A Short Meditation on a Famous Phrase
“Because It’s There” is the over-quoted and oft maligned quip of Everest climbing legend George Mallory in response to the question of why he wanted to climb the highest peak in the world. It is at once ridiculous and ingenious, for although it fails utterly to convey the breadth of the experience that brings us to the mountains, it captures something at the very core of climbing: imagination.
Mallory’s comment can be compared to Kennedy’s justification for sending US astronauts to the moon, I paraphrase, “we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.” As Randall Munroe has pointed out, this justification works equally well for “blowing up the moon, sending cloned dinosaurs into space, or constructing a towering penis-shaped obelisk on Mars,” and the same criticism can be leveled at Mallory. Mountains are indeed “there,” but then so are very tall trees, and the crests of wave swells, and the point two meters below the summit of Everest, and the table in the courtyard outside my window. We are not simply looking around for places to go and things to do and choosing at random; there must be a system of valuation behind our choices.
Let us return to the reality of the statement, is Everest there? In a nonhuman sense the answer is no. What we have before us is a more or less continuous swath of matter and radiation that we, for our own purposes, sort into categories: things we can stand on, things that we can’t, things we can move through, things that we can’t, things that release endorphins and things that kill us. And like route ratings none of these are real attributes of the world surrounding us; they are just a description of the world as it relates to us. The mountain exists, it is “there,” only in our minds.
Thus what we have in “because it’s there” is a statement that says nothing at all about Everest, or any other mountain, and everything about Mallory and climbers in general. To us the mountain is there, or more precisely, the route is there, for the mountain is there to everyone. When we look at a cliff or a peak we see routes where most people see nothing at all. The routes exist to us and because they exist as routes they demand to be climbed – we climb them because they are there. Non-climbers do not climb them because they, the routes, are not there.
Learning to climb is learning to see the world in this manner, learning to see the there-ness of the route lines, and once we acquire this sight the real aesthetic experience opens up. We learn to see a beauty in sweeping lines of stone and ice that go far beyond how well they photograph. When we look at a route and are struck by its majesty we often forget that we are seeing into the mountain something very unusual, something that has more to do with our active relationship with it, with our visualization of an action, than the mountain itself.