I've been slowly having my archive of slides - some 15,000 from past shoots and expeditions - scanned by ScanCafe. The last shipment just came in recently, and included my images from the first Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition in 1999.
Wow...Lots of images, taken on my first trip to Everest, and many I had all but forgotten as they gathered dust in my filing cabinets. As I sifted through the thousands of images, I came upon a shot I took on May 17, 1999, from above Mushroom Rock. It shows the view of the Second Step as Conrad Anker attempted to free climb it, belayed by Dave Hahn.
The image shows a neat perspective, rarely seen, of the Second Step, and why I think the question of whether or not George Mallory could have free climbed it in 1924 is something of a red herring.
In my series a year ago about the mystery of Mallory & Irvine, I noted the oft-forgotten but previously popular technique of courte-achelle. Basically, a lead climber would stand on the shoulders - and even head - of another to tackle a short-but-difficult section of rock. (There is a wonderful photo of Albert Ellingwood and Carl Blaurock using the technique on a piece of rock in Colorado in the 1920's; note that the rock in this image is similar in height to that of the Second Step headwall.)
shows that had Dave Hahn moved upward to the top of the snow bench and given Conrad Anker a courte-achelle, Conrad would have been able to reach the easier rock of the upper Second Step and probably pull over the top. As noted previously, that's exactly what Qu Yinhua did on the Chinese expedition in 1960. And, I believe, it is likely what George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did on June 8, 1924.
While free climbing the Second Step is an amazing, impressive feat, it's perhaps not relevant to the question of Mallory and Irvine's attempt on the summit in 1924.