An American mountaineer yesterday defended a Mount Everest expedition he is leading next week against charges that it is ghoulish.

Andrew Harvard's Himalayan expedition aims to solve what mountaineers regard as one of the classic climbing mysteries: the disappearance of two British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, near the summit in 1924. Their bodies never were found, and mountaineers still speculate whether they were the first to reach the summit.

The trip has been attacked by some mountaineers, particularly British, who believe the search is macabre and that the bodies should be left undisturbed. Jim Perrin, a British mountaineer and author, wrote in Britain's High, a mountaineering magazine, that the expedition "disgusts me -- and this is an entirely personal opinion -- as nothing else in mountaineering history . . . ever has done."

Walt Unsworth, editor of Britain's Climber magazine, said yesterday that he did not object but that some veteran climbers found the expedition distasteful. He said the row was like the one over proposals to raise the Titanic, which some people complained would be desecration.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who, with Tenzing Norgay, is credited with the first ascent of Everest, in 1953, is reported to have said the dead climbers had "the right to be left sleeping in peace" on the mountain.

Harvard, 36, said yesterday that he was baffled by the criticism. He spoke after a news conference in New York at which the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) announced that it will back a charity appeal called First Earth Run. The expedition will participate in this event by attempting to take a torch to the top of Everest.

Harvard, a lawyer, film producer and author of two mountaineering books, said he was surprised by the inference that if the climbers found the bodies, they might do something "inappropriate." He said Mallory's son, John, who lives in South Africa, had no objection to the search and asked the climbers, if successful, to build a cairn over the bodies.

The team will make a documentary about the mystery that would be a tribute to the men's courage, he said.

The team also hopes to chalk up the first ascent of the mountain by an American woman. There are three in the 15-member team.

First Earth Run is an American-based group that is organizing an appeal similar to Sport Aid, the recent charity event to help combat famine in Africa. UNICEF Executive Director James Grant said the runners are to carry a torch around the world, leaving Sept. 16 from U.N. headquarters in New York and returning Dec. 11.