Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mountains: They Are, Indeed, There

Way back in the 1920s, some uninspired British journalist asked George Mallory probably the most pedestrian question one could put to a mountaineer. Why did he want to climb a massive piece of rock in the Sagarmatha Zone along the Tibetan-Nepalese border in the eastern Himalayas we know as Mt. Everest (phrasing mine, thanks to Wikipedia)? "Because it's there," Mallory allegedly replied, in one of the most famous ask-a-stupid question-get-a-disingenuous-answer exchanges in the history of mountaineering.

And yet the fact that he--or a journalist putting words in his mouth--could give that response speaks to something that we know for a certainty about Mallory when he gave that answer. We have somewhat less certainty now. Conrad Anker's 1999 discovery of Mallory's remains at about 27,000 feet on the Tibetan route to the summit underscores the evidence of failure on a third try, at least failure to get down the mountain. Though he may have climbed the mountain on that final atempt, he never came down to the people who live in its ever-present shadow, having done something they never in their wildest dreams aspired to do. They go as high as the ibex, one of their major sources of protein, and no higher--unless paid to do so by climbing expeditions. Some of them fear dishonoring the mountain. Hold that thought.

Mallory died in 1924. He had tried previously in two expeditions in the early 1920s. A photo exists of his final expedition gathered in camp looking like a slightly ratty version of an Edwardian men's club. Mallory wields a pipe, just the thing for one's lungs at extreme altitude. They might as well be in the Alps for all their awareness of the meaning of those mountains to the Tibetans and the Sherpas, a Tibetan people who live on the Nepalese side of the mountain.

In 1953 two men finally attained the summit of Chomolungma, the Tibetan word for Everest (an English surveyor's choice). The bee-keeper Edmund Hillary of New Zealand did his best to make sure that his Nepalese climbing partner Tenzing Norgay Sherpa got the credit he deserved. He also decided he would work to improve the lives of the Sherpa people in the Khumbu district around the base of Everest and its several impressive neighbors.

He has built schools, medical clinics, and two airstrips for emergency evacuations. He reckons it more important than the climb. Some mountaineers have followed him in this vocation; many have not. Some go back repeatedly to reclimb Everest for various reasons, financial among them; Hillary came back for other, more substantial reasons, dispensing what money could buy for a people he'd come to love.

Fast forward. The book "Three Cups of Tea" has achieved a lot more attention than one would expect for a book about a climber who failed in his one shot at K2 (the second mountain surveyed in the Karakoram in Pakistan's North-West Territories by the British and the most technical climb among the 8,000 meter peaks of the Himalayas). Nursed back to health by people into whose lives he literally wandered, Greg Mortenson came back to help the people who helped him, building schools and at least one bridge.

How charming or even quixotic this seemed outside the climbing community, but not within it. And how ironic that the project, which has persisted, takes on an iconic significance now as we fight the products of radical Islamic madrassas--schools--in Pakistan and Afghanistan, precisely where Greg Mortenson builds his schools. Unlike the madrassas, most of Mortenson's schools are for girls. So deeply has Mortenson assimilated himself to the cultures of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush that his book has become required reading for the U.S. Army forces and officers engaged in the Afghan conflict.

As for honoring and/or dishonoring mountains, it matters a great deal that we understand such notions. And it particularly matters that we avoid patronizing cultures in which mountains receive veneration either as gods or as the haunts of gods. For one thing, in doing so we would patronize our own cultural roots. Think of Olympus or Sinai. As a professor I taught for in graduate school would say, think of all the mountains on or near which western civilizations have built. And think of all the buildings designed as mountains, beginning with the Pyramids and continuing through Gothic Cathedrals and the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Dubai.

We worship height. It challenges our puniness, so why should we not? And why should we not both envy and help those who live in permanent proximity to its greatest natural manifestation? Why should we think we can drop in and out every now and then at our whim, and leave the people living there, who understand the place better than we ever will, to their own materially impoverished but culturally rich devices?

1 comment:

  1. Today, my mother was recounting, a now family legend, when her father (a Norwegian immigrant) dressed up as Eric the Red for a parade in Minneapolis during the 1930's. My mother tells this story, in part, to remind her audience that it was Eric the Red, not Christopher Columbus, who "discovered" America.

    Your post today is so meaningful. It both problematizes (a graduate school word) and celebrates the role of the explorer in foreign lands. I appreciate the tension you convey.

    I heard a presentation about Mortenson last Spring on campus where we learned that he had to constantly negotiate with his wife for how long he could be away from his family on his travels. Most explorers leave a family behind to worry about them or make do in their absence. Sometimes I wonder if their good deeds can ever add up to or make up for their absence.