For decades, people wondered whether the doomed pair had reached the top of Mount Everest before dying. In The Fight for Everest 1924, published shortly after the disaster, Odell wrote, “I think myself there is a strong probability that Mallory and Irvine succeeded.”
In 1933, Irvine’s ice axe was found at 27,750 feet. In 1975, a Chinese climber named Wang Hongbao reported having seen a body about 750 feet below where the ice axe was found. When he touched the clothing on the body, said Hongbao, it disintegrated, indicating that it was very old.
Relying on Hongbao’s story, in 1999 a team of American, English, and German climbers and scientists searched for Mallory’s body at an elevation of about 27,000 feet.
In May, an American climber named Conrad Anker spotted a patch of white that seemed brighter than the surrounding snow. When Anker looked closer, he discovered a body that had been dead for a long time and preserved in the thin, frigid air. At first, the expedition believed they had found Irvine. They searched the body for a camera that Irvine was known to be carrying.
If Mallory and Irvine had reached the summit of Everest, they would have certainly taken pictures of the event. But on the collar of the corpse’s shirt was stitched “G. L. Mallory.” The body was Mallory’s, not Irvine’s. The expedition also noted that Mallory must have suffered a serious fall that broke his legs, ribs, and elbow.
After burying Mallory, the expedition descended the mountain. Although Mallory had been found, the mystery of whether Mallory and Irvine were indeed the first to reach the summit remains unanswered.