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During a speaking tour of the United States, after a failed attempt to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory was famously asked why he was attempting to scale the world’s highest peak. His reply, or a paraphrase of it, because we don’t know if he actually said these words, has been repeated by adventurers of all stripes justifying their objective:

“Because it’s there.”

We drop it in an offhand manner, but we rarely understand the true context of his remark. People didn’t understand when he first spoke it, nor have they in the millions of times it’s been repeated since.

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It sounds so glib and care free, almost condescending in its response to the journalist who asked the question. Mallory was part of the elite and perhaps if he had to explain beyond three words why he wanted to go, the journalist wouldn’t understand anyway. He’d never entered into the realm of profound spiritualism that Mallory had, nor would he understand the work ethic or suffering required.

But the journalist should have understood the critically important context of Mallory’s history: He was a British veteran, fresh from the horrors of World War I. Mallory had gone to war and came home to find his old life gone, many of his old friends dead or transformed by the trauma of the war. Before the war, he knew exactly where he fit in society, but now, everything had changed and he seemed to have no place at all. And like so many who survived this great, horrible war, like so many who have survived wars, he went in search of direction and meaning.

I think Mallory went to climb Mt. Everest because it was there when so much else in his life no longer was. The mountain provided a focus. It gave him reason to live when, following the unspeakable experience of the trenches, there may not have been anything else to live for. Why not climb?

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I do wonder, given the number of metaphors from war that have made their way into the outdoors, if he was off to conquer the mountain in the same way that one conquered enemy territory, or if he was off to conquer his own self and perhaps his own sorrow.

Maybe I’m reading too much into his quote. Perhaps it was just a glib answer tossed off at the journalist who would never understand, but after I came home from my own war, for several years it seemed as if the mountains and the rivers were all that was really and truly there for me. My friends were gone, my trust and belief in the democratic values of the country that sent me off to war were broken, I could not get my head wrapped around who I was supposed to be. But the mountains? The rivers? They were constant and they didn’t judge and they were fully accepting of who I was–or wasn’t.

But could I have explained that to a journalist in my early years of trying to understand who I was as a climber when so much of whom I had been seemed lost and gone forever? Doubtful. I’m still struggling to communicate it.

In my closest circle of friends and adventurers, there are fellow addicts and alcoholics in recovery, men and women who were asthmatics and couldn’t run and jump in a way that gave them playground success, who were barred entry to school sports. There are freaks and geeks, orphans, foster kids, and victims of physical and sexual abuse who couldn’t find homes or families literally and figuratively. There are military veterans returned from the last 50-plus years of wars around the world, many still fighting battles in their heads. And we’ve all turned to mountains and rivers. Why?

Because they are there when nothing else is.

Many of us have pieced our lives back together, thanks in large part to adventure. We have things to live for now beyond granite and sandstone and rushing water. Perhaps now the more important question is, why do we keep going back?

Because life is supposed to be beautiful. Because that’s where we find beauty. Because it’s there.

Photo by Bob Witlox

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Stacey Bare is the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and a veteran who served in Iraq, Angola, and Bosnia.
Stacey Bare is the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and a veteran who served in Iraq, Angola, and Bosnia.