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Oxygen use

One of the first debates that arose when the expedition returned to England in 1924 centred around how much oxygen Mallory and Irvine had with them for their summit attempt, and whether they could have reached the summit with it. Some expedition members – such as Noel Odell – denied that it gave much benefit. The apparatus in the 1920’s was bulky, heavy, prone to leaks, and seldom worked efficiently. It was therefore questionable that, assuming they didn’t carry enough oxygen to reach the summit, whether or not they would actually need it anyway.

Irvine outside his workshop tent, en route to Everest base camp in 1924.

During the sea voyage to India, and the approach march through Tibet, Irvine had displayed himself as a very handy individual, improving the oxygen set that they were to use on the mountain. This princaply involved lightening it and making it more efficient.

A few days before Mallory and Irvine’s summit attempt, another expedition member – Edward Norton – had made his own attempt, and had set an altitude record in the process. He had not used oxygen, being one of those who deemed it “unsporting”. Mallory probably decided to use oxygen for his own summit attempt partly for this very reason – Norton had failed, and Mallory himself should give himself as many benefits as possible. Following this reasoning, his summit attempt might even depend entirely on the functionallity of a piece of equipment Mallory knew little about. Enter Andrew Irvine – the engineer of the expidition who had practically re-built the entire set. As a result, Mallory chose Irvine for his companion in the final summit attempt, rather than Odell, who was the more experienced climber.

So did Mallory and Irvine have enough oxygen to get to the summit? In a letter he sent down for Odell, he said they had used very little oxygen (only 90 atmospheres) in the two days it had taken to reach their high camp. As a result, he stated they would “probably” use two bottles of oxygen each for their summit climb, stating that it was a “bloody load for climbing”.

Mallory's short letter to Odell.Translated from his handwriting, it reads: " Dear Odell. We're awefully sorry to have left things in such a mess - our Unna Cooker rolled down the slope at the last moment. Be sure of getting back to IV tomorrow in time to evacuate by dark, as I hope to. In the tent I must have left a compass - for the Lord's sake rescue it: we are here without. To here on 90 atmospheres for the two days - so we'll probably go on two cylinders - but it's a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job! Yours Ever, G. Mallory."

This specific use of the the word “probably” indicate that Mallory had a choice – he could go on two or three cylinders. Moreover, notes found on his body in 1999 support this, showing that he had at least six bottles at the high camp.

Given Mallory’s stringent rule about using very little oxygen, I think it likely that they had enough to reach the summit. Even if they only carried two bottles each, they would have kept a close eye on their consumption and altered it accordingly (just like Hillary did when he and Tenzing reached the summit in 1953). However, I am also inclined to think that they actually carried three bottles each – the note on Mallory’s body suggests this. Indeed, one of the bottles mentioned there was found during the 1999 research expedition on the north ridge, near the first step.

We also know that they had used all their oxygen before they fell. No oxygen set was found on Mallory’s body, and the clasps used to hold the mask on his face were found in his pocket. This suggests that they were descending very late in the day. The fact that his snow goggles were also found in his pocket suggest that they had already been benighted.

But did Mallory and Irvine need oxygen to reach the summit? Messner and Habeler first reached the summit without the use of oxygen in 1978, and a number of people have done it since. I think Habeler in particular was right when he claimed a lot of his inspiration and knowledge had not come from recent expeditions, but rather from the pre-war climbers who had gone very high on the mountain without oxygen (and with very poor knowledge about the effects of altitude) and had returned to tell the tale, without permanent phsychological damage. Mallory and Irvine certainly got very high on the mountain, probably without using much oxygen, so they probably could have gotten to the summit if they had run out within reasonable distance of their objective.

Categories: Mallory & Irvine
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