Many people wonder if Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were really the first to climb Everest. I went on nine expeditions to Mount Everest over 21 years to find the truth about another possibility: George Mallory.

Was George Mallory the first to climb Everest with his companion Sandy Irvine? In the end my expedition found Mallory’s body and I was then able to piece together exactly what had happened to him in his last hours on Everest. He had died before he reached the top.

His body lay half-buried in the frozen scree, face-down and spread-eagled in his last agony. Above George Mallory, a couple of thousand feet higher, the summit of Everest stood impassively waiting for other men to try to conquer the highest mountain in the world. For me, also, it was the end of a long quest.

At the age of 12, I met my relative Howard Somervell, a friend of George Mallory’s who watched him leave on his last attempt to climb the mountain in June 1924. We called him Uncle Hunch. Somervell told me about his own attempt to climb the mountain without oxygen, and how he nearly suffocated due to a frostbitten larynx. He turned back 1,000 feet from the top.

“We met Mallory at the North Col on his way up. He said to me that he had forgotten his camera, and I lent him mine. ‘So, if my camera was ever found,'” he said, ‘you could prove that Mallory got to the top.'” It was a throwaway remark, which he probably made a hundred times in the course of telling this story, but this time it found its mark.

I spent years trying to prove Mallory had climbed the mountain and became the 15th Briton to climb the mountain, in 1993. In 1999, I organised a BBC-funded expedition to look for Somervell’s camera. Instead the searchers found Mallory’s body. There was no camera, though, and still no answer to the biggest mystery in mountaineering: who climbed Mount Everest first?

I kept searching for new evidence and went on a total of nine Everest expeditions searching for an answer. In 2006, I tested perfect replicas of Mallory’s clothing and deduced that they would have kept him alive on the summit only if the weather remained fine.

However, the answer to the puzzle was under my nose the whole time.

After studying the evidence for some 30 years and visiting the mountain on nine expeditions, I can make a fairly accurate guess about what happened to Mallory and Irvine. If we evaluate each clue, then take the climb hour by hour, we might reach some reasonable conclusions.

Mallory had returned from his first attempt to climb Everest in 1924 a frustrated man. His party had only reached 25,000ft (7,620m), when porter trouble prevented any further ascent. His swift abandonment of this oxygen-less attempt suggests that he thought it was a waste of effort.

Returning to Camp III he fished out the gas sets to make a last-ditch attempt with Sandy Irvine. Turning them on, they climbed swiftly up the North Col slopes at record speed, which may have reinforced his belief that the oxygen would prevail. After a night on the Col they left for their summit attempt.

If Mount Everest were in the dock, standing accused of killing George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, the prosecution and the defence would stand or fall on the evidence. I would like to lay out that evidence as follows:

Reliable Evidence About George Mallory’s Fate

  • Mallory’s body and where it was found. That he was not directly on the fall line from the ice-axe position suggests that there were two falls, not one.
  • Mallory’s injuries. George Rodway is a physician and Denali mountain ranger familiar with climbing injuries. His evidence suggests Mallory’s were not consistent with one long fall. In addition, the severe bruising around his waist would have taken time to form. It is possible, in the case of a really severe accident, to have bruises start to form within 20 to 30 minutes of injury.
  • So, if Mallory only fell once, he had to live at least that long post-fall for the bruises around his ribs to form. The bruises were pretty extensive. Rodway’s best guess is that they might have taken at least an hour to form. So, again, we might have two falls.
  • The clothes that Mallory was wearing. They were studied, replicated, tested by me on Mount Everest and the laboratory, and found to be adequate if the weather remained good, dangerously inadequate if it did not.
  • Mallory’s belongings taken from his body: sun goggles from an inside pocket, a broken watch, an altimeter and some letters.
  • The weather. We now know there was dangerously low air-pressure that day, which was associated with a blizzard. The barometric readings were taken from calibrated instruments by men at Base Camp.
  • The ice axe found in 1933 by Percy Wyn-Harris and Bill Wager. It is beyond reasonable doubt that it belonged to either Mallory or Irvine. It is probable that it was Irvine’s, as it had identifying marks that tallied with his swagger stick.
  • The approximate place where the axe was found. We know this by marked-up photographs from the 1933 expedition.
  • Smythe’s sighting of a body in 1933. This was found by me in a private family letter and concerned Smythe’s similar sighting of the body of my uncle, John Doncaster Hoyland, on Mont Blanc. We can give weight to this clue as Mallory was found exactly where Smythe reported a body to be.
  • The oxygen cylinder first spotted on the North Ridge in 1991 and brought down to Base Camp in 1999. Its unique markings established that it came from Mallory or Irvine in 1924, and it is identified in Mallory’s jotted note on the back of a letter as cylinder No. 9. It had contained 110 atmospheres. Its exact original location is uncertain, though.
  • The position of their last camp, Camp VI. This was found in 1933 and excavated in 2001.
  • A woolen mitten found in 2001 by an American searcher on the exit from the yellow rock band.

Less Reliable Evidence About George Mallory’s Fate

  • Odell’s sighting of Mallory and Irvine climbing the Second Step in five minutes. He was a credible witness, and his eyesight was good. He drove a car without needing spectacles well into his 80s. However, visual witnesses are notoriously unreliable, as many studies have shown. The so-called ‘forgetting curve’ effect means that visual memory is already disappearing within twenty minutes, and Odell did not make his diary entry until a long time after his sighting. The effects of high altitude and stress have also been well documented by Jon Krakauer, among others. The problem is that eyewitnesses are generally given a great deal of credence in courts of law – and by wishful thinkers. Odell changed his story so much, however, that his evidence becomes too unreliable to support a whole series of events.
  • Mallory’s intended route. Our examination of this suggests that if Mallory had looked at the difficulties of the Second Step he would have rejected it as a route for its lack of a belay at its base. It’s also unlikely that he would have attempted it in the worsening weather with an inexperienced second man. Moreover, all of the expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s followed the Norton–Somervell route. The likelihood is that Mallory would have done the same as his peers, or perhaps turned back when he examined the dangers of the Step. There is no hard evidence until someone discovers an oxygen cylinder above the Second Step, or a photograph in Somervell’s camera.
  • Mallory’s state of mind and motivation. This was his last chance, and his contemporaries were getting ahead of him in worldly success. He was a man of high ideals, and he knew he would have had a receptive audience had he climbed the mountain. In addition, there was a culture of self-sacrifice after the First World War among its survivors, and Mallory was clearly in the grip of an obsession. These factors might have predisposed him to take a risk on what was his last attempt at Everest’s summit. On the other hand, he had a climbing novice in tow whose life depended on him. He was also a married man with children, and a close examination of his previous climbs does not suggest a reckless nature. He himself wrote: ‘No mountaineer would be content to reach the top and not get down,’ so I think we can discount any notion of a one-way suicide mission.
  • In the end it is unclear how all of these factors would have affected his decision-making, and so his state of mind has to go in the less reliable pile of clues.
  • The fact that Mallory’s sun goggles were in a pocket might suggest that he was climbing in poor visibility. However, Norton had also removed his goggles in good visibility on the same part of the mountain. And Mallory may have carried two pairs, as all sensible mountaineers should.
  • The position of oxygen cylinder No. 9. Although in 1991 Eric Simonson spotted one or two bottles about 600ft (160m) before the First Step at around 27,800ft (8,475m), the one recovered in 1999 may have been moved from somewhere else. Dave Hahn remembered seeing an old cylinder sticking out of the snow below the Yellow Band that was picked up by a Sherpa and cached somewhere on the ridge.

Alternatively, the cylinder could have been moved down from somewhere higher by Chinese climbers, who were known to move oxygen sets around the mountain. If it was found in the place where it was dumped by Mallory and Irvine, it is the highest-lying evidence of their passage. But we cannot be sure.

  • The calculations of oxygen usage. If oxygen cylinder No. 9 was found where Mallory or Irvine left it, and if their oxygen consumption was continual and consistent, calculations show that the pair might have arrived at that point some time around or after 8:30 in the morning. This depends on too many unknowns, and so unfortunately it is unreliable, like all calculations of heights reached that are dependent on calculations of oxygen consumption.
  • The absence of a photograph of his wife Ruth from Mallory’s clothing, suggesting that, as promised, he had left it on the summit. Mallory’s notorious absent-mindedness is a more likely explanation, as he had also forgotten to bring his camera, compass and torch.
  • Wang’s sighting of a body, and his gestures suggesting it had been pecked by birds. As Wang and his Japanese interlocutor Hasegawa did not share a common language, something about the damage to the face may have been lost in translation. Wang was killed shortly after his report.
  • The quantity of oxygen carried. Two cylinders each, or three? In a letter to his wife, Mallory wrote: ‘My plan will be to carry as little as possible, go fast and rush the summit. Finch and Bruce tried carrying too many cylinders.’ He could have changed his mind, but later he said that ‘we’ll probably go on two cylinders – but it’s a bloody load for climbing’.
  • Reports from psychics. These were fashionable in the 1920s, and one present-day Mallory researcher has consulted a psychic. Their reports are contradictory and unscientific, and I would suggest that they carry no weight at all.

