I was chatting with Jim, my Himalayan climbing veteran friend. The subject of Mount Everest arose as it so often does.
“I’ve been reading Mark Synnott’s new Everest book,” I said. “It’s a fascinating take on the mountain’s early climbing history, but man, it’s hard to stomach the modern junkshow he relates. He even describes one camp where everyone sleeps on top of a garbage dump!”
“Yeah,” answered Jim. “Even at the top of my game, I had zero desire to ever try that mountain. With the oxygen issues, crowds of incompetent climbers, stepping over corpses during the climb, fixed ropes strung to top and bottom like some kind of assisted-living physical therapy department… ”
Indeed, throughout my mountaineering career I’d experienced feelings similar to Jim’s. Nearly every time I’d read about Everest, my stomach turned.
“How could they call this climbing?” I said.
Jim: “It’s a climb that’s not a climb.”
And yet, what is it about Mount Everest? What keeps the bandwidth burning, the books gulping prodigious quantities of ink and paper, the often incompetent “clients” paying barrels of money to be led up the mountain like leashed zombies?
Not to mention my reading nearly every Everest book I come across?
Everest being the highest point on the planet might be adequate explanation. But what if it was an easy climb — or perhaps an automobile drive — with no significant cultural history? In that case I’d argue it would count no more to human egos than reaching the west side of your lawn. But Mount Everest is not easy, and the history is fascinating.
Long story short, in 1924 British climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were spotted 800 vertical feet below the summit — still moving upward. Then the clouds closed in. While poorly equipped by today’s standards — layers of wool and a silk rope — they carried supplemental oxygen. They were fit, acclimated and experienced, and might well have reached the top then died during the descent. Thus began the greatest mystery in mountaineering.
The mystery sizzled when Irvine’s ice axe was later found on the mountain, presumably indicating where he fell off. And years later, in 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition found Mallory’s altitude preserved corpse. After performing their amateur archaeological forensics, the 1999 group described Mallory as being tied into a rope, which led from his body to a severed end. Clearly both men had tumbled to their demise down the north side of Everest.
Only where was Irvine, and where was the camera he most likely carried? Might it still exist somewhere on the vast reaches of the highest hill in the world? And might it still contain developable film? On that precious spool were perhaps the hero shots to end all hero shots: two men standing on the Everest summit nearly thirty years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s recognized first ascent in 1953.
Enter Mark Synnott, prolific author and veteran member of the North Face Global Athlete Team. In his new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession and Death on Mount Everest, Synnott describes attending the Everest lectures of Thom Pollard, member of the 1999 expedition that found Mallory. There the seduction begins. After that, all it takes to cinch the Everest lasso around Mark’s neck is a man named Tom Hozel, who after forty years of fanatical analysis, claims to known the secret GPS coordinates for Irvine’s body.
With Hozel’s information in hand, Synnott and his North Face cohorts implement another archaeological Everest expedition — heavily funded by National Geographic and assorted sponsors. Ramping it up a notch, this time they’ll bring along a drone pilot and his craft to surveil Everest’s flank. They also plan to go “off the ropes” and search on foot. A summit might be included as well.
What with Synnott’s deep experience as a mountaineer, along with the story’s archaeological aspect, The Third Pole isn’t your ordinary “I climbed Everest” screed. That’s too the better. Instead of claiming the first roller skate ascent, or whatever, Mark makes a serious effort at studying the history of Mallory/Irvine, then using exemplary experiential journalism he makes us privy to the ground search for Irvine, and the realities of the climb that’s not a climb.
Throughout, Synnott mixes history with his present experiences. This works well. From everything to issues with supplemental oxygen to modern clothing, we gain understanding through clear contrasts with the kit of Mallory and Irvine.
I especially enjoyed how, prior to his expedition, Synnott personalizes the legends. To pull this off, he travels to England where he experiences the Everest artifacts held by storied institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society and The Alpine Club. It is here he is allowed to swing Sandy Irvine’s fated ice ax. Can you imagine?
As to nitpicking, a few things: There is so much to this story. Synnott’s 417 numbered pages barely contain it. Consequently, an excess of “Krakauresk” death and destruction took pages perhaps better used. Sure, tales of corpses hanging from ropes and hairy saves might keep us reading. But Synnott is a thinker — he holds a B.A. in philosophy — I’d thus have enjoyed more introspection. Case in point: how his initial willingness to not summit was burned away by summit fever, despite the grim statistics showing a goodly number of summiteers never return to their spouses and children. Also, I found it intriguing that Synnott’s friend and teammate Renan Ozturk chose to turn around five feet from the summit because he didn’t want to “stand on the head of the Sherpa’s god.” Here was an expedition sponsored to the tune of nearly a million dollars, a climb that Sherpa guides risked their lives for — Sherpa who did not hesitate to stand on the summit. Synnott missed an opportunity here for reflection on modern climbing ethics, not to mention the mystical Buddhism of the Sherpa people.
In all fairness, Synnott (who did summit) describes Ozturk crawling to his stopping point near the summit, probably due to the failure of his oxygen system. When you’re so wasted you can’t stand up, and know too well of the deadly descent still facing you, might you not want to step on the head of a god, or for that matter kick your crampon spikes into her face? Food for thought.
Back to the book’s strong points. Sixteen pages of high-quality color plates do much to intrigue and entertain. And regarding history, there’s a lot more here than tales of Mallory/Irvine. For example, Synnott’s descriptions of the first Everest height surveys were as not-put-downable as the technical thrillers I’m fond of when I extend my recliner footrest.
For me, the nut moment comes when Synnott summits, and then pulls out his cell phone and fires a selfie to his wife back in New Hampshire. The contrast between this and Mallory/Irvine’s world is stunning — is it even the same mountain? As for the search for Irvine, Synnott pays his dues. During the descent he unclips from the fixed lines at a predetermined, rather macabre landmark — the dead body of a modern climber — and makes a dangerous foray to the GPS cords thought to locate Irvine’s corpse. What does Mark find? I won’t spill it.
On the whole, The Third Pole is a book to be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation of history and a gram of adventure in their heart. In my view that’s most of us, maybe all of us?