Andrew Comyn Irvine, or 'Sandy' as he chose to be called when he was twelve years old1, is known most notably for the fact that he perished on the highest mountain on earth, together with George Mallory on their June 8, 1924 attempt to reach the summit.

Andrew Irvine was born in Birkenhead on April 8, 1902, as the second son of William and Lilian Irvine. He had an older brother and older sister, Hugh and Evelyn, and three younger brothers, Kenneth, Alexander and Thomas. In 1916 Sandy was sent to public school in Shrewsbury, where he thrived. Of course the war had an effect on school life and Sandy those first years. Sandy's eldest brother Hugh was enlisted in 1917 and was badly wounded when he was splattered with liquid mustard gas during a German attack. A few weeks after this tragedy, one of Sandy's cousins was killed in action in France.

Sandy was too young to enlist, but kept himself occupied with an engineering problem related to the war for the greater part of autumn 1917. Through some unknown path Shrewsbury School had come in the possession of a captured German machine gun. Sandy learned that the equivalent British weapon suffered regular stoppages, often leaving as much as half the machine gun force out of commission at times. So Sandy set out to find out why, and with permission, dismantled the German gun and studied it in minute detail. He finally established that the problem lay in ammunition that was not of the right size. During the production of large numbers of shells the dies that were used slightly distended over time, increasing the size of the ammunition. This slightly larger ammunition caused the jams when used in the machine gun.

After his investigation into the machine gun stoppages, Sandy looked to another engineering problem. Having heard about the various problems encountered at the air corps from his brother Hugh, he turned to aeroplanes. He invented, apparently from scratch, an interrupter gear that would enable a machine gun to fire through the propeller without hitting it. He also designed a gyroscopic stabilizer for aircraft. He created a small stir at the War Office in London by sending beautifully worked up designs of his inventions to them. Unfortunately for Sandy, both his inventions had been anticipated by Sir Hiram Maxim, but he got warm congratulations from the authorities and the advice to keep on trying.

The other thing Sandy kept himself occupied with at Shrewsbury was rowing. Due to his athletic prowess and his dedication he soon found himself rowing in the Shrewsbury First VIII. During the war the Henley Royal Regatta had been cancelled, and in 1919 it was decided that the first post-war match should be dedicated to those who lost their lives in the fighting. It became known as the Peace Regatta. The Shrewsbury First VIII, Sandy's boat, was entered for the Elsenham Cup and at the finals defeated their old rivals Bedford. The next two years brought two narrow defeats for Sandy, but he left Shrewsbury School with a reputation of a great sportsman.

After public school at Shrewsbury, Andrew went to Oxford, and tried to enter Magdalen College to study chemistry. His academic record was found wanting, however, and Sandy had to look elsewhere. He was finally accepted at Merton College and represented the College in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 1923, bringing in the first win for Oxford since 1913.

He was probably not as intellectually gifted as his more academically inclined brothers and sister, who often ragged him for "not being very bright", but instead he had a natural gift for practical problem solving. This was evidently demonstrated during the 1924 Everest Expedition, where he soon became the fix-it-all of the group.

Selection for the 1924 British expedition to Mount Everest

"The experiment of the expedition is Mr. Irvine . . . . His record at Spitsbergen last year and his really remarkable physique, to say nothing of his reputation as a general handyman, justify the experiment we are making in exposing one of his tender years to the rigours of Tibetan travel. We entertain no fears on this account . . . ."

General Charles Bruce in The Times, March 27, 1924

Sandy was the last member to be invited to join the expedition, and it was on the recommendation of Noel Odell, the geologist on the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, who had been impressed with him during a University-sponsored expedition to Spitsbergen. His strengths, resourcefulness and general good nature had left an impression on Odell and this he conveyed to Mallory, who wrote to his friend Geoffrey Winthrop Young on the subject:

"Irvine represents our attempt to get one superman, though lack of experience is against him."

