April 26, 1336 Because it’s There

Not being blessed with the luxury of surplus time and resources our forebears were more interested in survival, the mountains being more the object of religious veneration and supernatural terror.

Helmut and Erika Simon were visiting that day they found the body, German tourists hiking the mountains of the South Tyrol where the Austrian border, meets the Italian. On September 19, 1991, the couple was climbing the east ridge of the Fineilspitze in the Ötztal Alps, when they found him.

A fellow mountaineer perhaps, injured and succumbed to the cold? Who else would be up here at 3,210 meters above sea level (10,530 ft) but a fellow mountaineer.  The couple returned the following day, with a mountain gendarme.

Ötzi the Ice Man, as he may have looked

Eight groups would visit the site in the following days struggling with ice axe and pneumatic drill, to free the corpse from his ice tomb.

Among these were some of the modern-day royalty of the mountaineering community. There was Hans Kammerlander who, along with fellow climber Reinhold Messner, became the first in 1984 to traverse two 8000m peaks without descending to base camp. Messner himself was the first to ascend Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen, the first to climb all 14 of the world’s “eight-thousanders” – mountains with peaks above the 8,000 meter “death zone”, of 26,000-feet.

The body was freed from the ice on September 22 and extracted, the following day. Subsequent analysis revealed not a modern climber but the stunning realization that this man breathed his last, before the Old Kingdom of Egypt moved the first rock to build the first pyramid. This relic of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) turned out to be Europe’s oldest known mummy, preserved in the ice since the day he died sometime, around 3230 BC.

Artist’s interpretation of Ötzi the Ice Man as he may have
looked, in life.

The media called him Ötzi for the Ötztal Alps, in which he was found. Forensic analysis uncovered a nearly bone-deep defensive wound on the man’s hand between the thumb and forefinger. Not yet fully healed the injury suggests a days-long flight from attackers, until the arrow which would take his life was released by unknown pursuers to find its way, deep inside of Ötzi’s back.

Mountaineering is enjoyed today by any number of enthusiasts. There’s rock climbing and ski touring, trekking, spelunking and more. For the truly adventurous there are the hulking massifs of the world’s greatest peaks. The eight-thousanders. To the purists the sport has become little more than adventure tourism, but it wasn’t always that way.

Mountain climbers ascending Mount Rainier looking at Little Tahoma Peak. H/T Wikipedia

Humans have lived on and among the mountains since the dawn of time but the peaks were rarely visited. Ötzi himself had good reason to find himself at 10,530 feet and it wasn’t, “because it’s there”. Not being blessed with the luxury of surplus time and resources our forebears were more interested in survival, the mountains being more the object of religious veneration and supernatural terror than an object to be enjoyed, for its own sake.

Such was the case throughout the early history of our kind, through the rise and fall of the Roman republic and subsequent, empire. A timeline of the middle ages is pockmarked with conflict great and small from the early 5th century until the dawn of the Renaissance, a thousand years later.

The fourteenth century, the “calamitous 14th century” in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, was a time of tectonic shift in the old order. The three horses of the apocalypse converged in the 14th century to form the “crisis of the late middle ages”. The Great Famine of 1315-’17 was followed a generation later by the Black Death, a calamity resulting in the death of half or more, of all Europe. Political and religious chaos followed demographic collapse, all of it set against the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the advent, of the “Little Ice age”.

This was the world of Francesco Petrarch, a man many consider the first of the modern alpinists.

Today no fewer than three paved roads and a network of walking trails crisscross the face of Mont Ventoux, a landmark in the southeastern French province, of Provence. French and foreign tourists alike climb the 6,263 limestone summit to munch on brie and baguette and to take in the views of the Calanque range all the way down the Mediterranean coast, to the Rhone Valley.

Mont Ventoux

It was all different this day in 1336 when the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch first scaled the heights of Mont Ventoux, because it was there.

In 1350, Petrarch wrote of his ascent of Mont Ventoux “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” While certainly not the first human being to climb a mountain for fun we remember the man today as the first modern tourist and the spiritual father of untold women and men who take to the outdoors to fix a broken soul, to take in the magnificence of nature or simply to take on the challenge of climbing a mountain, because it is there.

George Mallory

Once asked by a reporter why he wished to climb Mt. Everest, the British adventurer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there”. Left out of Mallory’s facile response was the cataclysm of World War 1, a war so awful as to destroy a generation and leave a continent for the first time, in ruin. Mallory himself enlisted in the artillery in December 1915 and helped to fight out that whole terrible ordeal in the rat filled trenches, of France.

No list of the great and terrible battles of the war they thought would “end all wars” would be complete, without the horrors of the Somme. George Mallory was there throughout and might as well have answered that reporter, because I may at last find peace in that place, for my soul.

Did George Mallory find the peace he sought on the slopes of Mount Everest?

On June 8, 1924, expedition member Noel Odell last witnessed George Mallory and Andrew Irvine traverse what may have been the then-unknown “third step” at 26,000 feet on the way, to the peak. Cloud cover then obscured the pair and the two men disappeared, for the next 75 years. Was George Mallory the first to summit the world’s tallest mountain? Tantalizing clues exist that maybe he did, or maybe not.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are credited with being the first to summit Mount Everest nearly twenty years later, in 1953. In 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition discovered the frozen corpse of George Leigh Mallory at 26,760 feet, 2,271.7 feet short, of the summit.

No helicopter will ever visit the summit of mount Everest. The human form is barely capable of survival at so great a height let alone the attempted salvage, of the body of a fellow climber. So it is that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine remain to this day on the slopes of the world’s greatest mountain, two among some 200 who died in the attempt and lie still on those towering heights, because it’s there.

%d bloggers like this: