At 8,848 meters, Sagarmāthā is the tallest mountain on the planet. Most commonly known as Mount Everest, this Nepalese icon was given its English name in honor of the British Surveyor General of India Sir George Everest in 1865.
The first summit may have happened in 1924 by the famed pair of climbers Andrew Irvin and George Mallory. There is some resistance to crown this duo as kings of the mountain because neither survived the descent, and no eyewitnesses were actually able to verify the summit. Regardless of verification they were last seen very close to the peak.
There are over two hundred frozen corpses scattered throughout Everest, with a success rate of 20% or lower, one can easily understand the question “why”. Why would anyone attempt to summit a mountain with such a low success rate, and high mortality rate.
This question was put to George Mallory regarding his ambition to tackle Mount Everest. Mallory’s response is now known as the most famous three words in mountaineering, “because it’s there”.
Because it’s there? Mallory was a Cambridge graduate, and lecturer, he was an articulate writer who had a penchant for imagery. He was a history major with an acquaintance with literary classics. He kept journals filled with detailed descriptions while on treks, and used to recite Keats to his fellow climbers while on Everest. Speaking of Everest, Mallory described her as “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world”.
“Because it’s there”, this is how his climbing brethren remember him? This is the phrase that would cling to the masses? This. Is. A. Joke. Literally this is a joke. As the story goes, Mallory was at a press conference during a fund raising tour in the U.S. after his second failed attempt on Everest, and a reporter kept asking why do you want to go back? Why? Why? Why? In order to shut the reporter up, Mallory responded in a derisive and sarcastic way…”because it’s there”. A meme is born. The most famous three words in mountaineering.
These three words have gone beyond the scope of climbing, I hear them given as a reason to justify all sorts of actions. Why should we study philosophy? Why should we explore that cave? Why should we eat at Denny’s? Because it’s there. Because it’s there. Because it’s there.
As a reason for action this expression hardly makes any sense at all. This response is completely unsatisfactory, as evidenced by further examples. Why do you brush your teeth? Why do walk your dog? Why do you love your spouse? If your response to any of these is “because it’s there”, then I would recommend that you are not worthy of your dog’s affection, or your partner’s love, I suppose you are welcome to keep your teeth despite the fact that your reason for brushing them is tripe.
Just as you wouldn’t be worthy of your spouse if the reason for offering your love were because they’re there, a climber who can offer no better reason to scale a mountain is not worthy of the ascent, the camp, or even the approach.
In total, throughout Mallory’s attempts to summit the “prodigious white fang” nine lives were lost, including 7 Sherpa’s, Andrew Irvin’s, and George Mallory’s. “Because it’s there” is an insult to their lives, their stories, and their memories.
I’m not a fan of “because it’s there”, it’s a lazy response, it’s almost tautological, and ultimately it’s an insult to the integrity of our goals. But not only is it an insult to our own goals, it’s an insult to George Mallory himself.
Why pin the legacy of an educated war veteran, a scholar, and master alpinist on the butt of a joke, when we have his actual reason for climbing Everest articulated in his own pen?
“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 behaviour 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.”
This is the response of a true climber when asked why he would climb Everest; this is the true response of the great George Mallory.