This lack of experience was certainly true, especially compared to the other team members. Some members of the Mount Everest Committee considered him to be too young for the expedition and thought he lacked sufficient mountaineering experience. Sandy was younger by 12 years than the average age of the group, and had never climbed higher than 1830 meters, which was a long way off from what the expedition was planning on at Everest. His general health, physique and strength partially made up for this, and soon after the expedition got on its way it became clear that Sandy's practical engineering skill was invaluable, fixing everything from Mallory's bed to the oxygen apparatus that was constantly giving them trouble.

He not only fixed what was broken, but also managed to improve on the design of the oxygen apparatus. He saw that by turning the oxygen cylinders the other way around in the carrying frame a lot of awkward piping could be done away with, thereby lightening the load by 2 kilograms.

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine

Since the events of the 1924 expedition to Mount Everest there has been a lot of speculation on why Mallory made the June 8 attempt with Sandy and not one of the other members of the team. It will always remain speculation, but there seem to be a number of reasons that could be brought up for his choice.

Based on the premise that Mallory decided on his companion for that last attempt on the spot, it is argued that he took Sandy for his expertise with the oxygen apparatus, as Mallory at the time of the attempt on June 8 was reasonably convinced that summitting depended on extra oxygen. This had not been the case previously, as Mallory initially thought the use of extra oxygen was unsporting and would detract from the achievement of reaching the summit of Everest. However, time was running out on the 1924 expedition. The weather had been unfriendly to say the least, the first two attempts to establish higher camps in preparation for an assault on the summit had been foiled by bad weather.

The failed second attempt even necessitated a harrowing rescue of a group of porters by Edward Felix Norton, Theodore Howard Somervell and Mallory, which later contributed to the failure of Norton and Somervell to reach the summit on their first good weather attempt, simply due to their exhaustion by the events of previous days. Before Norton and Somervell made this attempt, Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce2 had gone up for their first reasonable weather attempt. Bruce and Mallory were thwarted by the fact that their porters were unable to go up far enough to establish a camp within summit distance, so they never got to trying for the summit. Norton and Somervell did, but had to turn back some 300 meters from the summit due to their overall exhaustion.

So this was the situation that faced Mallory at the start of June 1924. The expedition had arrived in the higher regions of the mountain at the start of May and had not been able to reach the summit. Time was running out, for the monsoon would soon be rolling in from the south, promising to bring with it bad weather that would force the expedition off the mountain. But those first few days of June 1924 the weather had seemed to settle down, and Norton and Somervell had even had a real chance of going for the top. This spell of calmer weather prompted Mallory to try for the summit one last time.

As Sir Francis Younghusband puts it in his book The Epic of Mount Everest:

And so probably would Mallory [agree that it would be better to get to the final pyramid without oxygen than to the top with it]. But Mallory had this to consider – that Norton and Somervell would be doing the very utmost that the present Expedition could do without oxygen. And, if they did not succeed, then one last attempt should be made – this time with oxygen. He therefore, as was his wont, threw his whole soul into the arrangements for an oxygen attempt. And he chose for his companion Irvine, not Odell, because Irvine had faith in the use of oxygen which Odell had not.

Younghusband is clearly of the opinion that Mallory decided to partner with Sandy on that last attempt on the spot, and mostly based on the fact that Sandy was the only one that knew how to keep the temperamental oxygen apparatus in check. However, during the preparations done in England Mallory and Sandy had been designated as one 'climbing team', which Mallory further demonstrates by making it his business to get to know Sandy during their trip from England to Darjeeling in India, where the team would assemble.

Younghusband states it thus:

And a third reason, and perhaps important as any, was that Irvine had originally been allotted to him to form one of the pairs for the ascent, and Mallory had instilled him with his ideas, and deliberately worked to make the two into a true pair, and create a keen esprit de pair.

