It’s easy to fantasize about explorers of the past. The ones who mapped continents, searched for the source of the Nile, plumbed the deepest trenches, and trekked the most unreachable heights fill us with a sense of wonder and awe. The desire to see something new has driven human exploration since the beginning of time.
Today, exploration takes on different tones. With the highest mountains summited, landmasses discovered, and the bottom of the ocean all but mapped, exploration has become as much about how you do a thing as where a thing might actually be.
For writer Mark Synnott, a professional mountain climber, adventurer, and National Geographic writer/photographer, exploration is more about a good story than it is anything else. Synnott is the author of the new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest, about an ill-fated climb to the top of the world by British explorers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine that might pre-date the historic ascent of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
“I’ve always been a storyteller. I love stories, I love reading them in particular, I love counting them, and sharing them…and when I first heard the Mallory and Irvine story, it really captured my imagination,” said Synnott.
The Third Pole is a reference to the Hindu Kush Himalayan region that is home to so much glacial ice that it’s comparable to the frozen tundra of the South Pole and the floating ice sheets of the North. But Synnott’s book isn’t about climbing the vast icy behemoth that is Everest (though it’s a fundamental part of the journey), no, the book is a story–a story of exploration, firsts, geopolitics, and national pride.
The Third Pole is actually two stories in one. First, it follows the history of Mallory and Irvine on their summit attempt of Everest in 1924. The other story is about Synnott himself, as he ventures out on an expedition in an attempt to prove that Mallory and Irvine actually made it to the top almost 30 years before Hillary and Norgay.
The dichotomy of the two expeditions is shocking. From a technological standpoint alone, Synnott delves into the rudimentary equipment the British explorers had at their disposal while simultaneously sleeping in an acclimation tent in his own bed at home to help him overcome altitude sickness when he arrives at Everest Base Camp. Everything from the oxygen tanks to the ropes to the socks the British explorers wore makes the Mallory/Irvine climb all the more impressive by modern-day comparison.
At the heart of Synnott’s search is a camera. George Mallory’s body was found on Everest’s North Face in 1999 but Irvine remained missing. Irvine was also carrying an ancient Kodak camera, which, if found, could provide the smoking gun–a photo of the two at the summit.
The quest, as Synnott puts it in his book, “is like looking for a needle in a frozen haystack,” only that haystack is 29,032 feet high and is notorious for killing humans. But it’s not just about a search for a camera that might have film that maybe could still be developed–it’s also about pride.
While the idea that Hillary and Norgay were the first to summit the mountain is widely accepted around the world as truth, the first explorers to ascend from the north side of Everest is very much in dispute. Not only would finding Irvine’s camera change the narrative about who was first, it would also shatter the idea that a Chinese delegation was the first team to reach the summit via the North Ridge in 1960.
What makes Synnott’s book intriguing isn’t just the disjunction between the eras of climbing, but the secrecy his team is forced to work under to make the Chinese government believe they’re not searching for Irvine’s camera. The subterfuge his team enacts ruffles the feathers of Communist Party officials in addition to the Sherpas his team hires to bring them up to Everest’s peak.
Synnott explores the morality of all of this in his book. Everest is fraught with questionable morality as it is. The mountain represents many different things to many different people. Some travel to Everest on personal quests to test their own limits. Others for their ego, to simply say they did it. Many come to fulfill lifelong desires. No matter the reason, Everest has become a veritable tourist trap that prays on the local population who traffic in the ability to get tourists to the top. Sherpas are paid more based on experience, so every season they get to the summit, the more they can charge down the line.
For Synnott’s team, the goal wasn’t to get to the top at all, and when the Sherpas found out, there was a mutiny. You’ll need to read the book for that piece though.
Everest is also a torture chamber. In Third Pole, Synnott delves into the physiology of what happens to the human body at those altitudes. Climbers routinely get wiped out from a wide range of ailments before they even get a chance to try a summit attempt. The mountain itself is trying to kill you before you even have a chance at standing on top of the world. At the same time, it fogs your brain, making critical thinking about dangerous steps all the more tenuous.
“I don’t know if I’d call my climb horrifying, but when I was up there, I was like, wow, I’m really getting my ass kicked, and this is way harder than I thought it would be. You start to think like, when was the last time I actually even urinated? How long can you go without doing that before you have kidney failure?” Synnott remarked.
In the book, Synnott describes how Everest will reveal your character. Questions arise like: whether you would save another human being while risking your own life or whether you would risk your team’s safety by going rogue searching for that little needle in the frozen haystack. For his part, Synnott wrestles with this idea a lot. On one hand, he’s being paid to search for that camera and, on the other, he has a group of people who are trusting him to do the right thing, whatever that thing might be. He has the Chinese government specifically telling him he’s not allowed to look, and he has Sherpas who could lose their livelihoods if they were found culpable in his quest.
But Synnott is an explorer. That’s who he is, and what makes this story interesting. He represents a modern version of the old-world adventurer that’s overwrought with its own morality plays. Part of his life is always going to be about risk.
“I’ve gone on all these expeditions, and I’ve done stuff dicier than [Everest] and I have been doing it my whole life. Climbing is dangerous, but it’s a calculated risk that we try to manage. You know, we all have this imaginary line that’s sort of like the edge of what’s okay and what’s not. And, as climbers, it’s really important to know where that line is. It’s not very clear-cut. But the more you climb, the more you have an intuitive sense of where you are relative to that line, and you push up against it. Sometimes you tread right on it. Maybe, every once in a while, you might kind of go over the line a little bit.”
To be a great explorer, to tell a great story, to do something no one else has ever done, or find something that seems impossible is at the heart of an adventure. Explorers like Synnott walk that fine line for the rush of discovery and to continue filling readers and armchair adventurers with wanderlust. If nothing else, Synnott is honest about the morality of it all, about the reasons why, and about his desire to tell a great story.
“I would do it all again. And it’s weird…sometimes we’ll do sort of crazy things that don’t make a lot of sense, you know, looking in from the outside, [but] all climbing is like that. It’s kind of absurd, really, and in this case, I was trying to tell a story and trying to solve a mystery. And in some ways, that’s more meaningful than taking a risk similar to what I did, just to do a first ascent or be the first person to like, go up a mountain in a certain way or in a certain style. Does that make sense?”
For what it’s worth, the book is a fascinating tale and forces the reader to constantly ask themselves, “What would I do?” in each situation. Whether that’s forging a new path to the world’s highest shelf in the 1920s or figuring out a mystery today. Would you be able to make a life-or-death decision at 29,000 feet? The Third Pole invites you to look deep inside to find that very answer.