If we concentrate on the reliable clues, there are two that appear to be contradicted by a third: the position of the ice axe and the position of the body don’t seem to fit with the lack of injuries consistent with a fall of nearly 1,000ft. I went back to my witness George Rodway and asked if Mallory could have fallen twice, once from the axe site, then again, fatally, from somewhere below.

“It’s possible that Mallory might have fallen all that way from the site of the ice axe but since he was conscious enough to self-arrest and his body relatively undamaged, not likely. The fall line would have had to be very smooth and unbroken by any significant drop-offs, obstructions or other stuff that would have killed him outright or broken him to pieces.

What no one has ever proposed is that M&I might have taken a minor slip near the site of the axe, recovered somewhat (but gone too far down to go back for the axe) and continued down in their mounting fatigue … then fallen again … this time more seriously. There are variables like this that need to be considered in the mix, I think.

The bruising from the rope makes me think he was alive for some time after all the pressure exerted by a roped fall – and I don’t think he lasted too long after stopping from the ‘ultimate’ fall. Bruises like that don’t form in minutes … so he might have had the bruises develop between the first fall and the last fall while they continued descending.” George Rodway goes on to say:

“What else can one reasonably deduce from this find? It is likely that Mallory and Irvine fell while descending, possibly late in the day – Mallory’s sun goggles were in fact found in his pocket so they may have no longer been needed as the daylight waned. Alternatively, they may have possibly been descending in a snowstorm, thus removing iced-up goggles in order to at least temporarily improve vision.

No supplementary oxygen kit was found nearby, and the lack of such lends support to the suggestion that the climbers had cast aside the useless weight of empty oxygen cylinders to hasten their descent. Aside from the fractured leg and the position of Mallory’s body, the rope injuries on his abdomen and torso support the scenario of a roped fall over a modest vertical distance …”

The climbing rope that remained around Mallory’s body appeared to have snapped after taking the weight of a fall. This fall and subsequent parting of the rope may have left Sandy Irvine separated from Mallory by some distance. Could Irvine have survived this incident relatively unscathed and have been left alone in the growing darkness, possibly in bad weather, high up on the North Face with little in the way of alpine climbing experience to guide him? Regardless of the status of Irvine after Mallory’s fall, he probably did not survive the night out – the clothing of the 1920s simply did not lend itself to safely enduring open bivouacs above 8000m.

The evidence that was under my nose for the whole time was a list of air pressure readings written down by my Uncle Hunch. Somervell was responsible for the meteorological records on the 1924 expedition, and his work led me to the vital clue.

One of the reasons Mount Everest is now becoming easier to climb is modern weather forecasting. Whereas the early British attempts relied on rough dates for the likely advent of the Indian summer monsoon, now the expedition leader has highly accurate satellite photographs and forecasting available by email. The weather window needed for a summit bid can be predicted with reliability.

But there is one variable that is literally invisible: air pressure. If one tries to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen there are some days better than others: high-pressure days, when there are more oxygen molecules in each lungful of breath. Conversely, a day with low barometric pressure may effectively make the summit a few hundred metres higher.

A climber nearing the summit without extra oxygen is working at the absolute limit of human capacity, and the difference of a few millibars of atmospheric pressure can make all the difference. Even when you are using oxygen it is merely supplementing the ambient air, so low pressure will affect you, too. A recent study of fatalities on Everest shows that deaths blamed on the weather are usually associated with a big drop in summit barometric pressure. Mallory had oxygen but it had almost certainly run out before he had time to reach the top.

In my reading of the 1924 expedition account I became curious about the unseasonably bad weather throughout the May of that year. The expedition report quotes Darjeeling tea planters as saying that “for at least 20 years, no such weather had been known at this season”. Usually the cold winds of winter die down towards the end of April and there is a clear week or so around 17 May.

But in 1924, the weather was so appalling between 9 and 11 May that Mallory and Irvine had to abandon Camp III below the North Col, something unheard-of in recent seasons. I wondered whether there was an outside event which might have influenced the weather, and in particular whether El Niño might have been the culprit.

