Left: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine © RGS/The Sandy Irvine Trust, from "Ghosts of Everest" ; Right: 1924 North Face locations © Pete Poston
|Welcome to The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate|
|| Home | Links | Expeditions| Societies | Geology | History |
| Photoanalysis | Routes & Maps | Video & Books | Contact Me |
"I'm quite doubtful if I shall be fit enough. But again I wonder if the monsoon will give us a chance. I don't want to get caught, but our three-day scheme from the Chang La will give the monsoon a good chance. We shall be going up again the day after tomorrow. Six days to the top from this camp!"
--from George Mallory's last letter to his wife prior to disappearing on Mt. Everest with his partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine in 1924
"My face is in perfect agony. Have prepared two oxygen apparatus for our start tomorrow morning".
- Sandy Irvine's last diary entry
Mallory’s Watch - does it really point to 12:50 PM?
This article is the result of conversations with watch expert David Boettcher, a watch collector and historian who is particularly interested in the type of watch Mallory wore – a Borgel
Boettcher is a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society (AHS), the American National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) and an Associate Member of the British Horological Institute (BHI). You can visit Boettcher’s web site at www.vintagewatchstraps.com for further information on his watch research.
I became interested in Boettcher’s work while researching Jochen Hemmleb’s claim that the hands of Mallory’s watch point to a very significant time in the Mallory and Irvine saga, 12:50 PM.
A Surprising Claim about Mallory’s Watch
(a) Borgel’s “military” watch (© David Boettcher)
In his 2009 book Tatort Mount Everest: Der Fall Mallory, Jochen Hemmleb has updated his previous book about the 2001 Mallory and Irvine Search Expedition, Detectives on Everest, with “neue Fakten und Hintergründe”.
There’s some interesting new material here, including a new interview with Xu Jing, the Deputy Leader of the Chinese 1960 expedition, who claims seeing an old English body at 8400 meters that could only be Irvine’s.
I think the most earth-shattering claim Hemmleb makes in his book, is that Mallory’s watch stopped at 12:50 PM, the time of Odell’s apocryphal sighting of the two ascending a “prominent” rock step, high up on the cloud-wreathed summit ridge of Mount Everest. Hemmleb writes…
This is astonishing! Odell always claimed to his dying day that he saw Mallory and Irvine on the 2nd Step, so did climbing the Step also damage the watch, causing it to stop at the same time?
Charles Lind wrote in his Boardman-Tasker award-winning book “An Afterclap of Fate: Mallory on Everest”, that maybe Mallory broke the watch while climbing the 2nd Step off-width because Mallory wore his watch on his left wrist, with the face pointing inwards rather than outwards.
Hemmleb clearly favors this theory, but just how likely is this new interpretation?
First of all, you have to believe that Mallory and his highly inexperienced climbing partner Sandy Irvine could have climbed the sheer, icy cliffs of the 2nd Step in about five minutes as Odell claims.
Perhaps they did. After Anker and Houlding’s free ascent in 2007, it’s now known that the route goes at 5.9, the “highest boulder problem in the world”, as Houlding has wryly commented. So maybe the pair could have done it, although it would have been at the very limit of Mallory’s known technical abilities (let alone Irvine’s).
So did Mallory break his watch at 12:50 PM on June 8, 1924 while, despite all the odds, climbing the formidable 2nd Step?
The answer lies in the construction and physical condition of Mallory’s watch.
The Construction of Mallory’s Watch
Watch parts - A: screw case in one piece, B: watch mechanism, C: externally threaded carrier ring, D and D’: the winding stem is split into an inner and outer stem, E: pendant, F: The bezel, G: crystal press fitted onto the outer end of the carrier ring, H: dial and hands
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a watchmaker named François Borgel opened business in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1891 Borgel patented a watch where the mechanism could be screwed into the case, and the design bears his name today, the Borgel Case.
After viewing photographs of Mallory's watch furnished by the Royal Geographical Society, David Boettcher was able to verify that it is a Borgel watch, which is known to have been used by British officers, such as Mallory, during The Great War.
Borgel designed his watches to be impervious to dust and water (see Figure 2). When the watch mechanism is screwed into the watch body, it creates a tight, water-resistant seal. However, the crystal of Mallory’s watch was missing when it was found in his pocket, and the hands were broken.
It seems that the crystal was lost or broken some time before Mallory’s fatal accident, and he removed the watch from his wrist and put it into his pocket for safe keeping. Because of this, even a Borgel case wouldn’t keep the elements out - the watch case was completely open at the front due to the loss of the crystal - and the state of preservation of the movement of Mallory’s watch is quite remarkable.
