Some eleven years ago, Vanity Fair contributor Bryan Burrough wrote a lengthy, if not macabre, article about the disappearance of a pair of mountaineers who were attempting to become the first individuals to summit Mt. Everest.
The two were an odd pair. The leader of the 1924 expedition was renown British mountaineer George Mallory, who was making his third and final attempt to reach the top of the world. His partner was an accomplished, yet comparative neophyte climber named Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. The trek up Everest was Irvine’s first.
As the duo braced for the final push, ascending the mountain’s infamous “second step,” fellow mountaineer Noel Odell spotted the two in the distance:
From what Odell could see, they had barely 900 feet to go before they reached the summit. Then a veil of high white clouds dropped across the mountaintop, obscuring Odell’s view, and the two men disappeared.
The fate of the two men, and their success was a complete mystery, left shrouded in Everest’s icy mist until May 1, 1999, when a gaggle of American climbers found the proverbial needle in the haystack on Everest’s icy slopes, and discovered the body of George Mallory. Whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit remains unclear.
Burrough’s tale is, of course, gripping. He describes Mallory and Irvine’s ascent through the “death zone” of Mt. Everest, and explains the remarkable odds faced by climbers who challenge the angry mountain.
Since Everest was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, roughly 219 people have perished in their attempt to follow suit. The death of Francys (Fran) Arsentiev is a particularly harrowing account. Arsentiev was an American climber who was discovered alive though ailing on the mountain by a group of climbers. After assessing Arsentiev’s condition, and the weather conditions on Everest, the group left her to die as they made their ascent.
The accounts and documentaries on the difficulties of summiting Mt. Everest, leave me utterly entranced by the human need to accomplish. We homo sapiens seem to have something hard wired in us that cuts across cultures, and prompts us to test our limits. In the Arsentiev story, climbers saw the risks that awaited them, yet left her to pursue their climb anyway. A more callous interpretation of the story is that the climbers’ need to reach the summit trumped their concern for human life, sentencing Arsentiev to death – though the matter is admittedly much more complex. As for Mallory and Irvine, climbing in 1924, they were attempting the impossible. Everest had never been climbed. Their gear consisted of woolen jackets and hobnail boots. The odds of success had them doomed from the start. And yet, they climbed. Some theories even have Mallory actually summiting before his death – a full 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary.
Mallory reputedly said he wanted to climb Everest simply, “because it’s there.” Whether the quotation is true or not, it aptly sums up a great deal about the life we live. Why did mankind go to the Moon? What prompted our scientific advances in medicine? What made Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak create the Apple I and Apple II computers? What makes an otherwise sane person pursue a doctorate (in any field)? What makes a group of disgruntled taxpayers think they can defeat the most powerful nation on Earth? Why do we set New Year’s resolutions, run marathons, smoke cigars, play video games, or create works of art, literature, and music?
In the end, all of our creative and aspirational undertakings amount to some variation of Mallory’s “because it’s there.”
I doubt that I will ever climb Mt. Everest, but knowing Mallory’s story leaves me with the inkling there’s something fundamentally human about the view from the top of the world. It’s in our DNA. It’s the feeling everyone gets when we conquer our respective mountains – literally, or figuratively; wherever, and whatever they may be.