Today is International Mountain Day. There could hardly be a better time to reflect on why you climb mountains. And when contemplating the question "Why do you climb?", you may find yourself distracted by the infamous answer attributed to George Mallory: "Because it is there." But what exactly did Mallory mean by this cryptic quip? Theories about his meaning are as various as theories explaining his disappearance high on Mt. Everest in 1924.
The Wildest Dream, a movie scheduled for release in 2010, promises to shed light on the enduring conundrum of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance. However, given that the mountain featured prominently on the movie's website is not Mt. Everest, but a reversed image of Mont Blanc du Tacul in France, I wouldn't hold your breath. [Editor's note: the image was eventually switched to Mt. Everest, perhaps as a result of this article!] In fact, you may want to take this opportunity to draw a few deep breaths, because there is a brand new theory that simultaneously deciphers Mallory's cryptic quip and explains his disappearance. And it is a theory that The Mountaineering Review is now proud to unveil on this International Mountain Day eighty five years after Mallory and Irvine vanished.
Solving complex problems often involves challenging assumptions that have been left unchallenged. Consider again Mallory's retort, "Because it is there". For too long, scholars and laypersons alike have assumed that by "it" Mallory was referring to Mt. Everest. But on this day -- a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly as "an opportunity to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life" -- it is the distinct pleasure of The Mountaineering Review to lay bare what Mallory was referring to with the word "it". When Mallory said that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there, he did not mean that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because Mt. Everest is there. Rather, George Herbert Leigh Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there. Yes, that's right. Call it what you like: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, or my personal favorite, Kangchenjunga Rachyyas.
To reiterate what has been suggested thus far, Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because he believed (or knew?) the Yeti was there. But what light does that shed on his disappearance, you ask? Well, if you don't want to get snow blindness, you had better put on your mountaineering goggles. But first, a refresher on the nature and history of science is in order. Scientific theories endeavor to explain phenomena -- that is, they try to determine what causes what. Sometimes, when a scientist finally stumbles on the correct theory, its accuracy seems so obvious in retrospect as to render all rival theories laughably preposterous. (Incidentally, I know all of this stuff about science because my daughter's brother's grandmother's husband's daughter is a scientist.)
With a clearer understanding of the nature and history of science, we are now positioned to account for the heretofore mysterious disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. As with many good scientific theories, as soon as you hear this one, it will seem so obviously correct that all other competing theories (such as the one that will no doubt be presented in The Wildest Dream) will seem, well, wild. Ok, here it is. You may want to take a few deep breaths. George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew "Sandy" Comyn Irvine (1902-1924) were killed high on the northeast ridge of Mt. Everest (also known as "Sagarmatha" by the Nepalese and "Chomolungma" by the Chinese) by something that I will discuss in a forthcoming blog entry. I actually lost track of time and ought to be getting ready for bed. Oh, what the hell, let's do this now: They were killed by a yeti! That's it, you read that right. Mallory and Irvine were killed by a yeti. Have a look at this picture.
Having clearly articulated this intoxicating new theory about what really happened to Mallory and Irvine, a sober evaluation is required. The history of science demonstrates that the best theories have sweeping explanatory efficacy -- that is, they not only explain the main thing you want to explain, but every other related significant detail as well. The Yeti theory can obviously explain how Mallory and Irvine died (a yeti killed them). But can it explain why Mallory's body was found, while Irvine's body was not found? Yes. The Yeti ate Irvine (because he was much younger than Mallory), but was too full to eat Mallory. And now for the explanatory hurdle -- that one little fact that the rival theories just cannot explain. Why was Mallory's body found with all of his personal effects intact, with one glaring exception: the photograph of his wife that Mallory planned to leave on the summit? Quite simply, the Yeti stole it. That is what you call explanatory efficacy.
So, there you have it. Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it -- namely, the Yeti -- is there, and Mallory and Irvine were subsequently killed by that selfsame Yeti. It should go without saying that the timing of the publication of this Yeti "theory" (one is now tempted to say Yeti "fact") could not be any worse for the producers of The Wildest Dream. Although I'm sure the scenery will be pretty, in light of the Yeti theory, watching the movie will be like watching two teams who failed to make the playoffs in their final regular season game: ultimately, it just won't matter.
Curiously, though not surprisingly, representatives of The Wildest Dream could not be reached for comment.*
* I didn't try to reach them.