Kage Baker was fascinated with Mount Everest. Or, perhaps more accurately, with the men who climb it.
I thought of that when I ran across this the other day: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2007244/Climber-discovers-frozen-body-best-friend-peak-Everest.html
Everest is the grave marker for an astonishing number of her own suitors, and some climber had just found his friend frozen on her slopes. Kage would have loved the story.
She herself never showed any inclination to take up mountain climbing. If you could walk up a slope to a summit, Kage would try it – the idea of attempting a climb that required ropes, however, filled her with fear. Also, she had a sturdy dislike of snow. But the idea of the people who could not resist a mountain – ah, that intrigued her totally.
She was especially fond of George Herbert Leigh Mallory (he’s the man who said he climbed Everest “Because it’s there!”), who may very well have the man who really first summited on Everest. Mallory and fellow climber Andrew Irvine were lost on the mountain in 1924, in an attempt at the summit – they were not found again for 75 years. Indeed, Irvine never has been found, which is a distinct tragedy: he was carrying the camera. If he and Mallory did make it to the summit, the only evidence would be on that Kodak that Irvine carried in his jacket pocket …
Their expedition and its doomed conclusion absolutely enthralled Kage. While Mallory went quite modern (for the time) and used oxygen on the climb, he and Irvine climbed in the same sorts of clothes they’d have worn to hike up Snowdon or Ben More: tweeds, wool stockings and good boots, tailored jackets and knee breeches. It’s gallant and hilarious to see in the old photos from the expedition … the very picture of the genteely insane British explorer.
Sir Edmund Hilary is, of course, the man who took the prize: he summited Everest in 1953. (Though his Sherpa guide, the immortal Tenzing Norgay, was right beside him and maybe even first …) However, there have always been a few romantics who thought maybe, just maybe, Mallory had gotten there first – even if he died on the way down. Sir Edmund, not without cause, observed that getting to the top was only half the job and one was supposed to make it back down in order to get the credit. Anyway, there was no way to tell.
In 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition climbed Everest, more or less in search of them. There are frozen bodies all over Everest – they usually fell in inaccessible places, and no one can manage to fetch them down. Chinese climbers had recently described “an English dead” (what an evocative phrase!) in a location that would have been on Mallory’s path, and the expedition wanted to ascertain if it was him.
They were sponsored by Nova and the BBC, and carried simply scads of audio video equipment. They sent out regular radio and podcasts, and Kage was glued to every one. She was seeing Everest from the viewpoint of a climber, and it had her in its grip. She pored over their daily progress, studied maps, openly mourned that she was now to old and stiff to take up mountaineering …
“We could have done that, if we’d started young enough,” she opined several times.
“YOU could,” said I. “Mountain climbing isn’t something I even remotely wanted to do.”
“You have no imagination!” Kage charged.
“I have lots,” I said. “That mountain is paved with dead climbers, and I can imagine one of them being me very easily.”
“Oh screw you,” she returned. “Now shut up, the broadcast is beginning.”
And she would be lost, glued to the webcam recording life in a tent barely bigger than the man in it, staked out on a ice field just below the Rafters of the World.
As it turned out, they didn’t find poor Irvine, nor the little camera he carried. But they did find Mallory, right where the Chinese said they’d seen him. The photos were astounding – both frightening and moving.
Mallory had lain for 3/4 of a century on the slopes of Everest, face pressed to her bosom, half-naked in the embrace of a goddess. His flesh had turned to snow, to marble; the tatters of his clothes and climbing harness were flung around him. He looked like a man fast asleep in the arms of his beloved after a bout of love – and that’s precisely what he was, wasn’t it?
The 1999 expedition buried him there, where he’d fallen on his lady’s stony breast. It can’t be determined from Mallory’s grave if he made it to the summit or not – he could have been going up or down when he fell. Unless Irvine is found, no one will ever know. And no one has found him yet.
But the romance of Mallory’s feat – whatever it was – is almost as great as the glory of having been the first to climb to the top. Kage thought Hillary’s comments were just a little crass. Certainly, surviving the climb is to be preferred to dying on the way back down, but is it really sportsmanlike to snark like that?
And, as Kage observed when they raised the cairn over Mallory, “He’s the one she kept, isn’t he?”