Sandy Irvine

Aged just 22, Andrew (‘Sandy’) Irvine disappeared somewhere near the summit of Everest almost 100 years ago.  The story of how he came to be there is one of skill, athleticism and fascinating coincidence.

Andrew (‘Sandy’) Irvine was 17 years old when he decided, on a whim, to ride his motorbike up the Carneddau mountains of North Wales.  He and his family were on their annual summer holiday, staying in a cottage in the coastal village of Llanfairfechan.  While his parents, sister and four brothers had travelled there by train from their home in Birkenhead, Sandy had motored down in his prized possession, a Clyno motorcycle complete with sidecar. 

A strong and talented athlete, only a few weeks previously Sandy had helped Shrewsbury School’s rowing crew to snatch the Elsenham Cup away from their Oxford rivals in the Henley ‘Peace Regatta’ of 1919.  His high spirits now needed another challenge, and motoring over the Carneddau, a string of rounded peaks rising to nearly 3,500 feet, seemed like an excellent solution.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one had attempted it before.

Carneddau from Elidir Fawr

Sandy’s motorbike coped well with the rough terrain, and he was trundling towards the top of Foel Grach when he met a couple of walkers.  He politely enquired whether he was heading in the right direction for Llanfairfechan, and they confirmed that he was.  No names were exchanged, and Sandy therefore had no idea that he had just met Noel Odell and his wife, Mona.  A geologist and an experienced climber, Noel would later play a major role in Sandy’s life.

Ridge leading to Carnedd Dafydd, Carneddau

A local newspaper got wind of Sandy’s unorthodox ascent and published a report about it:  ‘Mr Andrew Irvine, son of Mr Ferguson Irvine, of Liverpool, who is staying at Gladys Cottage, Llanfairfechan, has ridden a motor-cycle to the top of Foel Grach, which is 3,000 ft high.  There is hardly any track up the mountain which is very steep.’  Although Sandy was modest by nature, something tickled his sense of humour so he cut out the report and put it in his wallet.

In March 1923, Sandy and Odell’s paths crossed again, but neither had any recollection of their first meeting.  As a student at Merton College, Sandy was now a member of Oxford University’s rowing crew, and he was celebrating their victory over Cambridge in the Boat Race.  Sandy’s name had been recommended to Noel Odell, who was looking for people to join a scientific expedition to Spitsbergen.  Having watched the Boat Race, Odell invited Sandy for a spell of rock climbing in North Wales, and was impressed by his potential;  within a couple of months Sandy was heading for Spitsbergen, where he partnered Odell on sledging journeys and made his first attempts at skiing. 

The survey work was physically demanding, leading them across treacherous fields of glacial crevasses and up to the snowy peaks of 5,500-foot mountains.  Sandy was both cheery and resourceful, making running repairs to broken sledges and helping to pull them for long hours in appalling conditions.  Sitting out a storm one evening in the shelter of their tent, the team members started sharing entertaining anecdotes.  Odell recalled a time when he was walking in the Carneddau and some crazy young man on a motorbike rolled up and asked for directions.  Astonished and delighted, Sandy got out his wallet and exhibited the newspaper cutting.  Their sudden recognition turned into uncontrolled laughter. 

This happy connection had far-reaching consequences.  Odell had been elected to join the British Mount Everest Expedition of 1924, and Sandy, whose obsession with machines extended to the newly-invented breathing apparatus for high altitudes, questioned him eagerly about the equipment.  Odell quickly realised that Sandy would make a great addition to the team:  despite his lack of mountaineering experience, he was strong, determined, good-humoured, and crucially he had an aptitude for fixing and improving all kinds of mechanisms, no matter how complex. 

Everest's North Face

Sandy’s formal invitation to join the Everest team, issued by the Mount Everest Committee, had him ‘walking on metaphorical air’, as he confided to a friend;  but it also raised a few questions about his eligibility.  After all, he was still only 21, and his climbing abilities had been tested only briefly.  His reputation as an athlete, however, had preceded him:  George Mallory, the leader of the climbing team, wrote that ‘Irvine represents our attempt to get one superman, though lack of experience is against him.’

Mallory, on the other hand, was one of the most experienced Himalayan climbers of his era:  he had taken part in the British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921, which mapped out a possible route to the summit;  and on the British Mount Everest Expedition of 1922 he had been turned back by the tragic loss of seven porters in an avalanche.  On this, his third attempt, he could not help but feel the weight of expectation, not only from his friends in the climbing world but from the entire country.

On the slopes of Everest in May 1924, Sandy found himself dealing almost constantly with faulty sets of breathing apparatus, which were prone to leak and break down at crucial moments.  Despite suffering from sunburn and the debilitating effects of altitude, he mended everything from cameras to candlesticks;  he helped to shift heavy loads of supplies from one camp to the next, and used his skills to build a 60-foot rope ladder up to the North Col.  

The first climbing team to attempt the summit were George Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce, and the second consisted of Edward Norton and Howard Somervell.  Both attempts were abandoned, the latter two only just escaping with their lives.  None of the climbers had taken bottled oxygen. 

The monsoon was fast approaching, and Mallory, as the lead climber, knew that time was slipping through his hands.  He decided to make a third and final attempt, with oxygen this time, and he chose Sandy as his partner.  Early on the morning of 8th June, Mallory left a written note for Odell to find later, apologising for the mess inside their tent and concluding with a perfectly British remark:  ‘Perfect weather for the job.’ 

That afternoon, Odell had a fleeting view of their distant figures, high on the skyline of the North-east Ridge.  They appeared to be making steady progress towards the summit.  It was the last time they were ever seen alive.

With no communication between camps, the remaining climbers simply had to wait and scan the mountain with telescopes.  As hours and then a night passed with no sign of Mallory and Irvine, eagerness turned to anxiety.  On two consecutive days, Odell went up to their highest camp and scouted about for them, to no avail.  He was forced to conclude that they were not coming back.

The awful news had to be shared, first with Mallory and Irvine’s families and then with the wider world.  With heavy hearts, the remaining climbers prepared to trek down from the mountain.  Odell sorted through the missing men’s personal possessions.  Among the items he returned to Sandy’s parents were his passport, a pressure kettle which he’d taken in the hope of making better tea, and his wallet, still containing the newspaper cutting about his motorbike escapade in the Carneddau. 

In the autumn of 1924, Noel Odell shared his experiences in a series of talks to RSGS audiences.  He recalled those final sad hours and conjectured about the possibility that Mallory and Irvine might have reached the summit of Everest - a mystery which still provokes debate, and may never be solved.  Odell was awarded the RSGS Livingstone Medal in 1944.    

On 2nd September, RSGS is holding an ‘Everest 70’ Discovery Day, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.   On display will be original maps, documents and images relating to a number of Everest expeditions.  Visitors will also hear first-hand experiences of Everest from climber and film-maker Keith Partridge.  More information and tickets are available from Eventbrite

Quotes and reference:


Julie Summers, ‘Fearless on Everest:  The Quest for Sandy Irvine’ (2000)

Peter and Leni Gillman, ‘The Wildest Dream:  George Mallory - The Biography of an Everest Hero’ (2000)

Newspaper cuttings in RSGS archives