Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Because It's There

That was George Mallory's response to a reporter who asked him why he wanted to go climb Everest. He was annoyed (reporters will do that) and wanted to get going on the expedition, and so he answered "because it's there."

George went on three Everest expeditions with the British in the 1920s. In the last one, in 1924, he and his partner Sandy Irvine were the last pair to make an attempt. The last anyone saw of them, they were heading up a ridge, and a storm closed around them. Their expedition partners never found them; Mallory's body was only found in the late nineties, not where he was expected. He'd fallen, and the general consensus is that he and Irvine never made the top. Irvines' body has yet to be found, and their camera must be with him.

Mallory must have lived after the fall; there were elements about how the body was positioned that suggested it. But he didn't live long, not exposed at the top of the world, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. His body was buried in a pile of rocks by the people who found him, so he'll rest up there for the rest of eternity.

Why do I bring this up? I'm a climber. Most of my climbing tends to be rock faces, close to home, but it's a sport I love. If you want to call it a sport; you're not really competing, are you?

I climb because I love it. Having empty space beneath me, rock at my fingertips? That's home. I love the idea of grand views, of standing at the top of a cliff with all that space below.

The late great Alaskan climber and explorer Bradford Washburn had another way of looking at climbing. In his case, it was Denali, and he was speaking to the filmmaker Ken Burns, who was working on his documentary on the National Parks. He remarked on Denali as thinking of it as an old pal, although one that can tear you apart. I agree with him. Places I have climbed, and places I want to climb? They're old pals. Places to be respected, first and foremost, because if you're not careful, you can die. But old pals nonetheless.

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