George 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.