Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay made climbing history when they became the first men to successfully summit Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. But there’s a chance that someone may have beaten them to the summit back in 1924: a British mountaineer named George Leigh Mallory and a young engineering student named Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. The two men set off for the summit in June of that year and disappeared—two more casualties of a peak that has claimed over 300 lives to date.
Lost on Everest is a new documentary from National Geographic that seeks to put to rest the question of who was first to the summit once and for all. The gripping account follows an expedition’s attempt to locate Irvine’s body (lost for over 95 years) and hopefully retrieve the man’s camera—and photographic proof that the two men reached the summit.
NatGeo is also premiering a second companion documentary, Expedition Everest, narrated by actor Tate Donovan (MacGyver, Man in the High Castle), following an international team that included multiple scientists as they trek up the mountain. Along the way, team geologists collected sediment samples from the bottom of a Himalayan lake; biologists surveyed the biodiversity at various elevations to track how plants, animals, and insects are adapting to a warming climate; and climate scientists collected ice cores from the highest elevation to date to better understand glacier evolution. Finally, the team installed the world’s highest weather station in Everest’s infamous “death zone,” above 26,000 feet, to gather real-time data on weather conditions at that altitude.
Mallory is the man credited with uttering the famous line “because it’s there” in response to a question about why he would risk his life repeatedly to summit Everest. An avid mountaineer, Mallory had already been to the mountain twice before the 1924 expedition: once in 1921 as part of a reconnaissance expedition to produce the first accurate maps of the region and again in 1922—his first serious attempt to summit, although he was forced to turn back on all three attempts. A sudden avalanche killed seven Sherpas on his third try, sparking accusations of poor judgement on Mallory’s part.
Undeterred, Mallory was back in 1924 for the fated Everest expedition that would claim his life at age 37. He aborted his first summit attempt, but on June 4, he and Irvine left Advanced Base Camp (21,330 feet/6,500 meters). They reached Camp 5 on June 6, and Camp 6 the following day, before heading out for the summit on June 8. Team member Noel Odell reported seeing the two men climbing either the First or Second Step around 1pm before they were “enveloped in a cloud once more.” Nobody ever saw Mallory and Irvine again, although their spent oxygen tanks were found just below the First Step. Climbers also found Irvine’s ice axe in 1933.
There were several expeditions that tried to find the climbers’ remains. A climber named Frank Smythe thought he spotted a body in 1936, just below the spot where Irvine’s ice axe was found, “at precisely the point where Mallory and Irvine would have fallen had they rolled on over the scree slopes,” he wrote in a letter that was not discovered until 2013. A Chinese climber reported stumbling across “an English dead” at 26,570 feet (8,100 meters) in 1975, but the man was killed in an avalanche the following day before the report could be verified.
Mallory’s mummified remains
Mallory’s body wasn’t found until 1999, when an expedition partially sponsored by Nova and the BBC found the remains on the mountain’s north face, at 26,760 feet (8,157 meters)—just below where Irvine’s axe had been found. The team thought it was Irvine’s body and hoped to recover the camera, since there was a chance any photographs could be retrieved to determine once and for all whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit—thereby changing mountaineering history. But the name tags on the clothing read “G. Leigh Mallory.” Personal artifacts confirmed the identity: an altimeter, a pocket knife, snow goggles, a letter, and a bill for climbing equipment from a London supplier.
As the NatGeo documentary shows in quite vivid detail, Mallory’s body was exceptionally well-preserved, bleached by the intense sun and essentially mummified from exposure to the elements. There were clear fractures to his right leg—the tibia and fibula, just above the boot (by one account, his right foot was nearly broken off)—and a puncture wound on his forehead the size of a golf ball, which is believed to have caused his death. It’s been speculated that the wound was from an errant ice axe bounding off a rock to hit him in the head. There were remnants of a climbing rope around his waist and evidence of trauma from a rope-jerk injury, meaning it’s likely he and Irvine were roped together when Mallory slipped and fell. Either the rope snapped or Irvine was forced to cut Mallory loose, since rescue was impossible.
After that exciting discovery, the search was on to find Irvine’s body (and the camera) based on the unverified 1975 sighting. A 2001 followup expedition did locate the men’s last camp. Noted Everest historian Tom Holzel—whose latest research features prominently in Lost on Everest—relied on a 2001 Chinese climber’s sighting of a body lying on its back in a narrow crevasse, as well as aerial photography, to pinpoint the most likely spot to search: in the region known as the Yellow Band, at an altitude of 27,641 feet (8,425 meters).
And that brings us to 2019, when the NatGeo crew joined up with a world-renowned team of professional climbers to document their own search for Irvine’s body, based on Holzel’s latest research. NatGeo photographer Renan Ozturk—also an experienced climber and mountaineer—led the documentary crew, joined by two other seasoned climbers: journalist and adventurer Mark Synnott, (who also penned a feature article for National Geographic about the expedition) and filmmaker Thom Pollard, who was a member of the 1999 expedition that found Mallory’s remains.
(Did they find Irvine’s body? Spoilers below the gallery.)
In addition to their usual camera equipment, Ozturk and his crew relied on drones—a Mavic Pro and an Inspire2—to capture footage, aided by an app called Litchi to help with flight paths. They tested the drones in a hyperbaric chamber at a NASA subfacility prior to the expedition to simulate the extremes of temperature and altitude in which the drones would be operating. They also made several modifications to the drones’ climb speed, descent speed, and flight ceiling so they could climb higher and descend faster.
“These lithium ion batteries perform strangely in the cold,” Ozturk told Ars. “Sometimes they say they have a certain percentage left, but then they all of a sudden drop to zero, and the drones would fall out of the sky. The last thing we wanted to do was leave a drone on the mountain along with all the other trash.” Cameramen had special pockets in the underarms of their clothing to keep batteries warm and constantly battled ice crystals forming over their lenses.
It was also challenging to understand the wind currents and assess the light and temperature to figure out the best time to fly the drones, which Ozturk admits involved a significant element of luck. “Piloting an aircraft is a game of precision and steady fingers,” said Ozturk. “You’re just trying to keep your cool and watch what the drone is doing and making judgement calls second by second. We definitely had a few close calls.”
NatGeo documentary crews are well-accustomed to overcoming harsh, challenging conditions to get that glorious footage we all know and love. But Everest exerted a tremendous physical and mental toll on even these experienced hardy souls. The NatGeo expedition spent more time than other teams at those punishing higher altitudes, in part because they waited to make their summit push to avoid overcrowding on the route. Everest is always dangerous, but 2019 was among the deadliest climbing seasons in recent memory, with 11 fatalities. That’s comparable to the 1996 climbing disaster, immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air (12 climbers died on Everest that season), and the 16 Sherpa lives lost to an avalanche on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall during the 2014 climbing season. Nepal now plans to institute new rules for climbers to qualify for an Everest permit.
Listing image by Renan Ozturk/National Geographic