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The Birkenhead Mountaineer

Andrew Comyn "Sandy" Irvine (8 April 1902 – 8 June 1924) was an English mountaineer who took part in the 1924 British Everest Expedition, the third British expedition to the world's highest (8,848 m) mountain, Mount Everest.


While attempting the first ascent of Mount Everest, he and his climbing partner George Mallory disappeared somewhere high on the mountain's northeast ridge. The pair were last sighted only a few hundred metres from the summit, and it is unknown if the pair reached the summit before they perished. Mallory's body was found in 1999, but Irvine's body has never been found.


Irvine was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, one of six children of William Ferguson Irvine (1869–1962) by Lilian Davies-Colley (1870–1950). His father's family had Scottish and Welsh roots, whilst his mother was from an old Cheshire family. He was a cousin of journalist and writer Lyn Irvine, and also of pioneering female surgeon Eleanor Davies Colley and of political activist Harriet Shaw Weaver.


He was educated at Birkenhead School and Shrewsbury School, where he demonstrated a natural engineering acumen, able to improvise fixes or improvements to almost anything mechanical. During the First World War, he created a small stir at the War Office by sending them a design for a synchronisation gear to allow a machine gun to fire from a propeller-driven aeroplane without damaging the propeller's blades, and also a design for a gyroscopic stabiliser for aircraft.


He was also a keen sportsman and particularly excelled at rowing. His prodigious ability as a rower made him a star of the 1919 'Peace Regatta' at Henley, and propelled him to Merton College, Oxford to study Engineering. At Oxford he joined the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, and was also a member of the Oxford crew for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 1922 and a member of the winning crew in 1923,[2] the only occasion upon which Oxford did so between 1913 and 1937.


He had a relationship with a former chorus girl called Marjory Agnes Standish Summers (née Thompson), who at the age of 19 had married Harry Summers, then aged 52, in 1917. Summers was one of the founders of John Summers & Sons, a steel company. While Irvine was on Everest, Harry began divorce proceedings against Marjory


In 1923 Irvine took part in the Merton College Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen,where he excelled on every front. He and the expedition's leader, Noel Odell, discovered that they had met before in 1919 on Foel Grach, a 3000-foot-high Welsh mountain, when Irvine had ridden his motorcycle to the top and surprised Odell and his wife Mona, who had climbed it on foot. Subsequently, on Odell's recommendation, Irvine was invited to join the forthcoming third British Mount Everest expedition on the grounds that he might be the "superman" that the expedition felt it needed. He was at the time still a 21-year-old undergraduate student.


Irvine set sail for the Himalayas from Liverpool on board the SS California on 29 February 1924, along with three other members of the expedition, including George Mallory. Mallory later wrote home to his wife, that Irvine "could be relied on for anything except perhaps conversation".


During the expedition, he made major and crucial innovations to the expedition's professionally designed oxygen sets, radically improving their functionality, lightness, and strength. He also maintained the expedition's cameras, camp beds, primus stoves and many other devices. He was universally popular, and respected by his older colleagues for his ingenuity, companionability and unstinting hard work.


The expedition made two unsuccessful attempts on the summit in early June, and there was time for one more before the heavy snowfall that came with the summer monsoon would make climbing too dangerous. This last chance fell to the expedition's most experienced climber, George Mallory. To the surprise of other expedition members, Mallory chose the 22-year-old inexperienced Irvine above the older, more seasoned climber, Noel Odell. Irvine's proficiency with the oxygen equipment was obviously a major factor in Mallory's decision, but there has been some debate ever since about the precise reasons for his choice.


Mallory and Irvine began their ascent on 6 June, and by the end of the next day, the pair had established a final two-man camp at 8,168 m (26,800 ft), from which to make their final push on the summit. It is not known what time they departed on 8 June, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that they did not have the smooth early start that Mallory had hoped for.


Noel Odell, who was acting in a supporting role, reported seeing them at 12:50 pm – much later than expected – ascending what he believed was the Second Step of the northeast ridge and "going strongly for the top", although in the years that followed exactly which of the Three Steps Odell had sighted the pair climbing became extremely controversial.


It has never been established whether they reached the summit. They never returned to high camp and died somewhere high on the mountain. The discovery of Mallory's body in 1999, with its severe rope jerk injury about his waist, suggests the two were roped when they fell. Irvine's body has never been discovered.

Andrew Irvine