The Unending Allure Of High Mountains


Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London.

At 12.50 p.m. on June 8, 1924, high on the Tibetan flank of Mount Everest, Noel Odell clambered onto a small crag just as the clouds overhead dissipated. Far above, on the northeast ridge, two spidery dots were moving uphill.

The lower dot, he guessed, was the greenhorn, Sandy Irvine, a first-timer to the Himalayas who had nonetheless proved himself to be indefatigable on the mountain. The man he was following was the most feted climber of his generation. The leading light of the expedition and already a global celebrity, George Mallory was now edging toward the greatest unclaimed trophy in exploration. Judging by their steady progress and convinced of Mallory’s resolve and prowess, Odell felt sure they would make the summit. The moment was transitory and everlasting. “Then the whole fascinating vision vanished,” Odell would recall later, “enveloped in cloud once more.”

The next person to see Mallory was Conrad Anker, on May 1, 1999. Anker, a preeminent American climber, was part of an expedition assembled to find Mallory and Irvine’s bodies. Following gut instinct, Anker’s furlough in the Death Zone was mere hours old when he spotted “a patch of alabaster … [a] body that wasn’t modern.” He conveyed the news to teammates elsewhere on the mountain over an open radio channel with a prearranged coded message: “I’ve got a thermos of Tang juice and some Snicker bars. Why don’t you guys come down and have a little picnic with me? Over.”

A nametag sewn onto a shirt collar confirmed the corpse’s identity: “G. Mallory.” For 75 years, Mallory’s body had lain on this spot at 26,670 feet. Jet-stream winds had shredded his clothes to rags. Years of harsh sun had bleached his exposed skin a pearlescent white. His right leg was broken at a grotesque angle and the mummified torso was abraded on its right side, evidence of a catastrophic fall. Aspects of his posture — the left leg placed protectively over the shattered right, fingertips dug into the shale as if fighting to stymie a slide — led his discoverers to conclude that he had died not from the fall but from exposure.

Before they buried the body beneath a pile of stones, Anker’s team frisked it for possessions. Decades after the 1924 expedition, Mallory’s eldest daughter Clare had recalled her father’s promise to leave a photograph of his wife, Ruth, on Everest’s summit. Among the items in his pockets were a brass altimeter, a monogrammed handkerchief, a tin of bouillon cubes and a pocketknife. No sign of the photograph could be found.

“Behind the mystery of the first ascent of Earth’s tallest peak lurks another conundrum, one to which Mallory’s own answer still echoes through the decades.”

This month marks 100 years since Mallory’s last dance with the sublime. Debate persists over whether a 1920s climber in hobnail boots, even a phenom like Mallory, could have made it past the Second Step, a technical and challenging 100-foot promontory, to reach the summit.

“It’s the ultimate exploration detective story,” said Mick Conefrey, whose new book “Fallen” (2024), is the latest to dissect the 1924 expedition and its aftermath. “Mallory was the most romantic figure in the early history of mountaineering. The fact that he climbed ‘unplugged,’ without any down clothing, satellite phone or Kevlar oxygen bottle, means that people really want to believe he could have done it.” Definitive proof may never arrive. Irvine may have been carrying a Kodak Vest Pocket camera, the film inside which, were it ever recovered, might solve the question. But his body remains missing, imprisoned somewhere in the Himalayan deep freeze.

Behind the mystery of the first ascent of Earth’s tallest peak lurks another conundrum, one to which Mallory’s own answer still echoes through the decades. Beyond vainglory, what was drawing these men toward the roof of the world? A year or so before his disappearance, while Mallory was on a fundraising lecture tour in America, a persistent New York Times pressman asked him a question he’d been subjected to many times before: Why climb Everest at all? An antic Mallory answered: “Because it’s there.”

