Friday, 2 December 2016

Sandy Irvine: Oxford Blue on Everest

Ever since the mountain was first attacked in 1922 Everest has taken its toll of human lives. Of course everyone interested in the history of Himalayan climbing knows that the summit bid made by Mallory and Irvine on June 8th 1924 ended in disaster. I should expect an educated young climber to be able to tell me something about Mallory: I should be astonished if any information were forthcoming about Irvine. Not so now that the Irvine diaries and his biography have been published. Before it would hardly have been wrong to call Irvine "the unknown Everester". Now on Everest's roll of honour he can occupy the place he deserves. With hindsight one can see that the years between 1919 and 1925 were not the best of times to launch attempts to climb Everest.The climbing world of those days was very small and the number of experienced mountaineers of the right age had been heavily cut down by the blood bath of the 1914-18 war.

Passages by sea made it necessary for a man to get leave of six to eight months from his home and many ‘possibles’ could not do this, nor could they have afforded it had the leave been given. Thus the 1924 expedition started out with only eight 1953 there were 14. about high altitude climbing we then had almost everything to learn; as an example, i remember Captain Farrah saying to me in 1920 that he thought that four climbers on an expedition would be a big enough team to make an effective dash for the top.

One had to admit that the pioneer climbs on Everest had two major results. first,they set foot on great controversy about the use of oxygen on high altitude climbs. At first, most mountaineers were against it. this certainly applies to the climber on the 1922 and 1924 expeditions.

Irvine's former home in Birkenhead.After falling into dereliction it has since been restored and converted into apartments

in 1922 Finch was the chief advocate of oxygen but he was a voice crying in the wilderness; none of the experienced mountaineers wanted to go with him but Geoffrey Bruce did not mind because he was a mountaineer and was game for adventure. secondly, there was an undoubted influence of Everest on expanding the interest in climbing; you might almost say, it was the spark which set the world alight. the selection committee in 1923 were in two minds about including Irvine on the team for 1924. some held the view that he was too young. But Irvine’s supporters had three strong argument in his favour.

First he was a very fine athlete of well proven stamina and splendid strength. Secondly: Noel Odell had been greatly impressed in Spitsbergen (August 1923) with his cheerful devotion to the work of the sledge journey and the dogged determination with which he faced its problems. Odell’s views carried the weight with the pundits in London. Then....and most important of all..Irvine was the right man to be in charge of the oxygen equipment. He was a born engineer and had good workshop experience. he had a keen eye for the solution of practical problems and very skillful hands. None of the others could have done what he did.

The homeland of the Irvine clan in times long past had been in the Scottish lowlands, not far north of the English Border. In the past, one of them had walked south to Liverpool to start a small commercial enterprise. Slowly that business grew. By the time Sandy came on the scene, the family were established in moderate affluence in a nice house in Birkenhead. the sons were sent to Shrewsbury, a school which at the start of the century had on its staff, the best rowing coach in England. When he took up residence in Merton, Oxford in January 1922, Sandy was immediately given a place in the university crew. He was a very fine oarsman indeed.

The speed with which sandy mastered the techniques of racing on skis was to some extent due to his considerable experience of ordinary ski running in Norway and Spitsbergen in 1923. As a mountaineer he was clearly competent above the average for a man of limited experience-the assumption that he had done no previous climbing is quite wrong.

Chester Cathedral Memorial window.Dedicated to its Cheshire born heroes.

At the end of a long life of devotion to the mountains, I look back on so much that has been thrilling and delightful, (though there have been incidents that have given me grief and pain) The days of my active climbing are now long passed. Yet now, in old age, comes a pleasure I never anticipated; the privilege of doing something for the mountain world. For I have revived the memory of an Everester who must not be forgotten. If I may borrow the words from Holy Writ: Andrew Irvine ‘was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’.

Herbert Carr: First published in Climber: December 1979