Because It’s There: Another Look

Because It’s There: Another Look

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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.

In this way climbing can be seen not as a sport or a discipline, but as an act of imagination.


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Viewing: 1-6 of 6

mrchad9 - Mar 21, 2013 1:06 am - Voted 10/10

Nicely Written

Thought provoking and very interesting. Thanks for submitting!


pvnisher - Apr 1, 2013 7:01 pm - Hasn't voted

it is not there

In a quantum sense, Everest is neither "there" any more than it is "here". It is both here and there equally and simultaneously. The more we know about its position, the less we know about its momentum. And by trying to observe it, we alter it. I suppose it depends on the eigenket of the summit, does it not?

I climb "because it is not there".


jacobsmith - Apr 1, 2013 7:25 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: it is not there

I've never quite grasped why the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to anything other than electrons...


pvnisher - Apr 5, 2013 12:48 am - Hasn't voted

Re: it is not there


That's why.


LincolnB - Apr 2, 2013 10:11 pm - Hasn't voted

Into the Silence

A marvelous book came out recently, "Into the silence", about Mallory's attempts on Everest -- in regards to the famous quote, the author Wade Davis writes (pp. 465-6):

"Asked why he wanted to climb Everest, no doubt for the umpteenth time, Mallory reportedly replied, 'Because it's there.' This simple retort hit a nerve, and took on an almost metaphysical resonance, as if Mallory had somehow in his wisdom distilled the perfect notion of emptiness and pure purpose. It was first quoted in the Sunday New York Times on March 18 [1923], in the opening paragraph of a half-page feature, 'Climbing Everest is Work for Supermen.' In time, it would be inscribed on memorials, quoted in sermons, cited by princes and presidents. But those who know Mallory best, including two of his biographers, his close friend David Pye and his son-in-law David Robertson, interpreted the comment rather more casually. To them it was simply a flippant response by an exhausted and frustrated man who famously did not suffer fools. Or as Arnold Lunn remarked, Mallory, no stranger to New York speakeasies, just said it to get rid of a 'bore who stood between him and a much needed drink.'
Whatever its genesis, the phrase caught on because it did in fact capture something essential. 'Everest is the highest mountain in the world,' Mallory later wrote, "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.'"


pookster1127 - Apr 3, 2013 1:10 am - Voted 10/10

Well written

You write exceptionally well. Thanks for the succinct and poignant thought. When I am on a particularly tough trail or climb it seems there are times that all I can think of is to get into a comfortable bed. Yet when back in my warm safe world all I want to do is to relive the experience and long for a new one. That is why SP is so much better than other sites, in that we can experience others climbs - through words and images. I see myself in places I am not yet qualified to go or cannot afford. You are correct that our imaginations - some based on experience - define what we do and what we might yet achieve.

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