It is strange to consider that a laconic retort should become the most famous explanation for the human urge to climb mountains, if not for all exploration. However, wittingly or not, Mallory’s words captured an enigmatic allure which, in the decades after his disappearance, would only grow. The summit pyramid that was once Mallory and Irvine’s alone is today a lodestar for modern thrill-seekers, some of whom pay tens of thousands of dollars to endure the annual traffic jam beneath the Hillary Step, even though cold probability suggests that some of them will never return.

The past and present votaries of Everest are merely the most conspicuous exemplars of a universal longing. For millions of hikers, climbers, skiers and weekend ramblers, the mountains are places of romance, recreation and refuge. Our love affair with them has shaped a shared culture as well as our ideas and ideals. On that day a century ago, Mallory became a martyr to a visceral compulsion: the urge to ascend.

Into The Alps

A couple of months ago, in the ebbing weeks of the European winter, I traveled to the Swiss Alps to contemplate a mountain. Like many armchair adventurers, I’d chewed over the Mallory mystery for years; the story always seemed like the ultimate allegory of a fascination I shared. Though I am no climber, I’ve rarely seen a mountain without wanting in some deep fiber of my being to be on top of it. Determined to explore what drew Mallory and today entices millions of others toward the great ranges, I set my sights on the Bernese Oberland.

Specifically, I wanted to see the Eiger. Topping out at 13,015 feet, the Eiger ranks 33rd on the list of the Alps’ highest peaks. The most straightforward route to the summit, the west flank, was first climbed in 1858 by Charles Barrington, a merchant from County Wicklow in Ireland, and two Swiss guides. “Thus ended my first and only visit to Switzerland,” Barrington wrote later. “Not having enough money with me to try the Matterhorn, I went home.”

The Eiger is notorious for its north face, or Nordwand, the vertiginous limestone cliff that menaces the Grindelwald Valley. For years now, I’d been reading about this fabled slab, which for many embodies the mesmerism and overwhelming physicality of the quintessential mountain. But I had seldom spent much time in the Alps, deeming the developed and populous countries of Western Europe too trodden and too tamed. The naivety of this presumption struck me foursquare when I caught first sight of the Nordwand as the train neared the station at Kleine Scheidegg.

An hour before dusk, with the Eiger glowering through evening clouds, I pushed through the revolving doors of the Bellevue des Alpes Hotel. The descendent of a hotel that has stood on the Scheidegg Pass for almost two centuries, the Bellevue is a grand dame kept in aspic, all wood-paneled drawing rooms and haute cuisine served by white-jacketed waiters. It is also a waymarker in the progress of an infatuation.

The Urge To Ascend

The human tendency to ascribe meaning to mountains is common to the societies that live in their shadow. As civilization spread around the globe, numerous peoples settled in mountainous areas, adapting their lifestyles and even their physiologies to existence at altitude. Archaeological records suggest that people have been present on the Tibetan Plateau for at least 30,000 years. The Andes have been inhabited year-round since at least 5,000 B.C.E.

From afar, these mountain peaks, by virtue of their salience and metaphorical potency, have long inspired awe and reverence. Massifs like Olympus, Himinbjörg and Kailash have served, in different eras and for different religions, as holy mountains, abodes of the gods. Today, in Bhutan, where Buddhism still merges with animist mythology, the high peaks are sacrosanct and mostly unclimbed. Others, like Tài Shān in China or Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, are objects of daily pilgrimage. Setting foot on a mountain can be devotional or blasphemous. Either way, the high peak, talismanic and remote, is often viewed as a surrogate for heaven.

The secular impulse to climb mountains for respite and adventure is much younger. Up until the middle of the 18th century, regions like the Bernese Oberland were viewed with fear and suspicion, environments inimical to human survival. Beauty was seen in landscapes pacified by human hands — in the bucolic picturesque of the English painter John Constable, in rolling fields bound by hedge and furrow. The highlands, with their impassable terrain, freezing temperatures and asphyxiating air, represented ungovernable chaos; it was commonplace to describe them as blemishes or “warts” and to explain their formation as scars, deformities wrought on the once-virginal land by the cataclysm of the biblical flood.

