Monday 10 October 2011
"Because it is there."
Hints to Lady Travellers has a cold and so her travels over the past few days have mostly been of the armchair variety. On Sunday I watched the 1953 documentary “The Conquest of Everest” which is pretty spectacular, all things considered. It tells the story of the 1953 expedition which resulted in Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay being – well, if not the first to reach the top of Everest, certainly the first to reach the top and live to tell the story.
The photography was done by members of the expedition, directed by George Lowe, a climber and teacher from New Zealand. The footage is extraordinary, the colours intense and the script is poetic – not surprising given that it was written by a poet: Louis MacNeice.
The story starts and ends with the words George Mallory (who may or may not have reached the summit in 1924 before dying on the mountain) is supposed to have said when asked, ‘Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?’ ‘Because it is there,’ he replied.
‘Because it is there,’ strikes me as an odd sentiment, but perhaps it’s just because I’m of a generation that flinches a bit from the Imperial (and sexist) language of conquest and colonisation. This movie, let me prepare you now, is full of such choice phrases as: ‘the goddess, mother of the world – as the Tibetans call her – can only be conquered by men.’
I assume what Mallory was getting at was the idea that when reaching somewhere first (or conquering, if that’s your thing) the where (Everest, the Moon, the South Pole) doesn’t matter so much as the challenge – the who and the how and the when. (This is echoed in Hillary’s comment to Lowe on returning from the summit: ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off.’ Sadly, this was not caught on film.)
The men filmed on the 1953 expedition visibly suffer, physically and emotionally. There is talk of desolation, of the place having ‘the smell of death’ – and given the footage shown, it doesn’t strike the viewer as poetic licence. Then, at the end, when Hillary and Norgay make it down to camp, their teammates bound to greet them, hug them (hugging! 1950s British men hugging!), slap their backs, pump their hands. Though the overarching narrative – and the motivation sustaining the climbers - may have been about conquest, about being first and thereby proving Britain’s might, the underlying message seems to be about establishing a relationship (if you can call it that) with a particular place – not so much conquest as wary truce.
But then, ‘The Wary Truce of Everest’ as a title doesn’t have quite the same dramatic potential, does it? And let’s not forget (and the film doesn’t let us) that the ascent of Everest took place on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation – with many headlines tying the crowning and the conquering together.
Whatever your own opinions on the significance of climbing Everest, or on ‘because it is there’ as a reason to go anywhere – there is no doubt that “The Conquest of Everest’ is an amazing record of a particular event and the time in which it took place.