Do you ever ask yourself why you do things — especially the things that might not make a lot of sense to family, friends or co-workers?
I think of that sometimes. I try to realize that my cranium-sized world is perhaps very different from other cranium-sized worlds. I don’t know that it is, and I will never know, but I try to understand what drives me.
And when I ask myself why I do certain things, I think of a mostly forgotten historical event from nearly a century ago — one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. It happened in June of 1924. That’s when George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set off for the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal.
Everest is the highest point on the globe at more than 29,000 feet. That’s roughly cruising altitude for passenger jets. At that height, the air is cold and thin. There’s barely enough oxygen to sustain human life, and each breath is labored.
From what I can find, no one showed much interest in scaling Everest until the 1920s. That’s when a group of English climbers, fresh but battered after the “war to end all wars,” decided that taking on a new and dangerous challenge would be a grand idea. England was still an impressive empire, but it had taken some dings, and they may have thought that being the first to reach the top of the highest peak in the world would be good for king and country.
The team first went to Everest in 1921, just to check things out, look around, decide if it could be done and how best to do it. Mallory was on that trip. He was 34 years old.
A couple of years later, they went back with the gear and supplies necessary to make a real attempt. Mallory was there for that one, too. Prior to the expedition he was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times who asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest.
Mallory gave the most famous answer in the history of mountaineering — maybe in the history of all human exploration.
“Because it’s there,” he said. And what more could he have said?
That year — 1923 — the weather prevented a successful summit. An avalanche killed seven men, but the Brits returned in 1924, and Mallory was there once more … the only man on all three expeditions.
He was nearly 38 years old, married and the father of two daughters and a son. He was past his prime as a climber, and some had blamed him for the loss of life in 1923, but he was still among the best mountaineers in the world, and he was still willing to endure the sacrifices necessary to reach such a goal.
The team was there in May and June — right before the monsoon season, when blinding snowstorms and winds of more than 200 mph make the mountain unscalable. Once again, the weather was uncooperative and early efforts to reach the top proved futile.
In a sense, climbing Mount Everest seems to be a little like eating an elephant. You do it one bite at a time, one step at a time, one stage at a time. Successful climbing teams set up six or seven camps on the mountain, with a full day of climbing between each. Above the last camp is the peak.
At that altitude and in those inhospitable conditions, you get one shot at the top. If you miss, you’re too exhausted, too depleted and too short on supplies to take another chance. Instead, you trudge back down to something more habitable — oxygen, food, a sleeping bag — simply hoping to get back to base camp alive. If there are others in your group who are rested and ready, the weather may relent so they can try.
Today, clothing, equipment and nutrition advancements have helped more than 5,000 people climb to the top of Everest. More than 200 others died trying, and in 1924 no one had yet made it.
Mallory and Irvine — a 22-year-old college student who was expert at handling the primitive oxygen canisters deemed necessary for climbing at that altitude — represented the last chance at the top in 1924. Other climbers in their group had been turned back by wind and snow. But when Mallory and Irvine reached the highest camp and were within striking distance, the weather cleared, and they set out.
In Mallory’s pocket was a photograph of his wife. He told his family that if he reached the world’s highest peak, he would place it there. He also borrowed a small camera from another climber in his group.
It was June 8, 1924, and Mallory was not seen again for 75 years.
He was found on May 1, 1999 by an international group of mountaineers who set out with the express purpose of finding Mallory, Irvine and the camera.
Mallory’s body was face down on the mountainside in an area rarely explored, but directly downhill from a treacherous part of the route a climber would take near the summit. His body was mummified in the cold, dry air, and much of his clothing was still preserved. His name — sewn into his shirts and jackets and printed on the papers in his pockets — revealed his identity quickly and certainly.
The expedition group did not find the photo of Mallory’s wife or the camera which might have confirmed that Mallory and Irvine successfully reached the peak. A rope wrapped around Mallory’s waist was broken and had apparently caused a couple of fractured ribs. Experts surmised that he must have been tied to Irvine when one of them slipped and fell, perhaps in darkness.
No one knows whether they met their fate while going up to or returning from the summit, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But I think it mattered very much to Mallory and Irvine.
It would take until 1953 before someone — New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (a Nepali Sherpa) — reached Everest’s summit and then successfully descended the mountain.
Some argue that even if Mallory and Irvine did reach the top of the world’s highest mountain, it couldn’t be considered a successful climb because they didn’t get back safely. These people maintain that an essential part of any successful summit — or flight or dive or exploration — is getting back to hearth and home in one piece.
I’m not so sure. And I wonder if Mallory and Irvine would agree with that definition of success.
Anyone who climbed a mountain simply “because it’s there” — leaving a wife and three small children behind when he had to know the risk in front of him — strikes me as someone who is not afraid of death or impressed by anyone else’s definition of success. If Mallory was anything like the man he is depicted to be in the books written since his death, he made it to the top and had little concern for what it might take to get back down. Perhaps he had fatally little concern.
I’m not saying that Mallory was “right” or that he should be admired or that he wasn’t irresponsible and completely out of his mountain-climbing mind. I’m only saying that men with that sort of resolve and motivation are exactly the kind of men who are the first to climb Mount Everest, the first to land on the moon and the first to do something that most of us would say is completely impossible.
And I’d like to think that some of that attitude is in me, too.