A seismic shift in our perception of mountainous landscapes can be traced back to the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. As science challenged religious orthodoxy, it ushered in a new humanistic way of seeing the world and a concomitant desire to rationalize wild places. Soon, this inquisitiveness turned skyward. It was as if, in demystifying the processes once ascribed to the supernatural, the empiricists sought to dethrone the deities and claim the firmament for their own.

In late 1783, the first manned untethered hot-air balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, soared for 25 minutes through the skies over Paris. Three years later, when Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, an imaginative barrier was breached. Over the next century, almost every Alpine peak succumbed to human trespass, and cartographers and geologists colored in the surrounding topography. In 1857, the Alpine Club in London became the world’s first climbing society, a graduation for mountaineering into an organized endeavor.

For the less intrepid traveler, too, the mountains were starting to exert a peculiar aesthetic gravity. By the middle of the 19th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exhortation to retour à l’état de nature, subsequently refined by the artistic movements of Romanticism and Transcendentalism, had taken seed in the minds of a growing leisure class. Early Grand Tourers traversing the Alps en route to Italy were known to pull the blinds of their carriages to spare their gaze from the unsightly disorder of mountain vistas. Now their successors were traveling to places like Kleine Scheidegg to seek them out. The Eiger and its titanic neighbors Mönch and Jungfrau took their place among the iconography of “Alpenbegeisterung,” enthusiasm for the Alps.

“The high peak, talismanic and remote, is often viewed as a surrogate for heaven.”

The hostelry that would evolve into the Bellevue des Alpes opened its doors in 1840. It began as nothing more than “a mountain hut where ten or so people could sleep next to each other in the hay,” the current owner, Andreas von Almen, told me. Over the ensuing years, it would grow with the tourist footfall. A major expansion coincided with the arrival of the railway from the low valleys in 1893. Its present incarnation dates back to 1925 when the whole joint was refitted for its first winter season. By then, an activity that would evolve into a global pastime, alpine skiing, was gaining popularity. The cruel landscape of pre-Enlightenment superstition had receded. The mountains had become scenery, and then a playground.

Among the high peaks, new generations of Nietzschean supermen were pushing the fascination to its upmost limits. Tales of courage and tragedy from the precipice, recounted in books and periodicals, fed a public appetite for vicarious adventure. In 1871, Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles Amongst the Alps,” which included an account of a descent on the Matterhorn when four of Whymper’s companions plunged to their deaths, was a publishing sensation. Mallory’s forays on Everest in the 1920s were chronicled in daily bulletins in The Times of London.

The Nordwand, a 6,000-foot concave rampart, sheened in verglas, was a different proposition — “the epitome,” wrote the Austrian alpinist and explorer Heinrich Harrer, “of everything tragically sensational in mountain climbing.” Well into the 20th century, as ski lifts and funiculars began to appear in the surrounding valleys, many an accomplished mountaineer insisted it was unclimbable. In time, its ribs and crannies would assume a fantastical toponymy: “White Spider,” “Death Bivouac,” “Traverse of the Gods.” Von Almen, who is lank and patrician with a stentorian Teutonic voice like Werner Herzog’s, called it “a vertical arena,” the climber’s Colosseum.

The first attempts to surmount the Nordwand ended in catastrophe. On the most infamous occasion, in 1936, a four-strong team made it halfway up the face before turning back. On the retreat, an avalanche killed three of the party, leaving a lone survivor, Toni Kurz, dangling helplessly from a rope. Held up only by the stuck body of a dead colleague, unable to climb or descend, Kurz battled to free himself for 14 hours, as a rescue party strove in vain to reach him, before succumbing to exposure and exhaustion.

Here was the mountain’s pull operating at different valences. At the bleeding edge was Kurz, suspended above the void. But also beholden were the guests at the Bellevue, who watched the tragedy play out from their bedroom windows, and millions of others, who read about Kurz’s operatic demise in the newspapers at home.