The crystals used in Borgel watches were made either of an unbreakable acrylic, or of mineral glass. Acrylic crystals are snapped into place and have a low profile, while glass crystals are thicker and protrude more from the bezel. An acrylic crystal is quite hard, although not impossible, to dislodge, but because of its protruding shoulder it is very easy for a glass crystal to pop out upon even a light impact at the “wrong” angle.
The Physical Condition of Mallory’s Watch
The watch shows signs of being very well worn as indicated by the wear on the splines of the winding crown. The bezel – which is made out of relatively soft Sterling silver, appears to be completely undamaged.
The leather of the wrist strap has that well-worn appearance to it, as well, appearing soft and supple after years of constant use.
Mallory’s watch probably had luminous radium paint on the numerals, interestingly enough, allowing it to be easily read in the dark pre-dawn hours on the frozen North Face of Everest.
Some of this paint has washed out of the numerals, mixed with the rusting on the face of the watch. See my article “Why the Camera is Not Doomed to Destruction!” for more on the rusting of Mallory and Irvine artifacts, and the implications concerning the state of preservation of Irvine’s camera.
The minute hand was missing from Mallory’s watch when found in his pocket. Only the second hand remains after the hour hand was dislodged during transport down the mountain. A recent photo of the watch taken at the RGS, shows that the second hand has been removed, as well as the stubs of the hands, most likely for preservation reasons.
The dial face of the watch is coated with white enamel, and along with the black outlines of the numbers, deposited onto a thin copper plate. Then the numerals were filled with the radium paint, resulting in a handsome brown appearance contrasting with the white background.
After firing, these enamel dials are impervious to ageing or fading. They are, however, extremely fragile and susceptible to cracking. Watches as old as Mallory’s watch frequently show hairline cracks from simple aging.
So it was a great surprise to Boettcher that there were no cracks on the face of Mallory’s watch.
A. The observed damage is not consistent with a violent impact
(a) The bottom part of the yellow area (labeled F) is the location of a parallel set of grooves (© David Boettcher), (b) The bezel (© Rick Reanier/Jochen Hemmleb)
Central to Hemmleb’s theory of what happened to Mallory and Irvine is that the watch was damaged and stopped running at 12:50 PM while climbing the Second Step off-width.
However, any forcible breaking inwards of the crystal, such as a due to strong jarring while climbing on rock, would certainly have resulted in observable damage to the bezel of the watch. But in photographs provided by Hemmleb, none is observed beyond normal wear and tear.
There are a set of parallel grooves on the side of the bezel, suggesting the type of scratching damage that you would expect while grinding the watch against rock.
But as shown in the Figure 3 above, these grooves are actually found between the case and the screw-in watch mechanism, and would not have been exposed to the surface at all. They are, in fact, used in the assembly of the watch.
Scratch that theory! :)
B. Would the watch have stopped from an impact?
Nor would the loss or damage to the hands have prevented the watch from ticking away until the inherent drag inside the mechanism eventually caused it to stop (the spring can actually still have some power in it).
The hour and minute hands are push fitted onto their pivots, and there is nothing apart from friction to stop them from rotating on these pivots. So when the stubs were removed, the watch amazingly started ticking again.
Photographs of the interior of the watch demonstrate the surprisingly pristine condition of the watch mechanism, including the delicate spring. This is a testament to the weather-resistance Borgel designed into his new, patented watch design.
C. Does the watch really point to 12:50 PM?
Figure 4: (photos © Thom Pollard and © Rick Reanier/Jochen Hemmleb)
(a) Pollard’s photo; the hour hand is pointing to about 1:30,
As far as I can tell, it does not.
In the Mallory and Irvine section of his webpage, Hemmleb provides a photograph of the watch as proof of his claim that the hands on the watch point to about 12:52 PM – see Figure 4(c). But does the evidence Hemmleb provided support this?
A close-up of the hour hand stub is shown in Figure 4(b) - it can easily be seen that the hour hand stub (red) is actually pointing to about a quarter after 12, not the “bit before one o'clock” that Hemmleb claims!
How could Hemmleb have made such a mistake? Is it related to the examination of the watch? No, this can’t be true. To examine the interior of the watch, the stubs had to be removed, so the photo of the stubs was taken prior to their removal. There’s no chance that we are looking at a reassembled watch – you would photograph the watch before analysis in order to preserve documentation of the process.
When combined with the minute hand stub, the watch reads the nonsensical time of about 10 minutes to a quarter after 12. Perhaps this would make sense in the book Alice in Wonderland, but certainly not here!
