“Because it’s there.”
This famous quotation was an answer by George Mallory to the question of “Why climb Mount Everest?”
The phrase has endured for its simplicity and clever deflection, in the notion that “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Revered as a Zen-like statement, I discovered in the book Last Hours on Everest that the quote was most likely just an exasperated reply – a quick, sarcastic way to make the questioner go away.
Mallory was in New York in the midst of a speaking tour. Someone from the press approached him in a speakeasy with the query. He’d just given a 2-hour talk about the subject, and was probably just aggravated and trying to get a drink.
I read Last Hours on Everest at the suggestion of a friend. I came to the book as a beginner on the lore of the mountain. My only other encounter with the subject was the famous Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. As a sign of my ignorance, I’d always thought the “because it’s there” quote was Edmund Hillary’s – first to summit the mountain (with sherpa Tenzing Norgay). The quotation is sometimes falsely accredited to Hillary.
The legend of George Mallory was only vaguely familiar to me. Edmund Hillary is, of course, known as the first to summit Everest in 1953. However, there’s a romantic possibility that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine (Sandy Irvine) may have been the first, way back in 1924.
On June 8th of that year, Mallory and Irvine ascended from their Camp 6 (at 27,000ft) to make an attempt at the summit. They “vanished into the clouds,” never to be seen again.
The author of Last Hours on Everest, Graham Hoyland, made it his life’s obsession to settle the mystery of what happened to Mallory. Hoyland has a personal tie to the incident. Howard Somerville, another climber on the 1924 expedition, was Hoyland’s great uncle.
When Hoyland was a young man and met Somerville, he learned that Mallory was in possession of Somerville’s camera (a classic Vest Pocket Kokak) on the day of his summit attempt. Somerville, you may say, cursed the author with his statement that “If my camera was ever found, you could prove that Mallory got to the top.”
The book is a mixed bag. Graham Hoyland warns the reader on the opening page that Last Hours on Everest will “be a personal story, a detective thriller, a biography, and a history book.” He is correct on all counts, but at times the story feel a bit disjointed because of this, failing as the “gripping story” that’s advertised.
Apparently there’s no “new” information to be uncovered by Hoyland in the book, though if you’re naive to the legend of Mallory, then this doesn’t really matter. What Hoyland does bring to the story, however, is a personal familiarity with mountaineering. The author participated in 9 expeditions on the mountain to discover what happened to Mallory, and was the 15th Briton to stand on the summit of Everest.
Hoyland’s family ties to the mystery are a double-edged sword. Some passages dryly take away from the narrative, getting into the author’s hobbit-like family tree and connections to Mallory, a la Kevin Bacon.
Overall, though, his associations with the climber add a compelling angle to a romantic mystery that’s been beaten like a dead horse. Hoyland certainly knows his stuff, and his personal experience gives a unique, respectable voice to the subject, adding value that an armchair researcher simply cannot replicate.
Last Hours on Everest is a wonderful introduction to the history of climbing the mountain, specifically regarding the 1924 expedition and George Mallory.
I’ll end the review here, so as not to spoil the book for those unfamiliar with the subject. Now that I personally know a bit more about George Mallory, I may go on to read Into the Silence – reportedly the best book about Mallory on Everest.
4 more George Mallory Quotes
Here’s some more Mallory quotations, as promised. Not only was he a World War One veteran, but he was Cambridge educated, too. He had a way with words – reminiscent of the times:
One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end – to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared… Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished… Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No… and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction… fulfilled a destiny.
Why do we travel to remote locations? To prove our adventurous spirit or to tell stories about incredible things? We do it to be alone amongst friends and to find ourselves in a land without man.
Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain sides and glaciers and aretes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared.
People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.
an Edmund Hillary Quotation
Finally, I’ll close with a quote by Edmund Hillary that puts the mystery into perspective:
I’ve always regarded Mallory as a pretty heroic figure and I think in many ways it would be quite appropriate if it would prove he was successful. Of course he didn’t get down again, so he didn’t quite complete the job fully.
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