Mallory himself also alludes to his partnering with Sandy in a letter he sends to his mother from Tibet:

".. a very fine fellow, [who] has been doing excellently up to date, and should prove a splendid companion on the mountain. I should think the Birkenhead News -- is it? -- ought to have something to say if he and I reach the top together."3

Mallory did not partner with Sandy on his earlier attempt, because Sandy was not at all doing well when the first attempts were made on the summit. He had been suffering from diarrhea, breathing difficulties, and a sore throat. Moreover, due to his fair complexion, the sun and wind on the North Col had not been kind to him, the wind flaying his sunburnt skin raw and causing him some discomfort. On the eve of Mallory's last attempt Sandy was still suffering from all these ailments, but his decision to climb using extra oxygen probably prompted Mallory to ask Sandy instead of Odell or one of the others, who were also having their own difficulties. On top of that, Sandy was by that time the only one who had not been exerted by previous attempts for the summit, and would therefore probably have more in reserve than the others.

So on June 6, 1924 it is Mallory and Sandy who head up for Camp V, accompanied by eight porters. They send four of the porters back that same evening with letters to the effect that all had gone well and that next morning they would continue up to Camp VI assisted by the remaining four porters. And indeed the next day Mallory and Sandy reach Camp VI, the last camp before the summit of Mount Everest. Again, the porters are sent back to the previous camp with a note for Odell stating that the weather was perfect and that the oxygen apparatus was a nasty load for climbing.


Of what happened after that we know little. Owing to some defect in the oxygen apparatus which required adjustment, or from some other cause, their start must have been late, for when Odell, following in rear, caught sight of them it was 12.50 p.m. and they were then only at the second rock step which, according to Mallory’s schedule, they should have reached at 8 a.m. at latest. And the day had not turned out so fine as the previous evening had promised. There was much mist about the mountain. It might have been finer up where Mallory and Irvine were, for Odell looking up from below did notice that the upper part of the mist was luminous. But there was sufficient cloud about to prevent Odell from keeping in touch with the two climbers; and through the drifting mists he had only a single glimpse of them again.

As he reached the top of a little crag, at about 26,000 feet, there was a sudden clearing above him. The clouds parted. The whole summit ridge and final pyramid was unveiled. And far away on a snow slope he noticed a tiny object moving and approach the rock step. A second object followed. And then the first climbed to the top of the step. As he stood intently watching this dramatic appearance the scene became enveloped in cloud once more. And this was the last that was ever seen of Mallory and Irvine. Beyond that all is mystery.

Well, not quite. In 1999 the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition went to Mount Everest to search for the body of Andrew Irvine. During a Chinese expedition in 1975 one Chinese climber, Wang Hungbao, reported having seen a body a small distance from their camp that was dressed in English pre-war mountaineering clothes. This was one of the leads that the expedition used in 1999 to pinpoint their search area.

On Saturday May 1, 1999 the search team found a body4 nearly outside of their designated search area. The clothing fit what they were looking for; the hobnailed boots the person had been wearing a dead giveaway. The body had been remarkably well preserved by the cold and dry weather on Mount Everest.

When the assembled searchers examined the body, they made a chilling discovery. The body they had found was not that of Sandy, who they all were expecting to find, but that of George Mallory, the climbing legend himself. This news was made known to the world the following day, Sunday, May 2, 1999 and was picked up by press around the globe, once again fuelling the mystery that surrounds the 1924 Everest Expedition.

Two years later, in 2001, another Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition went to the mountain to search for the body that the Chinese climber had seen in 1975. The description he had given of the stance of the body was totally different from what the expedition had found the body of Mallory in, in 1999. The conclusion drawn from this, combined with the fact that the body of Mallory was actually found outside of the search area the team was trying to cover in 1999, was that the body seen in 1975 had to be that of Sandy. So the mystery continues.

. ..... . .

1 In the summer of 1914 he was first called 'Sandy', or 'Sandy Andy', by his cousins because of his blond hair and fair complexion
2 Geoffrey Bruce was the cousin of the overall leader General Charles Bruce
3 Mallory's family also lived in Birkenhead
4 More than a few in fact, but none but one with clothing that fit the 1924 era

. ..... . .

Fearless on Everest - The quest for Sandy Irvine; Julie Summers, 2000 - about the book Fearless on Everest by Julie Summers, great-niece of Andrew Irvine

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