“Because it’s there,” the man answered—it being Mt. Everest, rising amid a range whose name means the Abode of Snow to a height taller than any other mountain on the globe. The man was a fellow in his 30s named George Mallory, and he had undertaken several expeditions to scale Everest in the early 1920s, without summiting. The question put to him was: Why climb it? Mallory’s legendary sound bite wasn’t the end of his explanation. “Its existence is a challenge,” a New York Times writer quoted him as saying in March 1923. “The answer is instinctive—a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” (And woman’s; read more about that in “Summit push.”)
The peak Mallory wanted to climb was named (at least as far as folks in the Anglophone world were concerned, beginning circa 1865) for another man, first name George, born in Wales and surveyor-general of British India from 1830 to 1843. In other tongues, the mountain’s name conveys a sense of poetry and grandeur: In Tibetan, it’s Chomolungma, often taken to mean “Goddess Mother of the World.” (Though some researchers insist this meaning derives from mispronunciation, and that “The Peak that Rises above the Valley” is closer to the mark.) In Nepalese, this century it earned the name Sagarmatha, or “Brow of the Sky.” While the peak is high enough to be buffeted by the jet stream, beneath the rock-hard snow at the top are sedimentary rocks that, a few hundred million years ago, formed the floor of the Tethys Sea. Descending from the Himalayas are multitudes of rivers (Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, to name a few) that touch the lives of nearly half the people on Earth.
“It takes a long time to reach the place where climbing begins,” observed the Times writer who covered Mallory in 1923. The climb was likened then, as now, to a military campaign: planning, assembling provisions, the long slog. There is acclimatizing and there is the cost that must be borne—in treasure, in time, but also the toll it will take on the climber’s health. And there is the preparation for when things go horribly wrong. The Times piece was titled “Climbing Mount Everest Is Work for Supermen.”
Mallory embarked on his last expedition to climb the mountain in 1924. He disappeared. The mountain was still there. It was 1999 before Mallory’s body was recovered. It was assessed that he had suffered a fall.
Witness to tragedy and grandeur, what do the illuminated landscapes and mighty voices of mountains, tall and otherwise, have to teach us—about geography and politics, beauty and fear, hope and courage, right and wrong? Here’s a beginning of an answer: There was a man who went to a mountain and came down with two tablets of stone. There was a sermon delivered on a mount with the refrain Blessed are those. And there was a vision of a holy city and the glory of God.
Keep the faith,
Steven Boyd Saum