Irvine and Mallory vs. Norgay and Hillary

[This is part of the current draft, based upon the current non-controversy about who might have made the first successful attempt at the summit of Sagarmāthā (aka. Mt. Everest), which fits in nicely, I think, with the material of my current chapter.]

George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine made an attempt to reach the summit of Sagarmāthā (aka. Mt. Everest). They were last seen within several hundred metres of the summit on June the 8th, 1924 at about 1pm. Ever since, many historians and mountain-climbers have become obsessed with finding the remains of these two British mountain-climbers in the hope that amongst there personal effects will be found evidence that they successfully reached the summit before their demises.

The only fact of the matter is that Mallory and Irving were sighted at 1pm, several hundred metres from the summit. The various theories, which range from Mallory making the summit alone with Irvine’s last air-bottle to both Mallory and Irvine making the summit together, are, at best, intellectual fancies. Yet, the proponents of these theories present them as explanations for why it is that Irvine and Mallory never returned to their base camp.

The various explanations of Irvine and Mallory’s demises are, at best, Inferences to Any Old Explanation. We do not know that they reached the summit and we do not know what happened to them; there are a host of other candidate explanations for their demises, some of which are much more probable than the explanations of their demise which include a successful attempt at the summit.

The explanatory hypothesis that is used with respect to these explanations is something like the claim that Irvine and Mallory did not return to their base camp because they successfully reached the summit and then died of oxygen deprivation and exposure on the descent; another, simpler and more probable explanatory hypothesis is that they died of oxygen deprivation and exposure during their ascent. This is a much more worthwhile contender, as an explanatory hypothesis, than the more complex claim that they succeeded in their ascent and then died. Whilst the explanatory hypothesis does entail its conclusion it is not a particularly plausible explanatory hypothesis, given not only the technology of the time but also the fact that the mostly likely pathway Irvine and Mallory would have taken to the summit is now considered to be a much more dangerous traverse than the latterly discovered route subsequently taken by Norgay and Hillary; it is unlikely, given by what we now know, that Irvine and Mallory were successful in their ascent. These same considerations also make the claim that Irvine and Mallory were successful in their ascent implausible also means the explanatory hypothesis should be considered unlikely.

Now, what makes these various theories interesting is that they are often used to refute the claim that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first people to reach the summit of Sagarmāthā. The candidate explanation that supports the claim that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit first is used to render the official story, that Norgay and Hillary were first, implausible, which is problematic when we consider just how problematic this particular candidate explanation is.

2 thoughts on “Irvine and Mallory vs. Norgay and Hillary

  1. I’m coming at you as an enthusiastic amateur here, so I’m probably not the intended audience. But in the interest of being helpful: I was with you for the whole thing, with only one minor quibble.

    I particularly liked the third paragraph. The first time I heard (read?) you use the term ‘Inference to Any Old Explanation’ I thought it was a bit of a mouthful. Now that I’ve seen it in use, I can see how it p-lays out. I was surprised how well it works.

    My quibble is with the final sentence:

    The candidate explanation that supports the claim that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit first is used to render the official story, that Norgay and Hillary were first, implausible, which is problematic when we consider just how problematic this particular candidate explanation is.

    If I wanted to be cruel, I would exaggerate and say that Kant’s style of writing is worse, but not by much. ^_^

    But I don’t want to be a big meany, so sans exaggeration: I had to read that last sentence four or five times before I could parse it successfully. The content of the sentence is relevant and just the right amount of cheeky – it’s just that extracting that content made my brain melt a little.

    • Thanks for the comment, Daniel. I can see where you’re coming from; it is pretty clumsy. Luckily, given that the piece is in a draft format at the moment, I can salvage the situation before it goes on to cause headaches for too many others.

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