The route would eventually yield to Harrer and his team in 1938. Their photographic portraits, sun-leathered faces squinting into the lens, sit alongside those of the Nordwand’s other victors and victims on the wall of the Bellevue’s central corridor. “You could sit, drink a coffee, eat a cake, all while watching the climbers through a telescope,” said von Almen, who took over the hotel with his wife Silvia in 1998. “Nobody had seen anything like it before.” The idea of mountain country as the ultimate proving ground of human fortitude was now etched onto the modern mind.

A 19th-century engraving of the Eiger in Switzerland. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Conquering The Heights

The burgeoning love affair between human and mountain was kindled by a new Romantic sensibility, but it also intersected with that other European preoccupation, the race of nations. To the empire-builders looking to plant flags on the last unexplored tracts of terra incognita, the peaks, like the poles, were first and foremost prizes to be won.

“As I sat daily in my room, and saw that range of snowy battlements uplifted against the sky … I felt it should be the business of Englishmen, if of anybody, to reach the summit,” wrote Lord George Curzon, later the viceroy of India, as he gazed at the Himalayan horizon from the hill station of Simla in 1899. In 1952, the year before Curzon’s vision was fulfilled, the Manchester Guardian newspaper alleged that an abortive attempt Everest set out with an intention to erect statues of Lenin and Stalin at its apex. When news that the ninth British expedition to the mountain had finally put two men on the summit reached London the day before Elizabeth II’s coronation, the same journal heralded the achievement as “a new, timely, and brilliant jewel in the Queen’s diadem.”

Still today, highlands play host to fierce competition; summits are “conquered” or “bagged,” connoting mastery over nature, however illusory. Julie Rak, a professor at the University of Alberta and the author of “False Summit” (2021), has written about how the alpine Rückenfigur — literally “back-figure,” the artistic depiction of a person looking out over a mountain panorama — has become an enduring motif of individual romantic status. “Mountaineering would become intimately connected to personal sovereignty and the development of the self,” she told me over a video call. “Climbing a peak and looking out from the summit becomes a way of possessing the surrounding land.”

For the climber, one aspect of the mountains’ allure undoubtedly stems from the physical and mental challenges they pose. Another victim of the Nordwand, the American climber John Harlin, put it concisely: “Control of fear is the spice.” But even the most pedestrian interaction with mountains might also impart a sense of accomplishment and the endorphin rush of physical effort. The simple act of walking through rugged terrain fosters agency and self-possession — what Rebecca Solnit, in “Wanderlust” (2000), called the “kinesthetic pleasures of one’s body moving at the limit of its ability.” Footsore and ravenous, the hiker at the end of a day in the hills will often find that food tastes better, that they have never slept so well.

Dissolution & Awakening

On October 14, 1976, another pair of British tyros, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, were inching up the west wall of Changabang, a granite spire in the Garhwal Himalayas. Boardman later described the experience of climbing the final pitch as something close to rapture:

I felt in perfect control and knew the thrill of seeing the ropes from my waist curl down through empty space. I was as light as the air around me, as if I were dancing on tip-toes, relaxed, measuring every movement and seeking a complete economy of effort. Speak with your eyes, speak with your hands, let it all flow from your heart. True communication, true communion, is silent.

I first encountered this passage in “Fallen Giants” (2008), a history of Himalayan mountaineering by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, and it is now inscribed in my memory. There is something incantatory about the words, which, in conveying the climb as totalizing and transcendental, resemble the utterances of a disciple groping toward enlightenment. For Boardman and Tasker, chasing that pure high would prove costly. Both would perish attempting a new route up Everest in 1982.

Many of us who will never know the exhilaration of a vertical rock face in the Himalayas will nevertheless have some inkling of the heightened consciousness that Boardman articulates. Ascent yields aesthetic rewards, but it also confers perspective. “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again, the surrealist René Daumal wrote in his unfinished novel, “Mount Analogue” (1952). “So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below but what is below does not know what is above.” Like all knowledge, however, attaining it only makes the recipient appreciate how little they truly understand.

