The tragic deaths of six climbers recently on Mount Rainier evokes age-old questions about people and mountains and the human spirit. They also call to mind the name of George Mallory.
Mallory could well be the most famous mountain climber who ever lived. Well, Sir Edmund Hillary — the man credited with being the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest — might argue that point. So might Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who delivered Hillary to the top of the world’s highest peak.
But Mallory certainly has a place in mountaineering lore, with one reason being that he may well have preceded Hillary to the top of Everest by nearly 30 years — in 1924. We don’t really know, because Mallory and his climbing partner died on the mountain near the summit, their bodies remaining unclaimed until 1999, and no evidence can prove whether they were ascending or descending when their journey was halted. More important to Mallory’s lasting fame, however, is a quote attributed to him. Asked by a New York Times reporter in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously retorted, “Because it’s there.”
Few phrases have so simply summed up the human condition, the human quest, the human desire to push the limits of mind and body. One of the fundamental differences between people and animals is that people seek out challenges for sport or adventure or personal improvement — even at the risk of injury or death. Mountain climbing — be it toward the 29,029-foot peak of Mount Everest or a summit half that high such as Mount Rainier — presents unspeakable dangers, yet brings out the most admirable traits of the human spirit.
With that in mind, we mourn the tragedy on Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot glaciated peak so prominent that it is depicted on Washington’s license plates. Two guides and four clients were believed killed when a rock fall or an avalanche swept them from their perch, delivering a stark reminder of nature’s harsh power. The bodies will not be recovered for weeks or months, if ever. “The mountain is so inaccessible and can be inhospitable,” said Patti Wold, a spokeswoman with Mount Rainier National Park. “We can’t always retrieve everybody who is lost there, unfortunately.
“The degree of risk in that area, due to the rock fall and ice fall that’s continuously coming down from that cliff onto the area where the fall ended, we cannot put anybody on the ground.”
The accident is the second-deadliest climbing tragedy in Rainier’s history, behind an ice fall that swept 11 climbers to their deaths in 1981. In 1946, a cargo transport plane crashed into the mountain, killing 32 Marines. The victims of both those accidents remain entombed on the mountain.
And still it begs the question: Why? Why are some people compelled to scale mountains? Why do they face unfathomable danger? Mount Rainier is a strong barometer of the sport’s growth, as the National Park Service has been keeping track of climbers since 1950. In that first year, 238 adventurous souls attempted to scale Rainier; these days, more than 10,000 try each year.
They are modern-day explorers, testing limits while embracing the health and spiritual benefits of climbing. Why do people climb mountains? It could be because the mountains are there. But a more appropriate response comes from Aubrey Laurence in a story for Outdoors NW Magazine: “If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.”