Friday, May 25, 2012

Self-Actualized into Eternity: The Everest Insanity Continues

Mount Everest
Reaching the top of Mount Everest—and dodging the human excrement, garbage and more than a few corpses along the way—represents the ultimate in self-actualization for many people.

A few days ago, 200 people were on the mountain, with many of them bottle-necked at a point above 8000 metres as they waited to make the final push to the top.

An image of pure insanity.

I understand the idea of a burning passion to push yourself. A hobby that takes up the majority of your free time. You do it for years or even decades, and then realize that you have reached a level that allows you to take on the toughest related challenge.

But for many of the relatively inexperienced climbers who decide to tackle Everest, apparently it's simply a hip thing to do that will solidify their image of themselves as sophisticated dilettantes. Something that will make them minor celebrities among their friends and family.

Money Trumps Safety

And it is all facilitated by people who will essentially carry them to the top for a nice tidy fee of approximately $50,000. No regulations exist for how many tourists/climbers can be on the mountain at any one time. This should tell people something: money often trumps life when massive profits are at stake, and in this case, it is irrefutable.

And while we all assume that the noble sherpas must be the most skilled and safety-conscious individuals imaginable, my experience in that part of the world is that a certain fatalistic insanity is attached to anything where life and limb are at risk. Those quaint, winsome Nepalese sherpas who are always seen in only the most positive light by westerners who have never really travelled outside their narrow existences.

There's a Corpse, Here's a Cliché

The associated cliches are all there too. The family of one of the deceased offered up the sad but utterly ridiculous line that "she died doing what she loved doing."

I would venture that running out of oxygen, having your brain turn to mush, freezing and then ceasing to exist for eternity is not somehting anyone loves doing. Of course, we all get the intended meaning. The family is devastated and they must rationalize. They cannot consider the horrible reality that they may have played a part in her death by validating her unrealistic dreams. And most importantly, they still exist as they offer up the clichés about someone who is gone forever.

The expected response of full-on schadenfreude from some people is not hard to find. The claims that anyone deserves to die in this way, regardless of how reckless or unrealistic they were, are just nasty and unwarranted. Sadly, the families are no doubt aware of these sentiments and will have likely read these types of gleeful comments from online sociopaths.

But wait, you must be saying, any physical pursuit can be dangerous. Might as well offer up that most banal of responses to criticism of risky behaviour: "But you can die crossing the road..."

The point is, the over-crowding on Mount Everest and the lack of any real oversight is now as much a part of the danger as are the physical aspects.

Some of the people who have summited Everest include: a blind person, a double amputee and a 76 year-old man. Together with the hundreds who make the "guided" attempt, the bloom surely must have withered on this challenge somewhat by now. And the dangers of trying to summit Everest have actually been compounded by advancing technology. With the availability of a reasonably reliable internet connection at base camp and increasingly accurate weather forecasts online, the optimum days for making the attempt are now more unanimous than ever, resulting in the huge bottle-necks.

However, I have no doubt that the grossly under-experienced tourist climbers will continue to pay huge fees to be escorted to the top of Everest. Most will return relatively unscathed, regardless of whether or not they reach the summit. Thirteen years after Jon Krakauer's superb book Into Thin Air highlighted the dangers of trying to climb Everest and detailed the most fatal day in the mountain's history, people are certain to continue trying.