Mallory, Hillary…. The airwaves have been buzzing this week with two of the best-known names in mountain-climbing history. Some people even reportedly got confused, thinking the body found near the summit of Mount Everest May 1 was that of Sir Edmund Hillary (who is very much alive in New Zealand) and not that of the British climber George Leigh Mallory (who died on the mountain in 1924).
The names are linked, of course, because of the great question that has been reopened with the discovery of Mallory’s nearly perfectly preserved body: Who got to the top (or, as the pros say, “summited”) first? Mr. Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made it in 1953. Mallory and his companion, Andrew Irvine, were last seen 29 years before that, looking “like two dots,” less than 1,000 meters from the summit and still climbing. No one knows to this day if disaster overtook them on the way up or the way down. Cameras that they were believed to have been carrying, and which might yield an answer, have not been found, although the search continues.
It is hard not to feel torn about this discovery. In the first place, it may end up rearranging legends that once seemed as solid as the peaks themselves. Mallory was famous for having said he wanted to climb Everest “because it is there”; Mr. Hillary is famous for being the first to do it — and come down alive. Still, with that rider added, nobody can take the achievement away from him, as he himself pointed out last week. He may well have to make room at the top for Mallory. Yet he also put the whole issue of heroism in the proper perspective when he told reporters, “For 45 years I’ve been accepted as the hero, so I wouldn’t feel too terrible if [Mallory] had his special spell as well. I’ve always regarded him … as the original hero of Everest.”
Everest surely has room for more than one “original hero,” and these men and their companions fit the bill about equally. In the radio dispatches sent after Mallory was found, one could almost hear the shiver of awe that most people feel witnessing real courage — or its consequences. The British climber, it seems, went up into the 8,000-meter-plus zone — a place where absolutely no man had gone before — wearing a tweed jacket and hobnailed boots and carrying nothing more high-tech than an altimeter and a pocket Kodak. Even 75 years later, his body was still impressive. “I’ll never forget this guy’s arm,” one searcher said this week. “I think it just summarizes his strength, and his catlike agility, and his tenacity in not giving up.”
Less positive are the feelings aroused by the glimpse we have been given of the scene atop Everest today. The changes that have taken place since 1924 (and, indeed, 1953) are evident in the details. The searchers, for one thing, did not find just one body up there: They were stepping over bodies, rejecting bodies, because they could tell from the “modern gear” that they weren’t Mallory’s or Irvine’s. And this was on the relatively untrodden North Face, a route closed by communist China until 1975. The team also complained their radio calls were constantly being interrupted by “phone calls bleeding into our frequency.” Where is the mythic silence, the overpowering loneliness, for which people have always revered mountains? Only in this: Out of concern for security, “as soon as Conrad found the body, we went into a radio silence and didn’t talk from then on.” Otherwise, what you evidently have up there is a kind of high-altitude Shinjuku, cell phones, gridlock and all.
Worse still is the sense of utter spoliation inspired by the expedition’s sponsoring Web site, www.MountainZone. . Certainly, the up-to-the-minute dispatches are riveting, but unsuspecting visitors may find themselves repelled by the patent money-grubbing. “All Everest all the time! Store! Features! Expeditions! Prayer flags! Get your Everest ’99 commemorative fleece! Click for Lincoln LS Everest ’99 coverage!” The greed is bad enough. But even sadder is the knowledge that it is hype like this that is encouraging more and more inadequately experienced climbers to try their luck in the Himalayas, adding to the lines, the trash — and the body count — on these remorseless peaks. Compared with this, and despite the three decades separating their feats, George Mallory and Edmund Hillary are both inhabitants of a lost world.
To their credit, the men who found Mallory seem to have treated his remains with dignity. “We performed a high-altitude committal,” one said, “buried the body in the rock, and left Mallory in a very peaceful spot, in a great space.” Despite the quaint phrasing, it is clear the right thing was done. Mallory would be glad, one feels, not to have to watch what is happening now on the great mountain that took his life.
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