“Because it’s there,” respond climbers automatically, echoing the legendary George Mallory who may or may not have climbed to the top of Everest before dying in the attempt.
It’s an inner desire and purpose, which you can’t always express in words to someone who doesn’t have it. It’s like asking, “Why do you fall in love?”
There’s a great book called Into the Silence which tells of Mallory’s quest for Everest and the story of the World War 1 veterans that accompanied him. He hit on a great point that to truly understand the story you need to know a few things about the Great War.
If you like history check out Wade Davis’s lecture when you have a half-hour to listen, maybe while doing dishes or other repetitive tasks. His speaking is mesmerizing and you’ll get the gist of the book by hearing the lecture.
Sometimes it seems the world wants to forget World War 1 ever happened. World War 2 is much better movie material. Here we have heroes, villains, epic battles, and terrible conflicts where good triumphs in the end.
World War 1 was just a bloody mess with political intrigue so complex it was hard to know why they were fighting each other. Coming off the turn of the century, the advances in weapon technology brought more destruction than the world was ready for.
The hospitals weren’t even close to being prepared for the hundreds of wounded and dying men being hauled in daily. In the end the Great War took the lives of over 17 million people.
After that war history went on to the roaring twenties briefly, but then not so happy as history moved on to the depression, the holocaust and eventually another great war.
Perhaps Mallory’s quote had the cynicism brought on by that dark period of history. Wade Davis says, “They’d seen so much death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.”
The story of Mallory, like World War 1 isn’t exactly cinematic material either. On the final journey he was last seen heading for the summit and never came back.
In 1999 they uncovered his frozen body on Everest, but there was still not enough evidence to know whether he summitted. If he had, he would’ve been the first to summit Everest even before Hillery and Norgay. It’s a mystery to this day.
“They’d seen so much death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.”
Perhaps climbing is a rite we need for ourselves. We don’t all go to war like they did back in the day so we have to think of other tests. Mallory’s hardened veterans didn’t care if they died. Us wide-eyed modern hikers still need a few slightly dangerous activities.
The Tale of a Regular Guy on Everest
A couple times a few months ago I hiked Little Si up in the Snoqualmie region of Washington East of Seattle. It’s a beautiful, dark, forest full of nature and life. You can catch rock-climbing there as well and when you talk, sound echoes through the rocks and trees.
After checking out a cool rock-climbing wall, I ran into this bench:
This bench really brought things into perspective. At the time I was in the middle of reading John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air after seeing the Movie, Everest. This tells the story of the disastrous climb on Everest in 1996, where Doug Hansen, Rob Hall the expedition leader, and several others died as a storm hit when they came down from the summit.
Doug was the person I most closely identified with, because he wasn’t super athletic, or rich or famous. He was a regular guy, worked a normal job at the post office, but had epic dreams.
In the movie, when he explained how kids at a school helped fund his trip, he said, “I was thinking maybe it’s… they see an… a regular guy can, you know, follow impossible dreams. Maybe they will be inspired to do the same, I guess.”
The bench also brings home the fact that he was a real person who lived right here in the Northwest. He lived in Seattle and probably hiked and trained on those same trails.
When it was getting too late and was time to turn back, they were close to the summit, and Doug begged Rob to let him go. He gave in, they summitted and then unfortunately died in a storm on the way down.
Some people see the movie and think these guys were stupid. Why didn’t Doug and Rob turn back when it was getting too late? Why would they take a risk like that? I don’t fully agree and I’ll tell you why.
“I was thinking maybe it’s… they see an… a regular guy can, you know, follow impossible dreams. Maybe they will be inspired to do the same, I guess.” – Doug Hansen in the movie Everest
What if you were within reach of your life’s dreams whatever they might be and had the choice of turning back and failing when you were so close? Wouldn’t you risk your life for that dream?
Doug had a purpose is his heart and was willing to die for it need be. This was his life’s dream and he had failed in the attempt the year before, and didn’t want to try again a third time. I’m not saying that’s what he should’ve done, but I can understand why he did it. What if he’d taken the risk and lived?
South Sister Class of 2016
For my own experience I’m a bit of an armchair adventurer compared to the great explorers. As much as I read about it, I’ve never climbed any huge mountains like Everest or even Rainier.
But I can still be inspired as I’ve hiked smaller ones in Oregon and Washington and more recently South Sister and the Grand Canyon, which is like a backwards mountain you climb down and then up.
Why do I climb? I love the challenge. I love taking the photos. The views are extraordinary and yet you can only glimpse the experience from a photo. It’s a high beyond highs, and an adventure you remember your whole life.
My first major climb was Mount Saint Helens, and I felt the high for a week. I can look at it from the freeway in Oregon and think, wow, I’ve climbed it!
And yes there’s an inner drive. I don’t have summit fever like the guys on Everest, but I enjoy adventure. Things just feel right, when I’m on a mountain, you know?
Another important character in the story was Beck Weathers who explained it this way, “When I’m home I have this black cloud following me, like a depression. But when I climb a mountain, any mountain, it’s gone-like I’ve been reborn.”
South Sister might not be massive and dangerous like the Himalayas, but it’s mountain enough for me. Just at 10,000 feet, it’s a challenge and an adventure. It’s not too technical and most people in decent shape can hike to the top if they don’t mind putting in miles of steep trail through scree.
Ever since seeing the mountain rise over Green Lake when I backpacked the Three Sisters Wilderness last year, I’d wanted to climb South Sister. I cycled a lot around town and hiked up many steep trails over the year not just to train, but for the adventure in itself.
“When I’m home I have this black cloud following me, like a depression. But when I climb a mountain, any mountain, it’s gone-like I’ve been reborn.”
One of my favorite parts was the glacier on top and the walk around the rim, which was quite a surprise for me.
I saw the Milky Way on a beautiful clear night on the way up, photographed birds soaring around the rim, hung out with friends and basically had the time of my life. You don’t look back and say, “Man, I wish I wouldn’t have taken the time and energy to climb that mountain…”
What adventures have you been having lately? Little mountains count too. I love seeing the joy of people just starting out when they complete their first major hike. As long as it challenges you and gives you a great experience.