Conrad Anker attempts to free climb the notorious Second Step on the Northeast Ridge of Everest on May 17, 1999. Dave Hahn belays him immediately below. Photo by Jake Norton.

George Mallory and the Second Step: A Red Herring?

I’ve been slowly having my archive of slides – some 15,000 from past shoots and expeditions – scanned by ScanCafe. The last shipment just came in recently, and included my images from the first Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition in 1999.

Wow…Lots of images, taken on my first trip to Everest, and many I had all but forgotten as they gathered dust in my filing cabinets. As I sifted through the thousands of images, I came upon a shot I took on May 17, 1999, from above Mushroom Rock. It shows the view of the Second Step as Conrad Anker attempted to free climb it, belayed by Dave Hahn.

The image shows a neat perspective, rarely seen, of the Second Step, and why I think the question of whether or not George Mallory could have free climbed it in 1924 is something of a red herring.

In Part III of my series a year ago about the mystery of Mallory & Irvine, I noted the oft-forgotten but previously popular technique of courte-échelle. Basically, a lead climber would stand on the shoulders – and even head – of another to tackle a short-but-difficult section of rock. (There is a wonderful photo of Albert Ellingwood and Carl Blaurock using the technique on a piece of rock in Colorado in the 1920’s; note that the rock in this image is similar in height to that of the Second Step headwall.)

Conrad Anker attempts to free climb the notorious Second Step on the Northeast Ridge of Everest on May 17, 1999. Dave Hahn belays him immediately below. Photo by Jake Norton.

Conrad Anker attempts to free climb the notorious Second Step on the Northeast Ridge of Everest on May 17, 1999. Dave Hahn belays him immediately below. Photo by Jake Norton.

Well, to my point here, the photo I just re-discovered from 1999 pretty clearly shows that had Dave Hahn moved upward to the top of the snow bench and given Conrad Anker a courte-échelle, Conrad would have been able to reach the easier rock of the upper Second Step and probably pull over the top. As noted previously, that’s exactly what Qu Yinhua did on the Chinese expedition in 1960. And, I believe, it is likely what George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did on June 8, 1924.

While free climbing the Second Step is an amazing, impressive feat, it’s perhaps not relevant to the question of Mallory and Irvine’s attempt on the summit in 1924.

  1. Chris Shiver
    Chris ShiverMarch 15,11

    Hi Jake – interesting perspective. My thoughts – for what it’s worth, is – given the greater amount of snow seen in the Mallory and 1930’s expeditions pictures, couldn’t a snow pack have filled in the 2nd step some (or a lot) and made it much easier to climb? Anyway – hope all is well. Love living vicariously through your adventures. Let’s catch up some time. Chris Shiver

  2. Jake Norton
    Jake NortonMarch 16,11

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    Hey Chris, Great to hear from you! It's been a long time! I think you're right that if the snowpack was higher in '24, then that could have helped even more. Interesting questions to ponder. Let's definitely catch up sometime. Where are you these days? Living and adventuring, I'm sure, and up to great things! Namaste, Jake 

  3. kiralık devremülkler
    kiralık devremülklerMarch 22,11

    thank you. i love to read this type of information posts. again thank you…

  4. JH Monier
    JH MonierMarch 23,11

    Very nice pictures indeed
    A small edit, its “courte échelle” not achelle

  5. Mount Everest
    Mount EverestMarch 25,11

    Your article makes interesting reading Jake. Lets hope one day that the ‘Mallory & Irvine Mystery’ will be solved.

    Mount Everest The British Story

  6. David A.
    David A.April 3,11

    If Mallory was as gifted and fearless as he is made out to be, esp. with determination, I think he could have done anything modern climbers could do. There may be evidence in his broken watch if he wedged his hand in one of the crevices at the Second Step.. The apparent time of the broken watch arms seems to match up with the likely time of climbing the Second Step.

    But the strongest argument that they did summit is a photograph taken from O’dell’s position where he originally thought M & I were quickly climbing a step before the final pyramid. I think anyone who sees this picture and perspective of the three steps will realize it had to have been the Third Step M&I were ascending. If so, the only thing that would have stopped them from reaching the summit was the two hr. snowstorm. How severe that was at their elevation is unknown and it is also possible it occurred lower than the Third Step. My question is how did they descend? I don’t think they went back down via the Second Step.

  7. Jay
    JayJanuary 26,18

    Is there any possible way to look at the entire archive of Everest pictures you have?

    I would understand if intellectual property is an issue regarding the Nova show, but if there was a way to just go through them with a cold one when the kids are asleep, I’d be eternally grateful.

    • Jake Norton
      Jake NortonDecember 2,18

      Thanks, Jay. I would love to get them all up and viewable online, but the challenge for me is one of time to get it all done. I have probably 30,000 or so frames from Everest over the years, and that’s a lot to go through. Maybe someday I’ll get a collection of selects up – it’d be a fun project for me, but a time consuming one!

  8. Michael
    MichaelMay 25,20

    Forgive me for writing, a complete stranger, a sailor not a mountaineer, fascinated by the strength of the men in the 1924 expedition and your own superb recreation of what may have happened.
    Given the way you have tied together the clues I think your three part essay gives a very coherent narrative especially given your unparalleled experiences in the same places.
    To me it seems impossible that the two men could have died on the mountain had they not summited. The reason they died is because they did reach the top, dropped off the photograph and left their return too late, after dark and in danger.
    Had they not summited they could have returned slowly safely and in Los spirits to their tent. Norton and Somerville did: why not Mallory and Irvine? Had they had a accident and broke the rope in the afternoon one would have made it back surely to meet Odell?
    They died because they reached the top. QED.
    Excuse my intrusion but this thought has been bugging me for a long time. Since I saw Mallorys remains. What brave men.
    Sincerely etc. with thanks for your coherence and Stubborn pursuit of the details.

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