For all the hubris and one-upmanship that might serve as ostensible motivation for a mountain adventure, the takeaway is often less a sense of triumph than of humility. After summiting the Nordwand, Harrer said: “I was conscious of the privilege of having been allowed to live.” Within the climber’s honor code there exist right ways to pay homage — or, as the journalist and climber Jon Krakauer put it, “a very strong sense of how the game ought to be played.” In time, mountaineers would disavow the siege-like methods of Mallory’s era, instead prioritizing self-reliance, ethical purity and the brotherhood of the rope. Today, Mount Everest is often lamented for its human litter and commodification; even in 1997, Krakauer was describing it as a “slag heap.” Just this year, a signboard welcoming visitors to basecamp stirred controversy. The closer the furniture of civilization presses, the more the mountain is defiled.

One concept that recurs again and again in accounts of time spent among the mountains is immanence, a desire to become one with the landscape. In “The Living Mountain” (written in 1945 but only published in 1977), Nan Shepherd’s slender panegyric describes the author’s experiences and meditations during a lifetime of walking in the Cairngorms, “a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills,” in northeast Scotland.

Shepherd writes of the mountains as a place of existential immediacy and primordial magic. Her Cairngorms are an elemental sensorium, intimate but unknowable; spending time among them “intensifies life to the point of glory.” Most of all, Shepherd pursues dissolution. As she explores the ridges and recesses, bathes naked in tarns, and sleeps in the wide open, she presents the environment as a single animate body, a place that “does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.” It is with this vast entity that the open-minded visitor might seek to become merged. Like the crofters and gamekeepers who live in its valleys, Shepherd wishes to become “bone of the mountain.” And so, through all seasons and weathers, with “senses keyed,” she “walks the flesh transparent.” In places, “The Living Mountain” reads like an animist hymn:

So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in.

Among the heights, Shepherd gave lyrical weight to a widespread intuition: that being in the mountains precipitates awakening. It is common for walkers and climbers to report experiencing reveries in high places. People talk about the radiance of the light, of pregnant silences and quickening skies. Forever prone to anthropomorphizing the mountain, we refer to its brow, shoulders, flanks and feet. Though it is absurd to accord sentience to a pile of rock, we often perceive mountains as mercurial, places of moods. At times they are beneficent, river-bearers, all-seeing guardians; at others, they transmute into implacable godheads conjuring wrathful weather.

This idea that the mountain is a repository of esoteric energy tends to be central to the various religious doctrines that venerate them. Recently, I spoke to Tim Bunting, an adherent of Shugendō, an ancient form of mountain worship still practiced in some areas of Japan. Originally from New Zealand, Bunting moved to Yamagata Prefecture to teach English in 2010 but threw himself into Shugendō in 2016 after the sudden death of his father. “Most people come to Shugendō at some sort of turning point in their life,” he told me. “We see mountains as a space to reflect and gather, get direction.”

Soon, Bunting was initiated as a yamabushi, literally “one who prostrates before mountains.” Based around the three sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan, his sect follows a Shinto-adjacent form of Shugendō and incorporates elements of Buddhism and nature worship. Devotees walk for miles through the thick-forested slopes dressed in white vestments and take part in weeklong ascetic retreats punctuated by prayer, chanting and rituals, the contents of which are closely guarded. Upon arriving at a place of meditation, a conch is blown to greet the Shinto divinities, the kami, “to let them know that we’re entering their realm.”

“Being in the mountains precipitates awakening.”

For the yamabushi, the mountains’ potency resides in their liminal nature. Toward the summit of Mount Gassan, highest of the Dewa Sanzan, you eventually emerge above the tree line, Bunting told me. Even in July, when the low valleys swelter, the mountain’s upper reaches might be fogbound and covered in snow. The environmental transition between upland and lowland serves to demarcate a metaphysical boundary. Bunting’s video call background showed a torii, a square red archway at the base of forested hills. “They mark the border between the profane and the sacred,” he explained. Beyond it, the mountain becomes a spiritual plane where the yamabushi can converse with the dead, practice acceptance and pursue rebirth.