At first glance, a movement of warm water in the tropical Pacific from its usual home off Indonesia across to the coast of South America might not seem likely to have an impact on conditions at the top of Everest. But El Niño, which happens around Christmas every few years, causes atmospheric pressure changes that go hand in hand with the movement of the warm water, an effect known as the Southern Oscillation. It is this that affects global weather; in particular drought in South Africa, increased Eurasian snowfall and a reduced Indian summer monsoon.

This fits the facts: there was a drought in South Africa in 1924 that was recorded as one of the eight worst in the 20th century. And Mallory’s expedition report describes how there was increased snowfall in Tibet in May that year and that the monsoon arrived late, enabling Mallory and Irvine to make a late attempt.

The 1924 expedition was remarkable for collecting the earliest data on the meteorology of the Mount Everest region. The air pressure (barometric pressure) was also recorded at Base Camp. Somervell’s meteorological data from the 1924 expedition was published in 1926 but it was largely ignored until the Canadian meteorologist Professor Moore analysed the storm that one of Mallory’s companions described as “a rather severe blizzard”. This probably killed Mallory and Irvine.

There was an 18mbar drop in barometric pressure at Base Camp during this storm. This huge drop suggests that the conditions during their summit attempt were much more severe than originally assumed and therefore the appalling weather may well have contributed to their deaths.

Seventy-two years later, another disaster was just about to happen. On the evening of 9 May 1996, a large number of clients and guides were poised to make summit attempts having climbed from the Nepalese Base Camp to the camp on the South Col at 8,000 metres (26,240 feet). There had been high winds all day and the chances of summiting appeared low.

The winds died down during the afternoon of 10 May, however, an intense storm with wind speeds estimated to be in excess of 70 miles per hour, heavy snowfall, and falling temperatures, engulfed Mount Everest, trapping more than 20 climbers on its exposed upper slopes. Eight of the climbers died; the highest number to die during a single event near the summit of Mount Everest. The winter of 1995-96 was an El Niño year, too.

Using Somervell’s barometric readings, the minimum summit barometric pressure was approximately 331mbar during the 1924 storm. It was the same figure during the 1996 storm. A change in summit barometric pressure of just 4mbar is sufficient to trigger hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Clearly both storms were associated with summit barometric pressures and pressure drops that were sufficient to drive the climbers into a hypoxic state.

The pressure drop was larger and occurred more quickly in 1924, suggesting that it may have been even worse than the 1996 “Into Thin Air” storm. In 1924, the summit barometric pressure fell from 341mbar on 6 June to 331mbar on 9 June, a drop of approximately 10mbar. The 1996 storm saw the pressure fall from 337mbar on 7 May to 331 mbar on 12 May, a drop of approximately 6 mbar.

This led me to realise there was an even more seductive and invisible danger at work. Mallory had seen Norton and Somervell get to within 1,000 feet of the top on 4 June using no oxygen equipment. It would seem reasonable to assume that the summit was possible to reach with the apparatus. What he didn’t know was that the rapidly falling air pressure was effectively making the mountain higher, and that the incoming blizzard was going to make his clothing very thin indeed.

If these figures were true, and if the 1924 blizzard was indeed even worse than that of 1996, then there was no way in which Mallory and Irvine, dressed in their marginal clothing, could have reached the summit of Mount Everest on that fatal day.

So now that we have looked at what might have happened to Mallory and Irvine, let us try to reconstruct their last day.

 The Last Hours on Everest

The last men definitely to see Mallory and Irvine alive were their four porters, who had carried their oxygen cylinders, sleeping bags and provisions up to Camp VI, a grandiose name for one tiny tent. Mallory and Irvine had come up in good style from Camp V, ‘going exceedingly strong with oxygen’, as the porters reported to Norton, and had arrived at around lunchtime. Hastily writing the notes to Odell and Noel that we have already seen, Mallory would have waved the porters goodbye, not realising that would be the last he would see of the rest of humankind.

As the four men clattered down the slope, there would have been time for perhaps a look at the beginning of the next day’s route. The one thing we know for certain is that Mallory noted the pressures of five cylinders on the back of a letter that was found in his pocket. Oxygen equipment strewn around the tent suggests that Irvine might have called out the pressures one by one as he read them on the gauge while Mallory wrote them down.

Edmund Hillary spent the whole of his summit day calculating the amount of oxygen he had left, and it seems plausible that our two climbers would have planned to do the same. This might also suggest that the two men slept using oxygen that night. There seems to have been enough gas, and we know Mallory was by then seeing supplementary oxygen as the key to the mountain. They would brewed up some of the loose tea on the stove, and eaten a last supper.

