier terrain leading to Camp 6 on the North Face. It was on the upper portion of the North Ridge that the 1924 expedition located their high camp, and from which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine left for their last climb.
A few days earlier our teammates had scoured a huge area that seemed to hold much promise for finding signs of what might have been Irvine's struggle to return to his high camp. Mallory's fate is less in question than Irvine's, and conjecture has been rampant as to what happened to the latter climber.
Now it was our turn to spend some time up high with the search. In the company of Jake Norton we left the security of the fixed ropes just above Camp 5. Following a line that the early British climbers must have followed seventy seven years ago, we quickly noted the rocky terrain becoming steeper. The down-sloping shale was perched just that much more steeply in its awkward and precarious angle of repose. Moves over and around blocky ledges were made in a world where loose rock and heavy packs challenged your ability to keep a purchase on the slope and not skitter away down the slopes below. This was not the "glam" climbing so often depicted in the fashionable climbing magazines of today. But it was the type that continually demanded your attention.
What made our climb so interesting was knowing that those early climbers too passed this way. And not just by themselves. Porters helped carry loads thru this very terrain, all without the aid of the fixed ropes that today is so commonplace. We thought about this for a while and came to some conclusions. First, the climbers on those early trips were very adept at their craft. Not only did they have to be solid climbers in this terrain, but they had to lead and guide their porters thru this same area. Second, although much has been made of how inadequate these early pioneers' equipment was for handling the demands of Everest, the low volume of their wool outfits and hobnail boots were especially well matched to the type of climbing we encountered here. By contrast, clad in our big down suits, double boots with crampons, and cumbersome oxygen masks, we felt like the Michelin Man trying to pull some occasionally quite technical moves. For both of us, tears in our down suits reflected some nervous moves where we'd lean just a little too close to the rock.
As we made our way higher on the ridge, we came into view of Jochen's telescope at Base camp. Radio contact with Base camp, coupled with the telescope, provided an extra set of eyes for us. Climbing thru three obvious ledges where camps might have logically been located, no sign was found. Then, going towards a genderme and into a small, unlikely notch, Jake announced the find: "We got it!" A few steps later I saw what he saw, a couple of tent poles, some shredded, bleached out tent fabric, and not a hec of a lot more. But what a find!
Some scrapping and digging by Jake revealed other interesting tidbits from the 1924 expedition: part of a headlamp, a tin of tea, still recognisible by its smell, and an old wool sock with Ed Norton's name stitched on it. How exciting, knowing that this camp hadn't been seen since the 1933 British expedition that was the last climb to use the route. And they only made a cursory glance of the tent during their storm wracked descent off the mountain. Unfortunately, the nook that was once obviously flat enough to perch a tent had collapsed, leaving much of the site buried under rubble that would requie much excavation to expose.
Having explored the area above and around the site further clues, our next thoughts turned to finding our way up and off the North Ridge to Camp 6. A bit of tricky climbing around the next gendarme eventually led to an easier traverse to our Camp 6, and finally some rest after a nerve wracked, but awesome day. 1924 Camp 6 had been found.