“The mountains are the womb,” Bunting said. “Yamabushi believe that entering this landscape takes us back to a time before we were born. You go in and you’re changed. From there, you can rebuild.”

Though the forms by which they express their devotion vary significantly, Boardman, Shepherd and Bunting — climber, poet and pilgrim — all share a conception of the mountain as a threshold, a portal to self-actualization. In communing with landscape, each sees themselves gaining access to a deep wisdom that can only be approached through embodied experience. “To know Being,” Shepherd concluded, “this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”

The Edges Of The Wild

On my second morning in Kleine Scheidegg, I caught a train into the bowels of the Eiger. In 1896, emboldened by the Alpine tourism boom, a construction team broke ground for a single-cog railway that, even today, seems an astonishing feat of engineering. Thousands of mostly Italian migrant laborers, digging with pick and shovel, burrowed nearly six miles into the limestone, reemerging, 16 years later, onto a saddle above 11,000 feet between Mönch and Jungfrau.

A century on, Jungfraujoch, “the highest station in Europe,” is a magnet for modern mountain lovers — not the lunatic poets of the Nordwand but the tourist public (a million a year according to the railway), who come to take in the view. It is a place to experience modern Alpenbegeisterung in stereo.

The train climbed steeply from Scheidegg Pass, then tunneled into the Eiger’s west flank. My ears popped as we gained altitude, and upon disembarking, many of the passengers staggered drunkenly as they recalibrated to the change in atmosphere.

Up top, beneath the Sphinx Observatory, a wraparound balcony overlooked the glacial junction of Konkordiaplatz. Today’s crowds milled about in a very modern kind of communion. The combination of clear skies and thin air had made everyone giddy. People held their arms wide, as if trying to embrace the panorama. Many selfies happened.

The vibe wasn’t what you might call reverential. The indoor galleries were a study in Alpine kitsch, and a boutique sold Omega and Tissot watches to visitors who hadn’t already been bankrupted by the price of the rail tickets. Later, when I spoke to von Almen about the experience, he despaired of the attraction’s bare-faced commercialization, saying it demonstrated a “disrespect for the mountains.”

But if the crowds at Jungfraujoch seemed touched by a certain fever, it was hard to begrudge. It was a pristine, windless day. The slopes of Mönch and Jungfrau, after the previous day’s dump of snow, stood imperious against a cobalt sky. On the glacier plateau, visitors queued to have their photo taken holding the Swiss flag. Youngsters threw snowballs and slithered down the slope on their backsides. Mountains, it must be remembered, are places of fun as well as enchantment.

Still, there were notes of obeisance. In one tunnel, a bronze statue of Adolf Guyer-Zeller, the entrepreneur who conceived the railway, depicted him in forward motion, naked and muscular, and semi-encased in stone. Back up at the Sphinx terrace, I noticed dozens of votive offerings — Buddhist prayer flags and lovers’ padlocks tethered to the wire balustrade.

Yet I realized with some misanthropic guilt that I hankered to be elsewhere, alone or in more placid company. The proximity of the ridgelines, mingled with a sense that I had cheated the mountain by catching a train to its upper reaches, only amplified my longing to be higher still. I yearned to feel the exposure and solitude of the fastness, to give myself up more completely to the mountain — perhaps even to jump.

Science is yet to settle on a coherent explanation for the compulsion many people feel to launch themselves from precipices. Psychologists call it “the high place phenomenon” or, more poetically, “the call of the void.” Successive studies have found little evidence that it is a form of suicidal ideation, suggesting instead that it indicates the misinterpretation of a survival signal. The reflex does not prefigure an appetite for oblivion but rather escape. We don’t envisage ourselves hitting the ground. We think only of the liberating moment of lift-off.

I waited patiently for a lull in the hubbub. I found a quiet spot on the handrail, got up on tiptoes, and leaned right over the edge.

