‘Sandy’ Irvine arrived at Merton College, Oxford with a fine athletic reputation. Despite studying for a degree in chemistry, Irvine achieved the rare success of a seat in the Oxford ‘Blue Boat’ after just a week. Rowing again for the University in his second year, he finally secured a victory over Cambridge in the 1923 Boat Race.
Amongst the spectators lining the Thames, one observed Irvine’s performance with particular interest. The mountaineer Noel Odell had been enlisted by Irvine’s fellow Mertonian, George Binney, to put together a sledging team for an expedition to Spitsbergen. Unbeknownst to both, Odell and Irvine had in fact met before. Walking in the Welsh mountains, Odell recalled his encounter with a young motorcyclist on the summit of a 3000 foot peak. Years later, Odell remarked: ‘[we were] surprised at the youthful appearance of this exceptionally enterprising motorist. This feat could have been accomplished…by no ordinary schoolboy’. Irvine’s brimming appetite for adventure coupled with his formidable capacity for physical endurance made him a perfect candidate as a perfect candidate for the Spitsbergen expedition.
Unlike Frazer and Odell, Irvine did not possess a technical scientific skill-set. Rather, he put his engineering degree and physical prowess to task sledging six weeks of provisions across the unexplored eastern ice cap. This involved, hand packing 2240 ‘Reading biscuits’, repairing the sledges and even a superhuman effort to recover one which had become marooned in a crevasse. The task took four hours and after it ‘we never wanted to see the damn thing again!’
– Noel Odell, In Memoriam
Odell’s admiration for Irvine would take him even further than the frozen wastes of Svalbard. As well as demonstrating a congeniality that few could maintain after three days in a blizzard-bound tent or whilst dragging 500lb sledges through ice-falls, Irvine accompanied Odell on a number of successful mountaineering excursions, including the ascent of difficult peak which now bears his name. Irvine’s diary ‘notes for the future…take short light ice axes’, better suited to longer and harder climbs. Spitsbergen led him to set his sights on greater objectives still. On 10th October 1924, with Odell’s help, Irvine secured a place on the 1924 Mount Everest Expedition – a mountain many considered unclimbable.
At just twenty-two Irvine became the youngest member of the assault on the world’s highest mountain. Yet it was to end in tragedy. On the morning of the 8th of June 1924 Irvine and George Mallory set off from Camp VIII, never to return. To this day, it remains a mystery whether they reached the summit and claimed the ascent nineteen years before it was first officially claimed by Hillary and Norgay.
Odell’s journey to become one of the leading mountaineers of his generation did not get off to an easy start. As a young boy his penchant for climbing rooftops prompted his parents to try and suppress this dangerous tendency. Unstoppable, one family holiday he escaped and climbed to the top of Causey Pike in the Lake District. After that, his family were forced to concede his aptitude for the sport and by the age of eighteen he had completed a number of daring ascents in the Alps.
Odell’s reputation earned him membership of the prestigious Alpine Club. Here, he met Robert Frazer and joined the 1921 Oxford University Expedition to Spitsbergen. But in Odell’s words, ‘the 1921 journey had been regarded as merely introductory and preliminary to a bigger attack on the unexplored parts of the region’. This attack took the form of the 1923 Merton College, Oxford Spitsbergen Expedition and Odell was the chosen leader. As well as a mountaineer, Odell was also formally trained as a geologist, having studied at the National School of Mines. On his return, he submitted a number of papers detailing the geology in Svalbard, in particular the curious ‘Hecla Hook’ formation.
– Odell, Journal
Odell served as a Major in the Bengal Sappers during the Second World war, but his greatest accomplishments were without doubt in the realm of mountaineering. In 1924, he joined Irvine on the Mount Everest Expedition. On the 8th of June, gazing up at the North East Ridge, Odell recorded: ‘my eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot… silhouetted beneath a rock step in the ridge. Another black spot…moved up the snow to join the other on the crest…then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more’. Perhaps fittingly Odell, with whom Irvine had travelled to Spitsbergen less than a year previously, was the last man to sight him alive.
Despite the tragedy on Everest, Odell survived the harrowing and fruitless search for Irvine’s body and went on to make a number of important ascents himself. In 1936, alongside the great explorer Major Harold Tilman, he reached the 25,695 foot summit of Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya . For fourteen years, this was the highest summit ever attained. Odell died at the age of ninety-seven in Cambridge, his genial leadership of countless expeditions having earnt him the nickname ‘Noah’.
Geoffrey Milling matriculated at Merton College, Oxford in 1921 – a year before the arrival of Sandy Irvine, who would subsequently become a close friend. Like Irvine, he also rowed in the 1922 Blue Boat, unfortunately losing to Cambridge by four lengths. Like Irvine, he shared a passion for climbing and adventuring, joining Odell in the Welsh mountains on a test-piece prior to the 1923 Expedition.
As one of the two undergraduate members of the expedition, Milling lacked the technical skill-set to contribute directly to scientific research. Instead, he took on the role of cook – a position which called for great ingenuity to spice up the rigid diet of pemmican and dried fruit. One particular display of culinary flare involved boiling up a mouldering Arctic fox, that had been shot by Irvine some days previously. Despite Milling’s best gastronomical efforts, he could convince only Odell to sample his handiwork.
– Irvine, Diary
Milling’s time in Spitsbergen had been a thoroughly enjoyable one, and he subsequently took a job with the Hudson Bay Company, working in the Canadian Arctic before pursuing a successful career in the City of London.
Robert Frazer’s academic background was in mathematics. He had studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he won the coveted title of ‘wrangler’, an indication of scholarly prowess. Despite Frazer’s background as a ‘Tab’, as he was known by the Oxonian members of the expedition, he was welcomed into exploratory circles, in large part due to his reputation for mountaineering. Frazer had amassed considerable experience on difficult routes in the Alps, spending one season with Noel Odell – who would become the leader of the 1923 sledging party. Like Odell, he was also a member of the Alpine club and he attended the 1921 Oxford University Spitsbergen Expedition. It might be said that this earlier expedition not only changed Frazer’s life but indeed saved it, too. Not only did it set him on a trajectory for further polar exploration, but it clashed with his scheduled journey on the R38 Airship, preventing him from attending a routine patrol flight. On 23rd August 1921, the ship’s main structure failed off the Yorkshire coast and the resulting crash left forty-four dead.
Frazer’s mathematical background enabled him to act as the expedition’s chief surveyor and wireless operator. This latter task was of particular importance, since the region of Eastern Spitsbergen was entirely unexplored and unmapped. The 2016 team’s maps and navigation will depend in part on the essential topographical groundwork conducted by Frazer, ninety-three years previously.
Following his return from Spitsbergen, Frazer prepared a report for the Geographical Journal and presented the team’s findings to the Royal Society. However, his greatest contribution was in the field of aeronautical physics, and he spent several years working at the National Physical Laboratory.
– Milling, Diary