“Because It’s There” The Quotable George Mallory

gmGeorge Mal­lory is most famous for three immor­tal words he spoke to a New York Times reporter in 1923 — “Because it’s there” — which have echoed through­out west­ern cul­ture. They are invari­ably trot­ted out when­ever some­one tries to jus­tify an unjus­ti­fi­able ambi­tion. Why travel to the moon? Why explore the depths of the ocean? Once you unravel the tele­o­log­i­cal thread of these ques­tions, you’re left with the sim­ple fact that Mal­lory leaves us with.

But Mal­lory was more than a wit — he was a moun­taineer of the first order, the rare climber whose elo­quent words matched the bold style of his climbs. He cut his chops on climbs in his native Eng­land and the Alps, but it wasn’t until 1921 that he found his rai­son d’etre, the moun­tain that would con­sume his ambi­tion — Ever­est. His first attempt was a fail­ure; his sec­ond, in 1921, was a tragedy: seven porters died in an avalanche.

Fail­ure only seemed to steel his resolve. He returned to Ever­est in 1924 for his fatal third attempt. He was last seen on the way to the sum­mit along with his part­ner Andrew Irvine. Mallory’s frozen body was found by climbers on the Mountain’s north ridge in 1999.

Mal­lory lives on in the fol­low­ing bril­liantly elo­quent quotes.

“Because it’s there… Ever­est is the high­est moun­tain in the world, and no man has reached its sum­mit. Its exis­tence is a chal­lenge. The answer is instinc­tive, a part, I sup­pose, of man’s desire to con­quer the universe.”

Edward Abbey in Desert Soli­taire alludes to Mal­lory as a “frost-bitten… inar­tic­u­late” moun­tain climber in ref­er­ence to this famous quote.

But what the quote lacks in poetry, it makes up for it with bald truth. No one has ever quite cut to the mat­ter of moun­taineer­ing — the sport’s sim­plic­ity, the almost exis­ten­tial absur­dity of it all.

“Have we van­quished an enemy? None but ourselves.”

After a climb in the Alps, Mal­lory wrote about his ascent in the Alpine Jour­nal, an account that con­tains this mem­o­rable quote. He hadn’t yet attempted Ever­est, the moun­tain to which his legacy would for­ever be tied, but already viewed moun­taineer­ing in terms of a roman­tic strug­gle with the self.

“It has always been my pet plan to climb the moun­tain gas­less… The gas­less party has the bet­ter adventure.”

Mal­lory went with­out sup­ple­men­tary oxy­gen on his first two Ever­est attempts, despite its use by other climbers in 1922. He wished to accom­plish the feat on his own terms, to pre­serve the sanc­tity of the adven­ture. This antic­i­pated the mod­ern climbers like Rein­hold Mess­ner who believe the only fair means ascent of a moun­tain is one where no sup­ple­men­tary oxy­gen is used.

Fail­ure, how­ever, encour­ages com­pro­mise. In his third and final Ever­est attempt in 1924, Mal­lory fol­lowed the advice of other climbers and lugged the bulky oxy­gen can­is­ters with him toward the sum­mit, suck­ing the gas out of the prim­i­tive mask. If he couldn’t do it with­out oxy­gen, he would do it by any means nec­es­sary. “The con­quest of the moun­tain is the great thing,” he said.

“My inten­tion is to carry as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, move fast and catch the sum­mit by surprise.”

This could be the credo of the mod­ern day alpine-style climber, whose goal is to travel light and fast and gain the sum­mit in one push. The siege tac­tics that Mal­lory and other climbers of his day used on Ever­est, how­ever, is a far cry from this ideal. Dozens of peo­ple and thou­sands of pounds of sup­plies were used to ensure that two climbers would have a chance at reach­ing the summit.

“[Ever­est] was a prodi­gious white fang excres­cent from the jaw of the world… We were sat­is­fied that the high­est of moun­tains would not dis­ap­point us.”

Mal­lory had a way with words. His Ever­est jour­nals are filled with mel­liflu­ous — yet hard edged — descrip­tions like this one. This is no sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing he stud­ied at Cam­bridge and was well acquainted with the lit­er­ary clas­sics. Report­edly, he would recite Keats to his fel­low climbers at camp on Everest.