A Sanctuary In The Sky

Occasionally, an obsession with mountains can slip into mania. In “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992), Francis Fukuyama singled out the mountaineer as an exemplar of a distinctly modern restlessness. In seeking altitude, he speculated, climbers revealed themselves as fidgety malcontents bent on rebelling against what Fukuyama called the end of history, but which could less contentiously be reframed as the nagging banality of bourgeois existence. “The Alpinist has, in short, re-created for him or herself all the conditions of historical struggle: danger, disease, hard work, and finally the risk of violent death,” Fukuyama wrote.

In 2022, a German-Austrian psychiatric survey of alpine club members seemed to support this idea that the uphill impulse might be forged in neurosis. Of people who self-identified as regular or “extreme” mountaineers, those with preexisting psychological disorders were also more likely to push their climbing to extremes. Participants with experiences of anxiety or depression, high levels of stress, or with histories of eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior or alcohol and drug abuse, tended to report climbing harder for longer. They took greater risks and were more intent on “sensation-seeking.” Although the study fell short of establishing the causal direction, the authors speculated that subjects may have been using excessive mountaineering as a form of “self-therapy.”

It’s contentious to suggest that these observations may signify a correlation between a desire to ascend and a penchant for self-destruction. Conjectures about the Freudian “death drive,” the idea that there exists within everyone a bodily instinct to return to a state of quiescence, would seem to contradict the much-documented pleasure that so many of us derive from mountain encounters.

What does seem more universally applicable is that one part of the highlands’ allure lies not in what the mountain is — but what it is not. In contrast to the lowlands, so utterly reshaped by society, the mountains permit only visitation. We covet them precisely because they resist our dominion. Sentinels of geological time, the peaks are often seen to embody a reassuring impassivity, aloof to the human ants playing in their shadow. Elevation, danger, sensory abundance: All of these facets of mountain country cultivate an aura of remoteness. Ascent is also departure. The mountain, in other words, is a place to regress, a sanctuary in the sky.

“Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful?” says the High Lama in Frank Capra’s movie adaptation of “Lost Horizon” (1937), about the fictional Tibetan lamasery of Shangri La. “What madness there is! What blindness! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other. … The world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here.”

Many have tried. In 1934, a decade on from Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance, a traumatized ex-soldier called Maurice Wilson flew a Gipsy Moth biplane from London to India, then, disguised as a Buddhist monk, he traveled overland by rail and foot to the base of Everest. With no mountaineering experience, he had emerged from a nervous breakdown two years earlier harboring an eccentric mission to climb the world’s highest mountain alone. As his one-man expedition became bogged down on the intermediate slopes, 6,000 vertical feet from his goal, he must have apprehended the impossibility of the task he’d set for himself. And yet he persevered, setting out for a final time on the last day in May onto the North Col. His body was found there the following year. The last note in his diary, written as he prepared to leave the tent that morning: “Off again, gorgeous day.”

The Potent Myth Of Mallory’s Ascent

Notions of mountains as an enticing refuge where the poetic soul might achieve immanence doubtlessly shaped how Mallory has been remembered. Tragic as it was, the mystery surrounding the exact circumstances of his disappearance invited many to paint it as the ideal hero’s death, the death that posterity demanded.

After combing through the evidence for his new book, Conefrey came to believe it is “almost inconceivable” that Mallory and Irvine summited Everest. “Mallory was a prolific writer,” he told me. “But in this key period of his life there’s no diary, no letters. You’re left with a void that people want to fill.” For Mallory’s contemporaries, and many people thereafter, that has meant conjuring, as Conefrey put it, “a romantic vision of Mallory striving upwards and dying on the summit.”

The reality was that the cultural desire to view the mountaineer as a paradigmatic hero had found, in the lithe and handsome Mallory, an irresistible archetype. In life, many biographers have noted, much was made of his physical perfection. “Mon dieu, George Mallory!” wrote one acquaintance, the writer Lytton Strachey, in a letter to a friend. “My hand trembles, my heart palpitates … He’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles and a face — oh incredible — the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print.”

