This Day In History: June 8

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On June 8, 1924, English geologist Noel Odell catches sight of George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, two fellow members of a British expedition to climb Mount Everest, far in the distance, each man a “tiny black spot” silhouetted against the snow. By Odell’s reckoning, they are within about 800 vertical feet of the summit. It is the last time either Mallory or Irvine will be seen alive.

A schoolteacher by profession and a World War I veteran, the 37-year-old Mallory was already one of England’s most celebrated climbers. This marked his third attempt in three years to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, something no known climber had ever accomplished. Irvine, 22, had little climbing experience, but had expertise on the oxygen-tank apparatus that would make it easier for them to breathe at the high altitude.

Whether Mallory and Irvine ever reached the summit remains one of history’s most tantalizing mysteries. It wasn’t until May 29, 1953 that Everest would finally be conquered beyond any doubt, by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide from Nepal.

A 1999 expedition discovered Mallory’s body some 27,000 feet up the mountain, lying face-down and much of it well-preserved. He had apparently fallen, breaking a leg and possibly an arm. A small Kodak camera he was believed to be carrying was nowhere to be found. The expedition had hoped it would hold clues to whether he and Irvine were coming down from the peak after successfully summiting—or still on their way up.

The expedition left Mallory where he lay, but covered his body with stones to afford it some protection.

Irvine’s body has never been officially found, although rumors persist that it was discovered in the 1970s and secretly removed by the Chinese government, possibly with the missing camera.