A photo captured last week by Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja Magar showed a near continuous line of hundreds of climbers bottlenecked on the summit ridge of Everest, all trying to take advantage of a narrow window of good weather, tantalizingly close to the top of the world.
The 2019 climbing season on Mount Everest, which just came to an end, was a record setter, more climbers summited (825) than ever before, but it was also notable in a grimmer regard: at least eleven climbers died, the most in four years. Nirmal’s image went viral, sparking a debate about whether the high number of casualties was due to too many climbers.
Eleven fatalities is far from a record, but previous years’ high death tolls can be attributed to unforeseeable accidents, like the 2014 avalanche that killed sixteen climbers, or the 2015 avalanche that killed nineteen. This year, only two fatalities can be attributed to falls; the rest have been reported as edema, exposure and exhaustion, suggesting that too many climbers are spending too much time near the summit, a place where strength and mental faculties quickly fade, leaving too few resources for the dangerous trip down.
It’s less the climbing than the altitude, climbers are not climbing beyond their ability but instead beyond their altitude ability. Unfortunately it is difficult to get experience of what it is like climbing above Camp 3 (8,300m) without climbing Everest. Climbers invariably do not know what their ability above 8,300m is going to be like. In Everest’s ‘death zone’ above 8,000m, the lack of oxygen can cause high-altitude pulmonary edema, in which fluid floods the lungs, or high-altitude cerebral edema, which causes the brain to swell, even leading to high-altitude psychosis.
But to put things in perspective, the risk of death on Everest can be overstated. The death rate of those who climb above Base Camp is less than 1%.
The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world. It’s the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, with the ultimate panoramic horizon. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.
Mount Everest was first recorded in the Atlas of the Whole Imperial Territory as Qomolangma, its traditional Tibetan name, in 1719. It was discovered to be the world’s tallest mountain in 1856 and named after George Everest, head of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.
It was in 1924 that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine got near – or perhaps reached – the summit on a third attempt, but never make it back down. Mallory’s body was found at 27,000 feet in 1999. It then wasn’t until 1953 when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary reached the summit to officially claim the recognition of first to conquer the peak.
My fascination with the mountain and Mallory began when I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.
I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall.
I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni and Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.
I started to read The Fight for Everest. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.
Some 40 years on, I have still marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, some 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:
There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud…
Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.
No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.
On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary.
Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.
Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business.
Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there. These have often been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.
I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true.
Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.
Mallory epitomises unwavering entrepreneurial ambition and the attitude to succeed. He had focus and clarity on his goals, and a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:
Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. They see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.
Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.
Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
Highly motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.
Sometimes if you haven’t got your head up from the startup grind for a while, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work. Do stuff because it matters, for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it made a difference. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.
Don’t get lost in startup life’s busy shuffle and the noise. Remember those three words: Because It’s There, the drivers of George Mallory, possibly the first man to reach the summit of Everest. Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’, but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Make it count, where it matters, for yourself.