on 6 December 2000
The unearthing of new information about Mallory & Irvine seems never to end. Eight years after their death, expedition members of 1933 retracing their route discovered Irvine's ice ax marking the point of a fall. In 1980, the Japanese Alpine Club announce the discovery five years earlier of "an English dead" at 8200m on Everest's North Face. In 1979 Irvine's diary-"discovered" first in 1962--was published privately in a spare book of the same name edited by Herbert Carr. In 1984, Audrey Salkeld discovered a large, hidden cache of Mallory's letters for our book, "The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine." Recently, Peter and Leni Gillman dug even deeper and were finally able in their book "The Wildest Dream" to pierce the veil of Mallory's jumbled private life that we could only hint at. Then, incredibly, Mallory's body was discovered below the site of the ice ax. Other than the climbers' fabled camera, only Andrew Irvine remained essentially unknown, his diary offering only a self-effacing (and edited) glimpse of the man through his own eyes.
Julie Summer knew there had to be more. She searched for and finally discovered a trove of hitherto unknown information about Mallory's 22-year-old climbing partner, Andrew Comyn Irvine-"Sandy" to his friends-complimenting perfectly the detailed picture of Mallory painted by the Gillmanns. It is always unbelievable when the heroes of our Pantheon are described as having inhumanly spotless lives. Thank goodness the Gillmans, and now Julie Summers, are able to show the human side of their subject. Sandy, it is revealed, had a torrid affair with Marjory Summers, the 25-year old step-mother of his best friend. A strong clue to their intensely passionate involvement can be seen clearly in the full page photograph of the couple. (Any hint of this affair had been expurgated in Herbert Carr's book.) At last we have in this fine work the unearthing of this and much other new and refreshing information about someone who--although sharing equal billing--had essentially remained a footnote in the great Mallory & Irvine saga.
Irvine's contribute on the mountain was the guarantee of providing working oxygen systems to fuel their fatal climb--something which no one else on the expedition was capable of. In fact, given the anti-science mind-set of the gentlemen of the Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club, Irvine and George Finch were the only ones so capable. George Finch, who made a terrific oxygen-assisted attempt on Everest in 1922, was black-balled in part for his first-rate engineering talent, the results of which showed up (by climbing higher and faster) the oxygenless "first team" of Mallory & Norton. This hands-on know-how was too much for a gentleman...
Summer points out that Irvine had a form of dyslexia that resulted in his writing with what can only be called telegraphic punctuation. Some of this must have passed down the Irvine line (Julie Summers' grandmother was Irvine's sister), for the book is annoyingly replete with many small numerical errors: C-4 is given as 23,500-ft when it is elsewhere shown correctly as 23,000; The Rongbuk Monastery is three, not eleven miles from ABC; and Base Camp is a 16,500-ft, not 17,800-ft (which is C-1). In an otherwise detailed genealogy of Irvine's family which includes herself, she leaves out her mother! These are nits, to be sure, in an otherwise wonderful depiction of young Irvine's rather racy life.
The new information she gathers leads up to the expedition of 1924, and offers some interesting new insights into Sandy's role in it, but for the most part, this latter part of the book comprises well-known information. A breath-holding test at Base Camp revealed that Sandy, able to hold his breath for two minutes at sea level, was able only to do so for half a minute at Base Camp-a good sign of the reduced capacity of the blood to store oxygen at altitude. Mallory's "astonishing" ability to perform math exercises while the others were woefully slow is also an interesting new tidbit, but this should not lead anyone to think that full mental functioning is possible, even at "only" 17,000-ft. Mallory's (and everyone's) handwriting became more angular and cramped as he ascended, and dyslexic mistakes became ever more common (e.g., Mallory's "8 p.m." instead of 8 a.m.). Summers begins to suggest that the "8 p.m." notation meant Mallory might have conducted an afternoon recon of his route at C-6 prior to their next day's assault, but then fails to complete the thought. More likely is that the two men moved C-6 from its exposed position to a more sheltered spot hard on the lip of the North Ridge. This would explain why Odell felt it necessary to clamber some 300 yards up the rout during the snow squall, to aid the descending climbers in finding the tent which was no longer clearly in view from above, as it had been the previously during the Norton Somervell attempt.
This fine book is a necessary and delightful compliment to a full understanding of the dynamics of the endlessly fascinating Mallory & Irvine partnership. It goes far in explaining the universal attraction felt by all on the expedition for their young "experiment," and especially the instant rapport the two men quickly felt for each other. With Sandy's innate exuberance, his astounding mechanical aptitude, his boundless energy, and his unfailing enthusiasm and cheer even under the most daunting hardships, it is now abundantly clear why the equally sociable Mallory could not have chosen a better companion.