“The fact is that the exploration of the Earth’s surface is far from complete. Seas and coasts and islands, once the adventurer’s chief hunting grounds, may all be charted and done for; deserts and jungles may have lost their ancient mystery. But the adventurer-explorer has not vanished from our midst – nor is he even obsolescent. He has merely exchanged sea-boots for climbing boots, elephant gun for ice-axe. The explorer of today and tomorrow is the mountaineer.” – Frank Showell Styles, Introduction to Mountaineering (1954)
From Margret Grebowicz’s Mountains and Desire: Climbing vs. the End of the World, you can sum up how our attitude towards Mount Everest (and mountain climbing, in general) changed in the 20th century.
In 1923, after his second failed attempt to climb Everest, A New York Times reporter asked George Mallory “why did you want to climb Mt. Everest?” Mallory famously replied “Because it’s there. … 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.”
Over half a century later (and about a quarter after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay “conquered” Everest), in 1977, environmental activist and nature writer Edward Abbey answered that same question with “because there’s nothing better to do.”
In short, when an “unclimbable” mountain gets conquered, the allure the task of climbing it once had gets replaced with indifference. The original thrill of been “first” is gone. You could try to be a “first” by doing it with some handicap, like doing it without assistance or with some disability, but its still not the same as being “the first.”
So, why do we get obsessed by the task of crawling over tall surfaces of rock? And why would some do silly things, like carry up and play a church organ on top of Ben Nevis?
This is a question Grebowicz tries to answer, as well as explore the industry that has sprung up over people wanting to climb Everest… and all the literal junk that comes with it.
It is a small book (100 pages long), with almost each chapter beginning with a focus on the Everest industry before exploring an aspect of mountaineering in our culture. Philosophy, medical science, nationalism, advertising, the act of trying to reach the “top of the world” has had an influence. I could say more, but I’ll be just repeating Grebowicz’s words.
Mountains and Desire: Climbing Vs. The End of The World is out now, published by Repeater Books. Order in paperback or as an e-book here.
Review by Gordon Wallace