Essay: What May 1st 1999 Meant to Me Jake Norton - Basecamp Sat, April 14, 2001 11:15PM
May 1, 1999 - one beautiful, lucky day. A brush with history. A step back in time. A life changing moment in so many ways. I find it difficult to adequately put into words what that simple date - May 1, 1999 - means to me. Maybe a narrative retrospective can begin to explain it all....
The day dawns clear and crisp, spectacular sunlight blushing the Nepal Himalaya to the southwest. We climb strongly across the North Face and into the gullies leading to 8,300 meter Camp VI, perched on the dramatic and rugged terrain of the upper mountain. Before long, we are in the pre-determined search area: a jumbled landscape, wildly tilted, and covering about 12 football fields of scree and snowfields. And a morbid area to say the least. Our cursory search brings us by numerous bodies of different eras, all having fallen victim to the ambivalent mountain looming above.
I wander about in a shallow gully just above 27,000 feet looking for anything that seems out of place in this inhospitable terrain. I find little: an occasional mitten blown off the hand of an inattentive climber; a discarded sardine can; and lots of rock, ice, and snow. Above and below, my teammates search similar terrain. Then Mother Luck comes into the picture....Conrad Anker, scouring a shelf some 50 meters southwest of me, stops to take off his crampons and looks over his shoulder; the proverbial "right place at the right time." As he later described, he saw "something that was white, but it was not snow and it was not rock." When he investigates, he immediately transmits over the radio to all of us: "Mandatory team meeting here...I have tea and Snickers."
Being only a short distance away, I am the first to reach Conrad's position. My breath catches in my throat. There, lying in the rubble of the North Face, lay the remains of a fallen hero. It is immediately apparent that this man, this fallen climber, is the anomaly in this morbid space. Many other climbers lay here, all from more recent expeditions than Mallory, and - judging by their inhuman, contorted body positions - all had died long before they came to rest where they are now. Mallory, however, is different, evidenced by his body position. This man had somehow survived - albeit for a brief time - the fall that had killed his peers in the basin. His hands, 75 years later, still clutch the unforgiving scree, the classic position of a falling climber who has dropped his ice axe. His right ankle is horribly broken in a boot-top fracture; his left leg is crossed over it in a defensive pose. Conrad and I sit silent, stunned, and humbled, awaiting the arrival of our teammates.
As historians and archaeologists, we know what we have to do, while, as humans, we are hesitant. We all want to tell Mallory and Irvine's story, to tell what happened to these remarkable pioneers 75 years before, and we want to do it respectfully and with care. Foremost in all of our minds is the question: Would Mallory want his story told? Would we, in a similar situation, want our stories told? Unfortunately, we can never know for sure. All we can do is do what we feel is correct, respectful, and prudent. With that in mind, we begin to investigate Mallory's body, delicately chipping away the ice and rock which bar access to his clothing. Hours pass with few words spoken, for we are humbled into silence; here we sit, at 27,000 feet on Everest's North Face, wearing $1000 down suits and One Sport boots, examining the remains of a man who scaled these same, unforgiving slopes 75 years earlier dressed only in cotton, wool, and tweed. With every bit of equipment removed from a pocket, every glance at the tattered clothing, every injury discovered, we are more and more amazed, humbled, and filled with reverence.
Before we know it, the sun is sinking toward the western horizon; we have to return to Camp V and, thus, it is time to go. We painstakingly gather rocks from the steep terrain and place them atop the body of George Leigh Mallory. Forty-five minutes later, he is covered completely. Andy Politz pulls out a worn piece of paper and, with the rest of us gathered around, reads a Committal from the Bishop of Bristol, England. We silently bow our heads in personal prayer, pay personal respects to our fallen hero, and begin the descent to Camp V in silence, tears welling in five pairs of eyes.
I have mentally and spiritually revisited that day, that place, many times in the past two years. In the wake of criticism from countless sources, I have asked myself time and again: Did we do the right thing? And the answer from my heart has always been the same: YES. We are not body hunters, scavengers, treasure hunters, money-grubbers, or defilers of any sort. We set off in 1999 with reverence and honor for the 1924 climbers, and held that in our hearts throughout. Our intent was, is, and always will be to tell the story of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine as we believe they would want it told. The same holds true in 2001.
But, alas, we are human, and prone to mistakes. Certainly, not everything we did in 1999 was the epitome of perfection, and, had we the ability, we would probably go back and change some decisions, alter some courses of action. Reality: we cannot. I am reminded of a thought prevalent in Buddhism: Correct intent over correct action. The idea here is that no one can ever hope to live life without his or her actions causing some pain, some problem, for someone, somewhere along the line. But, one can live with correct intent, always intending to do the right thing, although inadvertent mishaps may occur. It is this - a life imbued with correct intent - which we, as humans, must strive for. I know we went into every action in 1999 with correct intent - to honor and cherish the memory of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine - and we are doing so in 2001.