Jochen Hemmleb and The Ghosts of Everest

by Jeff Durbin

NOTE: Published as an author profile on IUniverse website in December 1999; also see complete transcript of interview.

LAST MAY, A search team found the body of the great British climber George Mallory on Mount Everest's North Face, in Tibet, where he disappeared 75 years ago. Jochen Hemmleb, the catalyst of the expedition, has—with Eric Simonson and Larry Johnson—written The Ghosts of Everest, a true detective story that lays out the evidence for and against: were Mallory and his still-missing companion Sandy Irvine the first to reach Everest's summit?

Besides The Ghosts of Everest, published in October by The Mountaineers Books of Seattle, we have a bull market of books on the Mallory mystery. Conrad Anker and David Roberts have The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest; David Breashears and Audrey Salkeld, The Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expedition of Mallory and Irvine; and Peter Firstbrook, Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine.

Hemmleb, a 28-year-old geology graduate student in Frankfurt, Germany, has known of Mallory since he was a boy climbing with his father. Later, a 16th-birthday present, First on Everest, pointed him down the path of the Mallory mystery. He corresponded with one of the authors, he says, and then started looking for old books, articles, newspaper clippings, and films. Today Hemmleb explains his fascination this way: “Was there the possibility that Everest's first ascent was something else than history books tell us?”

Twelve years later, with gigabytes of Everest history in his brain, as well as climbing experience in the Alps, New Zealand, Argentina, and East Africa, Hemmleb was ready to put his theories and dreams to the test. This was a mystery, he says, that he could possibly do something about.

The mystery can be stated simply, but everything else about it is as inaccessible as Everest at 27,000 feet with darkness coming on. Mallory, England's greatest mountaineer and a national hero, was on the mountain for the third time in four years in 1924. Everest had never been summitted. The team, though strong, had failed to reach the summit, and it fell to Mallory and Irvine to make the final attempt. Irvine had little mountaineering experience, but he was strong and capable, had a knack for fixing the balky oxygen apparatus, and worked well with Mallory. They left their camp early, were sighted high on the north ridge around noon by the team geologist, apparently making good progress—and were never seen again.

Mountaineering fatalities at high altitude were not new even in 1924, but Mallory, combining strength, grace, and determination, was thought to be invincible.

Jochen Hemmleb approaches the Mallory and Irvine mystery with a climber's respect and a scientist's logical mind. “I like the mind game of this,” Hemmleb says, “the mental challenge of digging into a mystery, of getting onto the trace of some old mystery of exploration and mountaineering.” Eric Simonson, a veteran guide, became expedition leader, and Hemmleb its historian. During a year of planning the money came together, along with the rest of the team, most of them fellow guides and filmmakers for American and British television. (Major funding and gear came from manufacturers such as Lowe Alpine, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, Slumberjack, and Vasque; Ford Motor Co., sponsors of the World Wide Web coverage; and Powerbar. Total budget: $300,000.) The team's level of ability was high, with four Everest summitters in addition to Conrad Anker, regarded as one of the best technical climbers in the world.

Although in three-quarters of a century no one had mounted a search this thorough, Hemmleb says he had few expectations of finding clues to Mallory and Irvine's deaths. Hemmleb speaks with a Type-B climber's humility: “We had good conditions on the mountain, so I thought, well, we have a good chance of finding something. But the least I wanted to come back with from the expedition was the feeling we had given it a good shot.”

Simonson, the master organizer, led the way to Base Camp at 17,000 feet, and the team made a chain of camps up the mountain as they ferried supplies and built up their red-blood cells in the oxygen-thin air. Hemmleb climbed to the North Col at 23,000 feet before descending to Base Camp to monitor the search. There he waited for the high-altitude climbers to move up the North Face of Everest, into the death zone above 25,000 feet where thinking becomes difficult and climbers cannot afford mistakes.

Mountain aficionados the world over know what happened next. But let Hemmleb, watching from below, tell the story: “It was incredibly tense” he says. “I mean, I was winding tighter and tighter sitting behind the telescope waiting for news. I really didn't have a clue, I just saw them getting together in one spot, and I couldn't see what they were doing, and it was really hard to tell. It was such a relief of pressure when eventually a message came down, ‘Jochen, you will be a happy man.’ Those are immortal words. I will never forget them.”

The alabaster body of George Mallory, lying below the Yellow Band at 27,000 feet, tangled in a broken rope with his fingers dug into the slope to arrest his slide, was found. His silk, tweed, and wool clothing and hobnailed boots were shredded by 75 years of wind and snowstorms, but in the extreme dryness the body was nearly whole. The search team examined the body and terrain around it with microscopic attention, collecting artifacts, then covered Mallory's body with rocks and performed a burial service according to the wishes of the Mallory family.

For explanations of how and why, Ghosts of Everest is the place to go. But with the body of Irvine and other key objects still lying somewhere on the slopes of Everest, we can only know possible scenarios. The detective work involves oxygen cylinders, the meaning of Irvine's ice ax lying just below the ridge as if set there, a missing photograph of Mallory's wife, and questions about ability of the two to scale the rockwall of the Second Step (the face so exposed and crumbly that all expeditions today use an aluminum ladder anchored to the rock by the 1975 Chinese team).

William Northdurft, a Seattle writer, assembled the pieces for Ghosts of Everest from talks with Simonson, Hemmleb, and Johnson, as well as their teammates. Hemmleb spent three months in Seattle, living at Northdurft's house and working almost daily on the book. The photographs, from both 1924 and 1999, are striking, especially those of Mallory's body. Says Hemmleb: “I think that the photographs chosen to be published are not particularly distasteful or gruesome. Some people even say they have a certain aesthetic quality to them. It's an eerie feeling, it's an eerie fascination associated with those photographs.”

Publication of the Mallory photos in British tabloids brought the wrath of top climbers like Chris Bonington and Edmund Hillary. (Bonington and Hillary are both Sirs, so highly esteemed is mountaineering in England and former British colonies. Hillary, disregarding Mallory and Irvine, was first to the top of Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953.) Hemmleb says he admits the team made a mistake in the way the photos were released. “They got out to the highest bidder basically, and it was a tabloid newspaper, and that was not the way... I mean, had we anticipated the reaction it would cause, we would have chosen a different way, that's for sure.”

To everyone hooked by the mystery of Mallory and Irvine, the answer to the big question is: possibly the summer of 2001. That's when Hemmleb, Simonson, and others want to return to Everest to look for more: a Kodak Vestpocket camera, oxygen apparatus, and the body of Sandy Irvine. Hemmleb, you might think, is still driven by the dreams of his youth to discover with some certainty how Mallory and Irvine died. He says, however, that he is content with the past year's work. “I have the feeling that if that's all I contribute to Everest history, it's really just what I always wanted to do. It has freed me from an enormous ambition and I feel now very, very free and unencumbered. It's nice to be connected with it, but it's less obsessive than it had been before.”

Which is not to say Hemmleb's brain is not crackling with anticipation. “The idea is very much in our minds, and also in the minds of the core of this year's expedition,” Hemmleb says. “I'd love to go there again and do more research, perhaps even with a stronger scientific component to it.”

Whether in several years the mystery of Mallory and Irvine is solved or takes on a different form, no one can say, and Hemmleb is too much a scientist and mountain climber to make bold predictions. But during a lecture in Banff this fall, Hemmleb says he was touched by a remark from someone in the audience. “He said, ‘you know, I thank you and Eric and Larry, that you still allow for the possibility that they could have done it,’” Hemmleb says. “‘You did not kill the mystery and you did not kill this romantic image of them reaching the top.’”