The moon set at midnight, and not much sleep would have been had that night. Mallory intended to get off early on his summit day of 8 June 1924. Remember that in his last note to the cameraman John Noel he had written:

“Dear Noel, We’ll probably start early tomorrow (8th) in order to have clear weather. It won’t be too early to start looking for us either crossing the rock band or going up skyline at 8:00 p.m. Yours ever, G. Mallory”

Most authorities accept the ‘8:00 p.m.’ as a mistake for ‘8:00 a.m.’ Although this note has been quoted many times, no one seems to have questioned why Noel, although equipped with a powerful lens at Camp III, did not see the pair climbing that day. We are therefore reliant on evidence of artefacts taken from Mallory’s body, and those unearthed at Camp VI by the 2001 search team, to guess what happened next.

None of the early British expedition summit attempts began before sunrise at 4:45am. In fact 5:30am was the earliest that anyone set off, and Norton and Somervell, leaving from the very same tent a few days earlier, left at 6:40am, having been delayed by a leaking vacuum flask. They lost an hour melting snow to replace the water. This, by modern standards, is dangerously late. Modern-day climbers start leaving their tents well before midnight, I left for my successful summit attempt late due to high winds at 2.00 a.m. and my colleagues on an expedition in 2011 on the same route left at 10:00pm from a higher camp.

In another note, this time to Odell, Mallory said that they would ‘probably go on two cylinders – but it’s a bloody load for climbing. Perfect weather for the job. Yours ever, G. Mallory.’

There are three points here. First, if they did take only two cylinders, they were not going to have sufficient capacity to get to the summit and back safely. Second, three cylinders would have been an even bloodier load. And third, it was not going to be perfect weather for the job, as we have already clearly seen.

The sun rose at 4:45am. A candle-lantern and electric torch were found in their tent, so they had not left during the hours of darkness. At the earliest they would have left at 5:30am, by which time most modern-day climbers would be approaching the summit. They were already far too late.

We know what cooking stove they had, the one left in the camp by Norton and Somervell: a Meta solid-fuel burner. Oddly enough, I was given one of these by my grandmother in the 1960s and they were utterly useless. Using solid fuel, they took an age to bring a cupful of water to the boil, even at sea level.

Trying to melt snow or ice to give them enough liquid to avoid dehydration would have been a lengthy process, even if they could supplement it with water from a Thermos flask. Imagine attempting to unfreeze two pairs of giant leather boots at the same time, crouched in a cramped tent. Our modern butane– propane gas stoves are far more effective.

We even know how the stove would have been lit, as a box of Bryant and May’s Swan Vestas matches was discovered on Mallory’s body. And the loose tea leaves were found stored in an Army & Navy Stores tin that had originally contained acid drops.

At Camp IV on the North Col their last breakfast had been cooked by Odell and Hazard: fried sardines, biscuits, tea and hot chocolate. It is unlikely anything so lavish would have been prepared at Camp VI. I ate a bar of chocolate just before crawling out of the tent for my own summit attempt, and I wasn’t hungry. They may have had a little lukewarm tea, and perhaps biscuits or chocolate.

We know exactly what Mallory was wearing, and how his clothing would perform in the prevailing weather. We know that the suit would feel rather less cumbersome than today’s down suits, and with no hood he would have had rather better peripheral vision. We also know what he was carrying: a thin 9mm white cotton rope, with a red tracer thread, and an extraordinary collection of junk in his pockets: a pair of nail scissors with a leather holster, a pencil, a tin of Brand & Co. Savoury Meat Lozenges (similar to modern-day stock cubes), and a selection of letters and bills.

He had remembered sun goggles and petroleum jelly, but we know that he had forgotten to take his compass with him. As he set off from the camp his boots would have felt lighter and less cumbersome than today’s better-insulated versions. Irvine’s clothing was broadly similar, except that he had sewn zip fasteners into the pockets of his jacket. These were the latest thing in 1924 and might help future researchers to identify his remains.

The next we know of them is the mitten found in 2001 by Jake Norton on the exit from the rock band, which suggests they were using much the same route as present-day climbers. It might have been dropped on the way up or the way down. They then took the crest of the ridge to a point 600ft short of the First Step, where they left us their next clue: the empty oxygen cylinder spotted by Eric Simonson. This suggests that they took around four hours to get from Camp VI at 26,700ft (8,140m) to this point on the ridge at 27,800ft (8,475m).

So they were already running slower and later than hoped. What took place over the next couple of hours is unclear. Believers in a successful summit attempt like to think Odell saw them on the Third Step at 12:50pm, but as I have suggested, this sighting seems unreliable.

