Climbing Mt. Everest – “The Lost Explorer”

“The Lost Explorer” by Conrad Anker and David Roberts (1999).

There are so many people climbing the world’s tallest mountains today that it is sometimes difficult to remember (or to realize) how recent most of those attempts have been.  For example, Wikipedia tells me that almost 4000 people have successfully climbed to the top of the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest, but that most of those climbs have taken place in very recent years. There are obviously many reasons for this.  For one thing, there are more people in the world with the time and resources to undertake such a venture.  For another, the equipment used for mountain climbing today, as well as available cold weather clothing, and remote communication capacity make everything that much easier, more certain and, yes, more comfortable.  For a third, until someone reaches a summit, the mountain is an unknown and the path to the top is unknown.  Once the top is reached, the path (or at least one path) is known, and one big uncertainty is removed.  And finally, you don’t reach the top of a 29,000 foot mountain in the Himalayas by yourself.  You need guides; you need porters.  And until these guides and porters have reached the top, they too are limited in the support and guidance they can provide.

It is fairly well known that Mt. Everest was not summited until 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the top.  They were part of a climbing team known as the 9th British expedition.

Thirty years earlier, the very well known George Mallory, British mountaineer, writer, romantic, charmer and (by all accounts) good guy, was one of the climbers on three British expeditions.  The first two were not successful; the third, in 1924, was tragic.  Mallory and his companion climber Sandy Irvine were within a thousand feet of the summit when they disappeared.  When they didn’t come back to the highest campsite with a couple of days, their fate was clear.  The assumption is (with some dissent) that they were killed before they reached the summit, not after.

They were not the only climbers who died on the mountain, but they were perhaps the best known, and there continued to be interest in discovering what happened to them.  It was known where they were last seen, and from that it could be guessed what their further route would have been, and there was always the chance that their bodies would be found, particularly since the cold air could preserve human remains.  But it is a vast mountain, and it is covered with snow and ice and subject to frequent landslides.  So the chance that they would be found was slim.

But not so slim that a group was not put together in 1999 to search for the bodies.  One of the climbers was the young American Conrad Anker. A climber and guide, he had climbed in the Himalayas before, one of the reasons he was selected for the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition.  While he had an idea where the two climbers might have met their death, it was only luck that led him to find Mallory’s body, fully clothed, in a remarkable state of preservation, showing that he had been subjected to a fatal head injury either before, as a result of, a fall. Irvine’s body has not been found.

“The Lost Explorer” was co-written by Anker and by writer David Roberts in the format where one would write a section of a chapter, and the other would follow.  So part of the book is written in the third person (and these are the sections that deal with the fatal Mallory expedition) and part in the first person (the sections that deal with the 1999 climb and discovery).

The book is fascinating, not only for the obvious reasons, but because it outlines the technical aspects of climbing in 1924 and in 1999, and the personal hardships.  You see how primitive the clothing and equipment of the 1924 climbers were, when compared with those that Anker and his fellow climbers had at their disposal.  You read about the weather patterns and the topography of the upper reaches of Everest.  You learn about (but I can’t say I understand) the motivations that led these men to climb these mountains and put not only their lives, but their basic comfort, at risk.

This is a short book, less than 200 pages.  I recommend it very highly.





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