March 18, 2011

The origin of George Mallory’s famous mountain climbing quote: “Because it’s there.”


In March of 1923, British mountain climber George Leigh Mallory was touring the United States to raise money for a expedition to Mount Everest planned for the following year.

At that time no one had ever made it to the top of Everest — the highest mountain on the planet.

In 1921 and 1922, Mallory was a member of the first two expeditions that tried to reach the summit of the mountain. Both had failed.

During his 1923 fund-raising tour, Mallory was often asked why he wanted to climb Everest. The question seemed somewhat inane to an adventurer like Mallory and eventually he came up with a standard answer.

The answer became famous when it was quoted in a story in the March 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times. The headline was “CLIMBING MOUNT EVEREST IS WORK FOR SUPERMEN.”

Mallory’s reply was included in the opening paragraph:

“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highest mountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.”

Mallory wasn’t being entirely flippant. He went on to explain:

“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.”

During Mallory’s 1922 expedition, this desire to “conquer” Everest cost the lives of seven Tibetan Sherpa porters, who were killed in an avalanche.

During the 1924 expedition, it cost Mallory his own life.

On June 8th, 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine made a final push to reach the top of Everest.

Observers below saw them reach a height within a thousand feet of the summit. Then they disappeared from sight — and did not return.

In 1953, the dream of conquering Everest was finally achieved by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay.

Forty-six years later, in 1999, an expedition funded by the TV show Nova and the BBC discovered the frozen body of George Mallory about 2,000 feet below the summit, where he appeared to have died after a fall.

Andrew Irvine’s body has yet to be found.

Over the years, some people have speculated that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the top of Everest before dying and thus may deserve credit for being the first climbers to achieve that goal, rather than Hillary and Norgay.

When asked about this in an interview in the mid-1980s, Sir Edmund Hillary responded dryly:

“If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I’m rather inclined to think, personally, that maybe it’s quite important, the getting down. And the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

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