They might have looked at the Second Step; they might have taken the Norton–Somervell traverse. I have explained why Mallory is unlikely to have risked attempting the Second Step with no belay and an inexperienced second man.

But what we do know for sure is that a storm started at around 2:00pm and, with the new evidence from the barometric readings, we can be confident in stating that the air pressure was as low as during the 1996 storm. It was not a minor, localised storm, as the optimists contend. I suggest that this shows that further upwards progress was going to be very difficult, and that a successful summit climb is extremely unlikely. From the ice-axe evidence it looks as though Mallory and Irvine descended the way they had come, a logical thing to do in poor visibility.

I think the pair reached the slippery slabs of the ice-axe site, the slabs were covered with fresh snow, and that Mallory slipped and fell. Experienced climbers know that the descent is the most common time for this sort of accident to occur; exhaustion and hypothermia are setting in, concentration has been lost as a result of a false sense of security and, because of the slope, you cannot see your next step as clearly as you can on the ascent.

After Mallory fell, Irvine dropped his axe to grab the rope, but was pulled off in a similar way as during the John Hoyland accident on Mont Blanc. I think they then fell together in the curious, alternating fall that is often the fate of roped men: one falls, pulling off the other. The first slows down briefly, only to be pulled off again by the continuing fall of the second. And so on and on. What we do know is that the thin rope snapped near Mallory and that he sustained severe bruising, which needed 20 minutes to one hour of continued circulation to form.

His injuries are not consistent with one continual fall down to the place where his body was found; his bruises needed time to form, and his body does not appear to be in line with a fall from the ice-axe site. It seems, therefore, that he picked himself up and staggered onwards towards Camp VI, only 900ft (275m) away. Blood stains on the left cuff of his blue and white flannel shirt suggest that he may have wiped a bleeding injury, then fell for a second, fatal time.

Now, this is all of course supposition, but it seems consistent with the tangible evidence that we have looked at, and with the experience others have had in the same place. I now think that Mallory and Irvine didn’t get much higher than Norton and Somervell, and that they died in a double fall off the boilerplate slabs.

It’s very hard to prove a negative – that the pair didn’t get to the top, but Occam’s Razor demands that the more simple theory (that Mallory and Irvine fell off and died before reaching the summit) trumps the more complex theory (that they somehow reached the summit, beating the lack of oxygen, the dangerously low air pressure and their marginal clothing).

When I digested the results from my clothing, weather and route researches, I reluctantly had to change an opinion I had held for some 30 years. If these facts and figures were true, and if the 1924 blizzard was as serious as that of 1996, I’m afraid that in my opinion there is no way in which Mallory and Irvine, confronting the Second Step in their marginal clothing, could have reached the summit of Mount Everest on that fatal day.

For years I was a believer. I tried to prove that Mallory and Irvine had climbed the mountain, and I was driven by a romantic notion of what was due to them. When I found that Mallory’s clothing was adequate for the job in good weather I was delighted.

But writing my book, “Last Hours on Everest” made me assemble and weigh the evidence dispassionately. You have to change your mind when confronted with new evidence, and a slowly growing realisation that Mallory and Irvine had too much against them was buttressed by the new weather data. Wishful thinking can only take you so far.

It was difficult to let go of a faith that had sustained me for so many dangerous and uncomfortable expeditions, but I could see no other choice. So I am now quite sure that Hillary and Tensing were the first to climb Mount Everest, and that Mallory and Irvine could not have succeeded.

Every May I pray that someone will find Irvine and the camera to prove me wrong. Modern drone technology is now good enough to find him. For now, though, in this matter I am an atheist. It was hard to give up the faith of a lifetime, but I feel better by acknowledging the truth of the evidence, and I feel even more admiration for those two pioneers.

My failed quest to find Somervell’s camera and prove Mallory’s success was not a huge disappointment. I now realise I was seeking something else: a purpose to my life. That enlightenment might not have come had I been successful.

I have been on a trajectory of belief. A suggestion fell on fertile ground in my childhood, and I found the idea motivating and a focus for my energies. I strove to prove the suggestion true in the face of increasing evidence against it, but in the end I have had to give up and admit that I was wrong.

My grandfather Jack and Uncle Hunch believed in the existence of a perfect God – and I tried to believe in the perfect adventure story.

Those interested in the in-depth investigation I conducted into Mallory’s life and death may be interested in reading my book, The Last Hours on Everest.