May 13, 2024

Walking to the Roof of the World

Darrel Hartman 

Why climb Mount Everest? “Because it’s there,” George Mallory famously said. Then he died trying.

A century on, Mallory is best remembered for those three koanlike words. As Mick Conefrey writes in “Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition,” they are “both the simplest and the most enigmatic explanation of the lure of high mountains.”

Alas, Everest, highest of them all, is less enigmatic and arguably less alluring these days. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay logged the first successful ascent in 1953, it has been summited more than 12,000 times by upward of 6,500 different people. Every spring the Nepali army removes several tons of trash from this high-elevation tourist attraction. The human-waste problem has gotten so bad that, as of this year, visitors are required to pack their poop and take it with them.

The Everest that Mallory explored in the 1920s had less excrement and more romance. The climbing equipment was rudimentary: the flax ropes were as threads compared to modern nylon ones, and the wool clothing and hobnail boots were more cumbersome and far less effective than modern goose down and crampons. Mr. Conefrey, a documentary filmmaker who has written several books about Himalayan mountaineering history, also notes another major difference between then and now: Mallory and his peers “took risks that many of today’s climbers would find unacceptable.”