In 1924, British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died trying to be the first to climb Mount Everest. An encrypted telegram reported the drama to their homeland. A blog reader identified the codebook that was used, but there is still one word, the meaning of which is unknown.

Who was the first to climb Mount Everest? Experts largely agree that it were Edmund Hillary from New Zealand together with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.


Hillary or Mallory?

Especially in Great Britain, however, some see British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine as the first, who reached the world’s highest mountain. The two died during their climb attempt in 1924. Theoretically, it is possible that Mallory and Irvine had already reached the summit when they deceased. However, not only Mount Everest veterans Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander consider it impossible that the two British mountaineers actually climbed up to 8848 meters. They route they chose is known as difficult today; the equipment of the time was weak compared to later years; and the weather conditions were far from optimal.


I have always followed the discussions about George Mallory (he was the much better mountaineer of the two, which is why the ascent attempt is usually linked to his name) with great interest. One of the reasons for this is that Mallory’s last name caught my eye. In cryptography, Mallory is the fictitious villain who eavesdrops the communication between Alice and Bob, always trying to break their encryptions. Mallory plays an important role in my book Kryptografie – Verfahren, Protokolle, Infrastrukturen. His name is derived from “mal” and has nothing to do with the famous mountaineer.

Apart from his last name, there is another reason why George Mallory is sometimes mentioned in crypto history discussions. When once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied: “Because it is there”. I sometimes give a similar answer when somebody asks me why so many are interested in deciphering the Voynich manuscript or other historical cryptograms. We simply want to solve these mysteries because they are there.


The Mallory telegram

Three years ago, blog reader Alexander thankfully pointed out to me that there is another, much more direct relationship between George Mallory and cryptography. After the ascent attempt that resulted in Mallory’s death, a member of the expedition sent a message from the base camp to Great Britain. After a courier hat brought this message to the town of Pagri, it was sent to London by telegram on 19 June 1924.



As can be seen, the telegram contains two codewords: NOVE and ALCEDO. At that time it was quite common to encrypt telegrams by replacing important words with codewords. There were codebooks containing tens of thousands of entries for this purpose.

When I wrote a blog post about this telegram in 2015 (in German), the codebook used by the Mount Everest expedition was still unknown. We could decrypt the message anyway, because the recipient of the telegram wrote the meaning of the two codewords on the telegram sheet. NOVE means “killed in last engagement”, while ALCEDO stands for “arrived all in good order”. This confirms that codebooks were not only used for encryption, but also for shortening telegrams (the shorter a telegram, the cheaper it was). In many cases this shortening was even the actual reason to use a codebook.


After I had published my blog post, reader Robert posted the title of the codebook I had been looking for: the Universal Telegraphic Phrase-Book. The edition of this codebook Robert linked is from 1889. I assume that the Mount Everest expedition, which took place in 1924, used a later issue. In any case, the codewords NOVE and ALCEDO are contained in this code with the same meaning as noted on the telegram sheet.

There is still one question to be answered: the meaning of the word OBFERRAS, which stands above the actual message, is not known to me. Does a reader know the answer?

Further reading: The Top 50 unsolved encrypted messages: 14. The Codex Seraphinianus


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Kommentare (13)

  1. #1 Lercherl
    1. November 2018

    I guess it is a telegraphic adress, possibly of John Percy Farrar, who seems a likely recipient for such a telegram.

  2. #2 Norbert
    1. November 2018

    The 1889 edition of “The Universal Telegraphic Phrase-book” does have an entry “Obfero” which stands for “no money, send at once £250”, and so does the 1912 edition (e.g., in the Universitiy of Chicago Digital Preservation Cellection).

    However, the 1920 edition, which might have been used in this case, seems to feature a lot of new entries: it has 354 pages compared to (effectively) 104 pages in the 1889 and 1912 editions. So, if there is any meaning to Obferras, we will most certainly find it in this edition (but imho, it is most certain as well that the code is an extended money request: “no money, send at once £500/£1000/…”. We will only learn the exact amount the sender is asking for).

    Any reader of this blog living near Geneva? The UNOG (United Nations Office at Geneva) library holds a copy of the 1920 edition.

  3. #3 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa.
    1. November 2018

    I’m not sure that OBFERRAS is cryptologically significant. I think that telegrams/telexes of the era just used names like these to indicated the telegraph stations’ names. I can enquire elsewhere about this.

  4. #4 Thomas
    1. November 2018

    I agree that “OBFERRAS” standing before “London” was most likely the recipient’s telegraphic address and had nothing to do with the content. Since the Royal Geographic Society holds the telegram (and, as part of the Mount Everest Committee, might have been the recipient ), I’ve sent them an e-mail asking for information.

  5. #5 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa.
    1. November 2018

    Correspondents of a telecommunications group to which I subscribe confirm that OBFERRAS would have been a telegraphic address. I will send a much longer explanation to Klaus from which can be extracted the necessary details.

  6. #6 Norbert
    1. November 2018

    I agree completely with Lercherl, Jerry and Thomas. A telegraphic address makes perfect sense. (Besides, the UN Geneva Library kindly emailed me scans of the relevant pages of the 1920 edition of the Universal Telegraphic Phrase-Book: also here, no entry for “Obferras”. Apparently, the large number of pages in this edition is just due to a smaller page format.)

  7. #7 Thomas
    1. November 2018

    There is a spelling mistake in the cable: The Royal Geographical Society had the telegraphic address “OBTERRAS”:

  8. #8 Thomas
    1. November 2018

    The RGS’s motto is: “OB TERRAS RECLUSAS”

  9. #9 Magnus E
    1. November 2018

    Well done Thomas!

  10. #10 Klaus Schmeh
    2. November 2018

    Here are the replies Jerry received:
    First Correspondent:

    OBFERRAS is simply an organisation’s telegraphic address. Every organisation that expected to receive telegrams could choose a single word that the destination telegraph office would look up in a directory of telegraphic address, so that it could be delivered (by telegram messenger on a motorbike) to the physical address of the company or body concerned.

    There is a directory of this kind online at (there is a charge of $6 for downloading this)

    There’s a copy for sale at will tell you libraries where you can consult this book.

    There is bound to be a copy of this or some equivalent directory at BT Archives

    You can make an appointment to consult it but you have to go there in person; they do not have staff who can make searches for you.

    There is a publocation, now archived, called Sell’s Directory which listed all the London Telegraphic Addresses

    Second Correspondent:

    This might contain the OBFERRAS code and details of the owner

  11. #11 Klaus Schmeh
    2. November 2018

    Thanks, guys! This mystery is definitively solved.

  12. #12 Thomas
    2. November 2018

    You’re welcome. Finally, here a RGS letter by Sir Edmund Hillary written in 1953 (the telegraphic adress still was “OBTERRAS”): No hill climbing without honey 😉

  13. #13 Thomas
    2. November 2018

    The link to the sweet tooth letter: