With The Third Pole, Mark Synnott explores the intriguing mystery of Andrew Irvine's Everest expedition
The book is a good read for newbies to the world of Everest and a refresher for those familiar with its past and present.
As part of the research for his book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest, Mark Synnott visited Merton College in Oxford, England. When he left the library at dusk, his last stop was at an obelisk that stood in a corner of the campus. It was dedicated to Andrew Comyn Irvine, a promising rower during his days as a student of the institute. Today, he is better known as Sandy Irvine, an enterprising climber and a cult figure in the world of mountaineering, who rests somewhere on the slopes of Everest. And his last days were a cause of wonder for Synnott, much like they had been for a few others before him.
Since the first successful ascent in 1953, Everest has seen thousands of climbers reach the summit. Some of these were improbable climbs, pulled off on treacherous routes and in dismal weather conditions, which the world took note of and set many records along the way. Most others were commercial climbs, where skilled high altitude guides led their paying clients to the top. But after all these years, the mountain’s most enduring legacy remains the attempt made by Irvine and his climbing partner, George Mallory.
The duo was part of the third British expedition to Everest in 1924. The world was keenly watching their progress and expectations were high back home. Then on 8 June, they disappeared on the mountain forever. The big question was — had Mallory and Irvine been the first to get to the top, almost three decades before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did in 1953?
For decades now, it has been an intriguing topic of discussion among armchair enthusiasts, and enough of a draw for mountaineers turned investigators to make their way to the north side of Everest. It was no different for Synnott. Right through his climbing career, he had stayed away from the popular mountains that drew crowds each season, which at times included unskilled climbers who made news for all the wrong reasons. But the opportunity to investigate and add his bit to this everlasting legend of Everest was an enticing prospect and in 2019, he set off for the mountain in search of Irvine, which is the central narrative of his latest work.
Over a period of time, climbers on Everest have discovered a number of articles belonging to the 1924 expedition. A few others set out specifically to find answers about that climb. One such team discovered Mallory’s remains at around 8,100 metres in 1999. It led to a media frenzy and bidding wars around the world, especially for the images that had been made on the mountain. The next step was to locate Irvine. But he had eluded most search parties, alongside a Vest Pocket Kodak camera that they had carried with them to the summit. It was likely to hold a few answers about their incredible climb.
A conversation with climber Thom Pollard gave Synnott enough reason to set aside his inhibitions and make his way to Everest. Pollard had been a part of the team that had found Mallory. He now told Synnott that he possibly had the exact location of Irvine’s body. At that moment, though far away in the United States, the search was on.
The GPS coordinates, a landmark that came to be known as the Holzel spot, had come from an Everest researcher, Tom Holzel, who had spent years studying the 1924 climb. As part of his own research, Synnott visited the Royal Geographic Society, the Alpine Club and Irvine’s alma mater to pick out possible clues before beginning his search. Alongside, he assembled a team of experienced climbers — leader Jamie McGuiness, Pollard and a crack team of Sherpas, who would support them on the climb. The camera crew would be led by climber-filmmaker, Renan Ozturk, whose role was key when it came to operating a tinkered drone that could be flown at high altitude. The idea was to get it close enough to the search area and study the images that it returned with, before launching their operation on the expansive terrain of Everest.
The team arrived at base camp on the north side via Tibet in the spring of 2019 and set up camp alongside hundreds of other summit aspirants. It was no different on the Nepal side of the mountain. Somewhere at the back of their mind, the crew battled conflicting thoughts, the choice between the search for Irvine and climbing to the top like the rest. Though most of them raised their hands when it came to summit aspirations, the decision during the early days was a complex one given all the resources dedicated to the expedition.
Through his interactions with other climbers at base camp, Synnott came to understand their aspirations and just what the lure of Everest was all about. He learnt what high altitude could do for addicts and addictions, how new money had allowed average climbers to dream about the top of the world and the changing status of the Sherpa community on the high mountains.
They faced all the travails typical of an Everest ascent, more so, due to a number of first-timers on the team. Their first shocker was when they were battered by high winds on the mountain due to a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. A lot of time was spent acclimatising to the altitude and testing the drone to eventually scope the area around the Holzel spot. They even faced a Sherpa mutiny when they mentioned the search for Irvine, which was diffused only after they announced that the summit would hold priority.
Finally, after getting to the North Col for a third time towards the end of May, the team ignored an adverse weather forecast to continue up the mountain and eventually, to the summit of Everest.
While a safe descent here on is what most climbers focus on, it was time for Synnott to make a decision. He had now to consider the prospect of going off route to check on the Holzel spot. The idea didn’t go down well with a few others, given the dangers involved. Fatigue from the gruelling ascent was taking its toll, the altitude made every effort taxing. There was no protection in case of a slip either. But the search was what had drawn Synnott to Everest in the first place and there was no stopping him. He unclipped from the fixed rope that had secured them to the mountain and descended towards the spot based on his GPS device. Only once he had his answers, did he make his way back up to reunite with the team and continue their descent all the way down to base camp.
By the end of the season, Everest had once again seen many casualties on both sides of the mountain. Synnott relives the experience of a few of the climbers to shed light on the dangers of climbing the mountain, which still continues to record high numbers every year.
Besides narrating his own account, both on and off the mountain, Synnott digs into a lot of previous material that has been written about Everest, the 1924 expedition, Irvine’s life and the relationship that he shared with his teammates, and other search efforts like his. The book is a good read for newbies to the world of Everest and a refresher for those familiar with its past and present. And it adds another vital chapter on the never-ending search for Irvine.
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