George Leigh Mallory’s first view of Mount Everest would have been from Pang La Pass in Tibet. As the pass is still where the pass was in 1921, and as the mountain also has not changed its location, size, or shape, he would have seen this, exactly.

Mallory has been a diversion of mine over the past few years. I read anything I can regarding he and Sandy Irvine and their dealings with the mountain. I have grown to believe that Mallory was a singular man, cut by the Maker from strange and rare cloth, stitched both elegantly and durably. He was a soft and even-handed father to three girls and to Ruth Mallory he was a husband from a song. He was a prodigy on a mountain, supple and rugged and rolling over its ridges and through its crevices with an ease that belied effort, like water spilled upward. And he was a poet. Of his first view of Everest from Pang La, he wrote “It was a prodigious white fang, an excrescence from the jaw of the world.”

The mountain killed George Mallory, but it did not defeat him. He went in 1921 and 1922 and finally again in 1924, when he and Sandy gained the northeast ridge and were last seen making progress 800 vertical feet below the summit, before a storm closed the curtains on their spotter, Noel Odell, and gave them to history. In 1999 Conrad Anker, one of the foremost mountaineers of our generation, found George Mallory’s body high on the slopes of Everest. He had all of the things that one would have expected to find on his person: altimeter, watch, rope. The accoutrements of the climber. There were two items, however, conspicuous in their absence. It is known that Mallory and Irvine carried with them a vest pocket Kodak camera. The camera was not on Mallory, so it is presumed to be with Irvine, whose body has yet to be found. Also missing was a picture of Ruth. George had taken with him a photo of his wife and promised that he would place it on the summit of the mountain.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are rightfully credited with the first summit of Mount Everest. They made it to the top in 1953, provably so. 800 feet and color photography and weatherproof down suits and insulated boots with crampons higher than Mallory climbed. Maybe. You could disassemble a steam engine with a fork in the time it would take to read all of the speculation as to whether or not Mallory and Irvine stood on the roof of the world. From their last known position a fierce adversary still awaited them, the “second step,” a one hundred foot stone rampart at twenty eight thousand feet. Think of climbing the prow of an ocean freighter, with thousands of feet of nothing behind you, beckoning you to slip. Most knowledgeable Everest folk will tell you that Mallory and Irvine could not have conquered the second step. If you get sucked into the ‘did they or didn’t they’ though, you’re missing the point.

Take your mind off of Facebook right now. Take it off of productivity reports and soccer matches and the dumb thing you argued about with whomever. Go back and click the link above. Stand at Pang La Pass in 1921, look at that jagged horizon and listen to the staccato bursts of Sharwa from the Sherpa porters, smell the musk of yaks and feel the cool thin blades of air in your lungs. Five of the ten tallest peaks in the world are in view. In the midst of them, stabbing the tropopause, stands twenty nine thousand feet of ambivalent murder. Look at that thing. See that knife edge ridge running from the left flank to the summit pyramid? Just being there will kill you, the lack of oxygen starving your lungs until you collapse. One misstep and you’ve got seven thousand feet to regret it. Don’t get me wrong. Everest doesn’t have anything against you. It’s not trying to kill you. It just does. It can’t help it.

You’re merely George Mallory, six feet and a buck-seventy of plain man looking for the first time at 357 trillion pounds of rock and snow and pain. You’ve been on boats and trains and horses and your feet for months. Your head is pounding while your body re-acclimates to the altitude and you’ve got diarrhea from the shrimp you shouldn’t have tried in Kathmandu and in the saddlebag of your pony rests a letter from Ruth telling you your daughters cry every day, missing daddy.

What would you do? Look at that mountain and say it. Tell the truth, it’s okay.

Yep, me too.

George Mallory did not do that. He wrote down his words about what he saw and then closed his journal and stood and said “You hold still sweetheart. Papa will be there directly.” Then he went to the mountain. With hobnail boots and a few layers of cotton and gabardine and wool and rejiggered aviator goggles and homemade oxygen tanks and a lion’s heart, he went to the mountain. Then he went again. Then he went again. And yes, he’s still there.

I like to think of a picture of Ruth Mallory, buried a few inches deep by trembling bluish hands, each year another layer of white over her and by now she’s three feet under. Beneath the feet of Hillary and Norgay and every other man and woman who have stood on the summit of Mount Everest, smiling up at them with a secret she will never tell. “Before any of you, another man was here. My man was here.” It’s nearly impossible she’s there, but if you’ve read 58 Day Miracle you’ll understand why impossibility doesn’t upset my dream of her.

She didn’t want him to go. In the fall of 1923 they had terrific disputes about his final trip in the spring. I doubt she even understood why he had to go. But what I do believe is that, without even knowing why, she loved him for it. She loved the thing in him that would go to the mountain, the thing that would not allow him to turn back at Pang La.

We all have our Pang La, the place from which we catch the first glimpse of the dream of our lives. Most of those views don’t include anything quite so intimidating as an unclimbed Himalayan peak jutting five and a half miles into to sky. But there is something there, and it may be scary or difficult, and we face a choice.

What I hope you find when you come here is writing that goes to the mountain. Brave writing, words with heart. This blog, if it is anything of significance, is my leaving the pass and making for higher ground. I’m weary and every step brings a new doubt, but this picture in my pocket has traveled too far, too long, to rest here.

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