Decades later, this characterization of Mallory as an inanimate artwork would echo in the testimonies of those who found him embalmed near the crest of Everest. Steeped in the mythos of gallantry and sacrifice that had grown around Mallory’s story, Anker and his team were less inclined to see a battered corpse than a priceless artifact. One expedition member, Dave Hahn, recalled feeling “like I was viewing a Greek or Roman marble statue.” Talk about immanence. Mallory had become stone.

Such eulogies left little room for the nuances of Mallory’s story, not least the fact that, for months leading up to departure, he had vacillated over whether to leave his wife and young children. In truth, the immortal “Because it’s there” barely scratched the crust off the cauldron of reasons that drew him towards the Himalayas; instead, it is the perfect complement to a romantic legend.

“Sentinels of geological time, the peaks are often seen to embody a reassuring impassivity, aloof to the human ants playing in their shadow.”

“Modern ideas of individualism and aestheticism coalesced around Mallory,” said Rak, who has argued that Mallory’s lionization in the eyes of the press and public bequeathed a spirit of elitism that still pervades climbing culture. “It’s Mallory who makes mountaineering understandable to the ordinary people, but as a result, his legacy becomes outsized. No one can ever climb as well as him. No one can be as pure as him. Everyone who comes afterward can only ever hope to imitate Mallory.” As the myth gathered potency, all of Mallory’s shortcomings, along with the fellow climbers and porters who enabled his ascent, were elided. “Mallory gets pictured later as somebody who almost did it by himself, which is categorically untrue,” Rak added.

Based on his own extensive writings, it is clear that Mallory was bewitched by the mountains because he wanted to be first, and because they made him feel alive. “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy,” he once wrote. “And joy is, after all, the end of life.” But it seems fair to suppose that he may also have been a fugitive from reality. Like Maurice Wilson, Mallory had fought in the First World War, serving as an artillery officer during the carnage of the Somme. In “Into the Silence” (2011), Wade Davis concluded that the horrors they’d witnessed on the Western Front imbued the 1920s climbers with a special intensity, and perhaps also a desire to flee the lowland world that had so betrayed their generation. For them, Everest had become “a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad.”

Davis posited that the best epitaph for Mallory wasn’t “Because it’s there” but an equally spare sentiment summoned by another expedition member, Bentley Beetham, as the grieving survivors retreated from the mountain: “The price of life is death.” Mallory might have died, but my how he had lived. “Could any man desire a better end?” Beetham asked.

This, then, would be Mallory’s role in death: a cipher for the idealism that swirled about the mountaintops where he met his demise. It is an idealism that straddles secular and spiritual traditions, and one that clarifies the futility of all human endeavor with the promise that, beyond our ken, there resides something higher, something more, something completely outside human control. And because the truth of it can never be truly known, we are free to believe that Mallory, in his final moment, might have attained an apotheosis — that he died not distraught and in agony, but in ecstasy, glimpsing the face of God.

On my final afternoon in Kleine Scheidegg, I walked east from the Bellevue until I found a snowy hill perpendicular to the Nordwand. I walked upward, crunching through foot-deep snow, until I’d freed my sightlines from the human drapery of wires and ski-lifts. I found a dry tussock raised out of the snow, and sat there for some time, neck craned to the wall. Finally, I had the mountain to myself. I thumbed through Krakauer’s account of a failed attempt to breach the Nordwand’s “formidable mythology,” picking out the features I knew from years of reading. More than once, I heard the distant crack and rumble of rockfalls or avalanches reverberate through the valley. It was a perfect hour.

Four thousand miles east, just like in the Alps, the ice is receding from the high Himalayas. Perhaps on some distant future day, sooner than we expect or wish, that inexorable thaw may extrude an antique Kodak camera from the cold grasp of Everest. It occurred to me, with a certainty I hadn’t felt before, what a shame that would be.