Everest Pioneer George Mallory on the Meaning of Life

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Nowadays, it seems that every adventurous pursuit must have deeper meaning or purpose — to raise awareness of climate change (note: we’re aware) or generate funds for some worthy charity. Nothing wrong with that. But in 1922, responding to questions about his attempt to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory put the whole thing in perspective.

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

A good reminder.

Photo: Mallory is back row, second from left.

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{ 4 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Kim Kircher

    My favorite line: “there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it”. Wise words. Sometimes it’s okay just to admit it. We go out on adventures simply for the pure joy of it.

  • Ace

    “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

  • Jake Norton

    Great quote, Steve, from an amazing man in many respects. One I use in presentations quite a bit. A couple more by Mallory you probably know, and might enjoy:

    “I suppose we go to Mount Everest, granted the opportunity, because—in a word—we can’t help it. Or, to state the matter rather differently, because we are mountaineers…. To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell.”

    “How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end — to know there’s no dream that musn’t be dared…Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful, soberly astonished. Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No…and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction…fulfilled a destiny. To struggle and to understand — never this last without the other; such is the law.”

    And, since I’m one who believes it’s a good thing to make climbing about more than just climbing (while also not minding climbing for just sheer joy), the words of Willi Unsoeld:

    “You’ve climbed the highest mountain in the world. What’s left? It’s all downhill from there. You’ve got to set your sights on something higher than Everest.”

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