Inside The Disappearance Of George Mallory On Mount Everest In 1924 — And The Rediscovery Of His Body In 1999

Published September 4, 2023
Updated September 20, 2023

A pioneering British explorer, George Mallory hoped to become the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest — and we still don't know if he accomplished his goal.

George Mallory was a famed mountaineer. Long before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people confirmed to summit Mount Everest, Mallory joined an expedition to try to reach the top.

But while he was attempting to reach the summit in June 1924, Mallory vanished. Though many realized that the British climber was likely dead, the full story behind his disappearance became a head-scratching mystery for all future explorers who took on Everest. Some mountaineers even made it their personal mission to find the earthly remains of Mallory.

Ultimately, it would be 75 years before future mountaineers would find George Mallory’s body and equipment near the summit.

The Early Life Of George Mallory

George Mallory

Wikimedia CommonsA photo of a young George Mallory.

George Herbert Leigh-Mallory was born on June 18, 1886, in Mobberley, Cheshire, England, to a reverend and his wife. As a young child growing up around various churches, Mallory took to climbing their stone walls.

“He climbed everything that it was at all possible to climb,” his sister recalled, according to The New York Times. “I learnt very early that it was fatal to tell him that any tree was impossible for him to get up.”

By the 1890s, Mallory was sent to various boarding schools where he excelled in sports and mathematics. While attending a school in Winchester, Mallory met Graham Irving, a member of the Alpine Club. Through this connection, Mallory experienced his first climbing trip in the Alps at age 18.

His passion for climbing continued throughout his life, even after he graduated from the University of Cambridge and pursued a job as a schoolmaster. In 1914, Mallory married a woman named Ruth Turner, and later had three children. When World War I broke out, he served in France.

However, Mallory’s attention once again turned to climbing in 1921 when he joined the British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition. From that point on, climbing became the most important thing in Mallory’s life.

Taking On The Tallest Mountain In The World

1921 Everest Expedition

Public DomainGeorge Mallory (seated, far left) and planners of the reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1921.

George Mallory first traveled to Mount Everest as part of the 1921 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition. The trip, meant to locate the most accessible routes to the mountain’s summit, was a partial success.

For one, the team did indeed identify a potential route to the summit, but many of the members suffered from exhaustion and altitude sickness.

Just a year later, Mallory joined the 1922 British Mount Everest expedition with the aim of reaching the mountain’s summit. The expedition was a failure, as Mallory and the rest of the crew were unable to get to the top and even encountered an avalanche during their multiple attempts.

Despite these setbacks, Mallory tried to reach the summit again in 1924. At 37 years old, Mallory feared that his advancing age would make summiting Mount Everest an impossible feat if he waited much longer.

By late May, the team had established Camp IV on the North Col, more than 20,000 feet above sea level (the summit stands at a little over 29,000 feet high). They were briefly forced to descend, as one member needed to leave the mountain due to illness. But on June 1st, the camp was reestablished.

Last Photo Of George Mallory

Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Mallory with fellow climber Andrew Irvine in the last photo of them on their fatal Everest climb in 1924.

On June 6th, Mallory and a climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, set out from the North Col, determined to reach the peak together. By the morning of June 8th, they were departing from their last camp, en route to the summit. They were last reported seen about 800 feet below the peak. According to the porters at the last camp, Mallory was certain that the pair would be able to reach the top of the mountain and make it back to the camp soon.

Tragically, he was wrong. The two climbers disappeared that day, leaving behind a mystery that took 75 years for anyone to solve.

Clues About George Mallory’s Fate In The Ice

1920s Expedition With Sherpas

ART Collection/Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Mallory (third from left) with sherpas near Mount Everest.

The first clue about George Mallory’s fate came from a 1933 British Mount Everest expedition. Climber Percy Wyn-Harris stumbled upon an ice axe near the summit, which was believed to belong to either Mallory or Irvine.

Ultimately, the axe was more closely linked to Irvine, as it featured hand-carved nick marks, which were similar to marks that Irvine created on other items. Mallory wasn’t known to leave any marks on his belongings.

But according to PBS, Wyn-Harris had a different explanation: “When I picked up the axe there was no mark on it. The cross, over which there has been so much controversy, was not put on either by Mallory or Irvine. It was in fact cut by my personal Sherpa porter, Kusang Pugla, who did it under threats from me that it must not be lost or mixed up with other axes.”

Just three years after the axe discovery, mountaineer Frank Smythe allegedly identified the possible bodies of Mallory and Irvine by using a high-powered telescope during the 1936 British Mount Everest expedition.

According to The Guardian, Smythe informed Edward Norton, the leader of the 1924 expedition, of this macabre find in a private letter. This was only made public in 2013, when Smythe’s son released the correspondence.

Another account of locating preserved human remains on the mountain came from the 1975 Chinese Mount Everest expedition when mountaineer Wang Hongbao informed his fellow climbers that he had stumbled upon the remains of a body that he labeled as an old “English dead.”

This account would later help solve the mystery of Mallory’s final moments.

Finding George Mallory’s Body

George Mallory's Body On Mount Everest

Dave Hahn/Getty ImagesThe body of George Mallory as it was found on Mount Everest in 1999.

In 1999, climbers on the “Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition” arrived at Mount Everest in the hopes of finding the pair. Despite 75 years passing since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine vanished, the team was hopeful. After all, the cold temperatures and permafrost on Everest are infamous for preserving the bodies of climbers who perish on its slopes almost perfectly.

Using clues from past expeditions, including testimony from Wang Hongbao, the team delineated a search zone where Mallory’s body likely remained.

On May 1, 1999, an American climber named Conrad Anker noticed a large, flat rock on the northern slopes. But he soon realized he was not looking at a rock, but George Mallory. Time had degraded most of his clothing, but the conditions of the mountain had preserved much of his body.

Sadly, Irvine’s body was never found. However, the ice axe thought to belong to Irvine or Mallory was said to be located hundreds of feet directly above Mallory’s body. Because of this, it’s widely believed that Mallory died because of a bad fall, and Irvine may very well have met a similar fate.

Further investigation of the body found that Mallory had a broken right leg and arm, among other injuries, according to The Guardian.

Whether or not George Mallory and Andrew Irvine ever reached the summit remains a mystery to this day. However, if Irvine’s body is ever found, we might have a definitive answer, as he may have been carrying Mallory’s Kodak camera, which would have surely documented their success if they had reached the top (and experts say that the film could likely still be developed despite how many years have passed since the disappearance).

But such a camera has never been found.

After reading about George Mallory and the rediscovery of his body, learn about more harrowing deaths on Mount Everest. Then, discover some of the most fascinating facts about the world’s tallest mountain.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.