It Is Not the Mountain We Conquer, But Ourselves

Edmund Hillary? George Mallory? Apocryphal?

everest09Dear Quote Investigator: Edmund Hillary and fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first two people to reach the summit of the tallest peak on Earth, Mount Everest, in 1953. The grueling expedition required extensive planning and the climbers displayed remarkable self-control during the ascent. Hillary reportedly summarized the lesson of the adventure with this eloquent quotation:

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Oddly, I have not been able to find a good citation would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1998 an interviewer in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” asked Edmund Hillary about his motivations, and also asked if he had actually employed this quotation. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Q: Oh, OK. So why did you climb it?

A: What I generally say is that it’s the sense of challenge, the attempt to stretch yourself to the utmost and overcome considerable difficulties. If you can do that, you get a great sense of satisfaction.

Q: I have another quote from you — let’s see if you said this: “It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.” Did you say that?

A: I think I did say that over the years, and I believe it, too.

QI believes that the situation is more complex than suggested by Hillary’s response. Indeed, QI hypothesizes that the words were incorrectly assigned to Hillary before he embraced them in the 1998 interview.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order beginning with a precursor passage.

In 1892 a religious text used a mountain climbing simile to describe the will of God. Spiritual growth was achieved by conquering the self: 2

He would have us ascend, not fly, that we may have greater merit in the violence that we do to ourselves when we conquer ourselves little by little, as in climbing up a high mountain: “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.”

George Mallory was a famous mountaineer who successfully ascended multiple peaks including Mont Blanc. In 1918 he wrote an article about that expedition for “The Alpine Journal”. He described his delight at the summit and crafted a memorable remark similar to the quotation under examination. Ellipsis was in the original: 3

One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end—to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared. . . . Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished. . . . Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No . . . and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction . . . fulfilled a destiny.

QI created a separate entry about the above quotation which is located here.

Mallory’s statement used the word “vanquished” instead of “conquered”, but QI believes that the vocabulary and phrasing changed incrementally via inexact repetition, and the result was later reassigned to Hillary.

A fascinating transitional citation appeared in a 1968 essay titled “The Last Blue Mountain” by Charles S. Houston: 4

The great George Mallory said of Everest: “Whom have we conquered? None but ourselves. Have we won a kingdom? No—and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction, fulfilled a destiny.”

The statement above ascribed to Mallory contained an altered phrasing; the word “vanquished” became “conquered”. Thus, the sentence moved closer to the popular modern expression. Interestingly, the sentences with “kingdom” and “destiny” were preserved from the 1918 passage.

In 1978 “The Sierra Club Bulletin” published an interview with the prominent American mountaineering couple Jim Whittaker and Dianne Roberts. The following excerpt showed that the expression using “vanquished” continued to circulate: 5

I think those who write about climbing have made it appear that climbers have more of an altitude of conquest than they really do. Probably the general public has that attitude more than people who really climb. I don’t think that sort of conquest, of subduing a mountain, is accurate. It’s more like Pogo’s attitude: “We have seen the enemy and they is us.” That we vanquished an enemy, none but ourselves.

Roberts spoke the words above, but she did not mention Mallory’s name. Yet, in a later paragraph she discussed Hillary. Discussions like this may have unintentionally confused some readers.

In 1983 the scholarly book “Sport in a Philosophic Context” printed a statement using “conquered” accompanied with a footnote pointing to the 1968 citation given above. But there was one crucial change. The words were attributed to Edmund Hillary instead of George Mallory: 6

In the last decade the desire to achieve personal excellence rather than to go against another person has manifest itself in the popularity of outdoor pursuits—mountain climbing, skiing, whitewater canoeing, hang gliding. “Winning” in these endeavors takes on a strong consciousness of the struggle. As mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary succinctly states:

Whom have we conquered? None but ourselves. Have we won a kingdom? No—and yes. We have achieved the ultimate satisfaction, fulfilled a destiny.

In 1992 “Meditations for Men Who Do Too Much” by Jonathon Lazear ascribed the popular modern saying to Hillary: 7

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
—SIR EDMUND HILLARY

In 1998 an interviewer asked Hillary himself about the authorship of the saying as noted previously. The celebrated alpinist signaled a slight uncertainty but was willing to accept the ascription. 8

Q: I have another quote from you — let’s see if you said this: “It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.” Did you say that?

A: I think I did say that over the years, and I believe it, too.

In conclusion, QI believes that Edmund Hillary did not originate the quotation being explored. Rather, George Mallory made a comparable remark and that remark evolved over the decades. Ultimately, it was reassigned to Hillary who was willing to adopt it.

Image Notes: Picture of a group climbing Mount Everest from tpsdave at Pixabay.

(Special thanks to Paul Rauber, Senior Editor at the Sierra Club magazine, who provided QI with scans of the 1978 citation. Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question. Grothe is the author of several valuable quotation books including “Ifferisms”. His website is located here.

Notes:

  1. 1998 November 9, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Magazine, Lofty Ideals: Story by Bill Steigerwald, (Continuation title: Sir Edmund Hillary has held onto his lofty ideals), Start Page D1, Quote Page D5, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1892, The Manna of the Soul: Meditations for Every Day of the Year by Father Paul Segneri (Paolo Segneri), Volume 2 of 2, Second Edition, Section: November – Fifteenth Day, Quote Page 565, Benziger Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1918 September, The Alpine Journal: A Record of Mountain Adventure and Scientific Observation by Members of the Alpine Club, Edited by George Yeld, Volume 32, Number 218, Article: Mont Blanc from the Col du Géant by the Eastern Buttress of Mont Maudit by G. L. Mallory (George Herbert Leigh Mallory), Start Page 148, Quote Page 162, Longmans, Green and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1968, Why Man Takes Chances: Studies in Stress-Seeking, Edited by Samuel Z. Klausner, The Last Blue Mountain by Charles S. Houston, Start Page 48, Quote Page 58, Anchor Books: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1978 September, The Sierra Club Bulletin, Volume 63, Article: A Conversation with Jim Whittaker and Dianne Roberts, Author: Frances Gendlin, Speaker: Dianne Roberts, Start Page 20, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Sierra Club, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to Paul Rauber)
  6. 1983, Sport in a Philosophic Context by Carolyn E. Thomas, (Associate Professor, Department of Physical Education, State University of New York at Buffalo), Quote Page 85 and 86, Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified in hard copy)
  7. 1992, Meditations for Men Who Do Too Much by Jonathon Lazear, Date: December 22, Unnumbered Page, A Fireside Book: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  8. 1998 November 9, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Magazine, Lofty Ideals: Story by Bill Steigerwald, (Continuation title: Sir Edmund Hillary has held onto his lofty ideals), Start Page D1, Quote Page D5, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)