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Author recounts finding George Mallory's body

March 23, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine set out from their base camp at Mount Everest on June 8, 1924, toward the summit of the world's tallest mountain peak.

They never returned.

The details of their snowy demise remained a mystery for the next seven decades.

"Clearly, they died on the mountain, but where, when, how, and did they make it to the top?" Larry Johnson asked the Hagerstown Rotary Club Wednesday.

If they did, it would make them the first humans to reach the summit, decades before Sir Edmund Hillary accomplished the daunting feat.

Johnson, 53, who coordinated an expedition last year that uncovered Mallory's remains, related his experience to an audience at the Venice Inn.

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Johnson, a Gettysburg, Pa., resident who wrote a book about the expedition, said he plans a second search next year to find Irvine's body.

If they do, he said chances are good that they may also recover a camera, and perhaps proof the pair did or did not make it to the top.

Johnson, an avid rock and ice climber, said the expedition found a number of items in Mallory's pockets, including sun goggles, a broken altimeter, a box of still-working matches, a handkerchief wrapped around letters and an unpaid bill.

It was what the team did not find, however, that piqued Johnson's interest - a letter and a photograph of Mallory's wife.

He had promised his wife that he would place those items atop the peak when he arrived, Johnson said.

If that's true - and there is no way to know for sure whether he carried those items - their absence from his pockets suggests that perhaps he did reach the top.

At age 38, after several unsuccessful attempts in previous years, Mallory was probably taking his last shot at the mountain, Johnson said.

"I just find it really hard to believe that he would not have taken that with him on the last day," he said in an interview after the luncheon.

Johnson said his theory is that Mallory and Irvine did reach the top and were on their way back to camp when one of them slipped and fell, knocking the other man as well.

Johnson raised $300,000 from corporate sponsors in less than a year and put together a team of 15 people, including six expert, high-altitude climbers.

They worked from past information, including eye-witness accounts from other climbers who reported seeing the pair on that day in 1924.

From that information, the team was able narrow the search area to a specific spot, Johnson said.

Still, Johnson said it was the "mountaineering equivalent of looking for a very important needle in a very big and inhospitable haystack."

On May 1, after just two hours of searching, one of the climbers found a body.

Aided by slides and a five-minute video of the search expedition, Johnson enthralled his audience.

Several asked him afterward to sign copies of his book, "Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine."

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