Regarding the minute hand, I agree with Hemmleb that it points to about 10-till. There are no rust stains pointing to that time, however, but there is significant rusting at about 25 to 30 minutes after the hour. This must be the result of rust and numeral paint flowing downwards from the watch while contained within Mallory’s pocket.
Figure 5: (a) close up of the rust mark linear features, and (b) rust marks between 1 and 2, with faint lineations (© Rick Reanier/Jochen Hemmleb)
Are the rust marks on the face of the dial consistent with a 12:50 PM time? – see Figure 5. Two faint lineations can be seen on the watch face. One of them is at the 1 o’clock position, and the other faint lineation is at about 2 o’clock.
What’s interesting about these lineations is that they don’t match the shape of the hour hand since it has an oblong shape – Figure 6 below. If anything, the lines match the minute hand instead, since it is longer and has straight edges.
Figure 6: “Dimier Frerès" Borgel and a Borgel military watch (© David Boettcher)
It can also be seen in Figure 6, that the hour hand of the watch barely touches the numerals, and it ends in a prominent pointer that just covers the numerals. The faint lineations visible are bracketing the 1 and 2 positions, and more closely match the position of the hour hand in the Pollard photo.
Is this evidence that the minute hand covered the hour hand at some time in the past?
We have now entered the realm of pure speculation. But it's fun.
A. Is there any evidence of hand movements over time?
Before speculating about any possible movement of the hands, keep in mind that the stubs were rusted together when found. Any theory on hand motion by the mechanism would most likely be pre-rusting. Any post-rusting movement is most likely due to a physical cause of the motion, but…..
There is one possibility for post-rusting movement by the mechanism – while welded together the hands became loose from their pivots.
There is definitely photographic documentation that at the humble second hand has moved between recovery on the mountain and prior to analysis the following summer - see Figure 4(a) and (c). Notice that in the Pollard photo the second hand is in an almost vertical position, while in Hemmleb’s photo it’s pointing at about 12-13 minutes after the hour.
Interestingly, when you look at the photo of the watch in “Ghosts of Everest”, p. 161, published in 1999, the second hand is in an intermediate position between the two. I can understand some changes in the hand position due to physical jostling after recovery, but why are the changes so systematic?
As for the minute hand, does the paint preserved at 8, 9, and 10 o’clock demonstrate that a sporadically moving minute hand, either through movement of the mechanism or from physical forces acting on Mallory over time, could have helped protect part of the numerals? Since Mallory had “settled” or flattened into the ground over time, would these movements have influenced any movement of the watch hands post-mortem?
What about the hour hand? Does the difference in hour hand positions between the Pollard and Hemmleb photos indicate movement since recovery?
How likely is this? I have to admit to my own doubts (that’s why this is a speculations section!), but the watch hands were only pressure-fit onto their pivots. As pointed out previously, even if welded together by rust, maybe the hands disengaged from their pivots, and then moved simultaneously while being carried down the mountain after discovery by Thom Pollard.
If it’s true that the hour hand has moved or been displaced since discovery, then based on the hour hand shift from the1:30 position to about 12:15, and matching the hour hand to the rust stains, the watch would actually have been reading about 5 minutes to 2.
B. Are the hands related to the numerals with remaining paint?
Figure 6(a) and (b) are a Dimier Frerès" Borgel and a Borgel military watch respectively (again, the Borgel military watch is like the one that Mallory wore). The reason why I’m comparing them I wonder if there’s a relationship between the hands and the numerals where the paint underneath is preserved.
Figure 7: close up of the numerals that still have paint in them
The numerals on the dial that have not been completely washed off are the 1, 2, and parts of the 8, 9 and 10 – see Figure 7 above. To me, the location of the hour hand, in between the 1 and 2 according to the Pollard photo, is more than coincidental. So even though the hour hand barely touches the numeral, there must be an interaction between the two.
Especially since we’ve already seen from the rust stain evidence that at one time, the minute hand may have been covering the hour hand. My theory, therefore, is that these hands are responsible for the preservation of the numerals below by preventing moisture from completely covering the watch face. The minute hand bore the brunt of the rusting, ultimately resulting in the deterioration of the hands instead of completely washing off the pigment below.
In addition, I don’t know whether or not the minute hand is mounted on the pivot above or below the hour hand, but I’m not sure it really matters here.
A reasonable explanation of what happened to Mallory’s watch
OK, no more speculations.
In an earlier article by Richard McQuet and me on Irvine’s modified oxygen apparatus, it was noted that the control arm had a place for a watch so the climber could judge his climbing speed, and that watches were furnished to the expedition for this purpose.
This clearly wasn’t done in Mallory’s case; he simply relied on his own personal watch strapped to his wrist. Based on the well-worn appearance of the watch, it seems likely that Mallory wore it during the Great War through all three of his Everest expeditions.
A reasonable possibility is that the watch was gently bumped at just the right angle during the climb, catching the crystal on the edge as described previously, resulting in the crystal zinging out and lost forever. When Mallory noticed it, where else would he put the watch than in his pocket?
Regardless of when the watch put into his pocket, it should be no surprise that the minute hand is missing without the protection of the crystal. It’s true that the minute hand was not found in the pocket, but given the extent of rusting of the hour and minute hands, it would not be a surprise if it’s an unnoticeable little tiny, rusty flake. It’s probably still there.
Hemmleb makes the comment that while climbing, Mallory’s bulky gloves would make it unlikely that the watch would be removed until a resting place could be reached. I agree with this this, but not after climbing the 2nd Step!
I can think of two scenarios that could have caused the crystal to pop out. It might have been something as simple as changing oxygen bottles below the 1st Step, a resting spot where the gloves could be easily taken off and the watch removed.
Another explanation is because he wore the watch facing inwards (borrowing from Charles Lind), a simple bump from the ice ax might have dislodged it. This could even have happened a day or two before while climbing up to Camp VI. There are many, many possibilities.
In my opinion, based on the nonsensical time the stubs point, you can't draw any conclusions from the watch's time, nor is there any evidence of damage to the bezel or dial that demonstrates a climbing act caused the crystal to pop out in the 2nd Step offwidth.
Besides – both the Chinese in 1960 and Conrad Anker in 2007 climbed the 2nd Step headwall by traversing out across the face, not the off-width. So it’s probable that Mallory, had he actually come to grips with the 2nd Step, would have opted for the same route.
But if for some reason Hemmleb’s theory is correct, then there is a wonderful conclusion that can’t be denied.
We can forever put an end to any doubt that Odell caught a glimpse of the climbers on a prominent step high on the NE Ridge, as he so vigorously maintained throughout his long life.
If only the watch could prove that once and for all.
Many thanks to David Boettcher for editorial suggestions and fact-checking. J. Hemmleb is acknowledged for furnishing unpublished images of the watch, necessary for others to verify his extraordinary claims.
1. “François Borgel, Louisa Borgel, the Taubert Family: Watch Case Makers of Geneva”, by David Boettcher, http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/borgel.html
2. “Mallory & Irvine: Oxygen”, by Richard McQuet and Pete Poston, http://www.wou.edu/las/physci/poston/everest/1924Oxygen.pdf
Harvey V. Lankford, MD, has written a paper documenting the origin of the term "Glacier Lassitude" as a diagnosis for the debilitating effect of altitude as experienced by members of the early British Everest expeditions.
My new theory about Mallory and Irvine's last climb, where I believe Odell's sighting was erroneous, and have them taking the Couloir route instead.
Warwick Pryce is a new researcher who has arrived on the scene, and he has a new theory about how Andrew Irvine could have been the first person to stand on the top of the world.
Wim Kohsiek has a new interpretation of what Mallory's altimeter can tell us based on scientific applications of meterology.
Mallory and Irvine researcher Wim Kohsiek has two new thought-provoking articles about Mallory's watch and Irvine's location:
1924 Oxygen by Richard McQuet and Pete Poston
Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate Google Earth Tour - my own ideas in 3-D with audio!
Little Known Free-Solo Ascent of the Second Step in 2001 by Theo Fritsche - I should never have written this - Anker and Houlding deserve credit for the first free ascent
Criticisms of the 2004 EverestNews.com search for Irvine --
Conrad Anker's comments on the unlikeliness of a direct route up the prow of the 2nd Step
Articles about my heroes Walter Bonatti and Chris Bonington --
Celebrating my 50th birthday on pitch 3 of Prodigal Son, Zion National Park, Utah
In my free time, I love to photograph and hike the spectacular redrock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau - please visit my Colorado Plateau Homepage.
And for most of my life I've been fascinated with the history, people, and culture of the Himalayas and Karakoram - browse my Mount Everest Trek (1996), Overland Journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa (2000), and K2 Base Camp Trek (2007) webpages.
As for my employment, I work for Western Oregon University where I have been a Professor of Chemistry for the last 20 years. My research interests are in applications of Laser Raman Spectroscopy to such diverse fields as Nanotechnology, Analytical Chemistry, and even a bit of Achaeology through the study of rock art pigments found in the Colorado Plateau. You can access my academic webpage here.