Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mount Everest Just Isn't Worth It

Reading Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air and seeing the new movie Everest about the same fatal climbing expedition led me to the same cold analytical conclusion. Everest is a lousy travel destination. Are there other mountains that offer a breathtaking view uncluttered by trash, decomposing human popsicles, and those sacred Tibetan prayer flags easily confused with Mexican barrio party flags? Check. Do other mountains provide that breathtaking view without taking so much breath that your head aches, your inability to make simple decisions threatens your life, and your health is permanently compromised? Check. Can other mountains be climbed without spending enough money to circle the globe twice with someone you love? Check. Since mountaineers are experts at facing cold hard grim realities, try this one out: Everest sucks!

The film is worth seeing. Josh Brolin, John Hawkes and Jake Gyllenhaal star in this docudrama about simultaneous 1996 expeditions that resulted in the deaths of eight climbers. Overcrowded ascent routes, disrespected timetables, leadership errors, inexperienced and unfit trekkers all contributed to this disaster. Still, the movie drives home a point that rational motivations to scale Everest are few and far between, especially for those with someone waiting at home. (Visiting the no-oxygen, low-visability, death-defying bottom of the Marianas Trench makes just as much sense, but even my boyhood Gilligan's-Island-inspired dream of exploring Mary Ann's furrow and bottom fails to justify that foolhardy venture.)

Of course, there are always the subjective reasons for scaling Everest that cannot be fully understood by another person. For example: "My father and I always dreamed of doing Everest together and it was his last wish for me." Or "Compensating for my small testicles by bragging about going higher, faster and crazier than my peers doesn't work as well with other peaks because the dumber folks aren't impressed by mountains they've never heard of."  Or "I've always liked the smell of hairy unwashed men in dank tents more than the smell of my wife under a soft blanket on a rainy afternoon." Who am I to judge such personal preferences and motivations?

Still, would-be Everest conquerors need to keep a couple things straight. 1) A local brown man who carries your bags and/or you up a mountain because he's more accustomed to the cold high-altitude environment is a sherpa. He's an essential valued part of a hip socially-conscious expedition. A local brown man who carries your bags and/or you through a jungle because he's more accustomed to the hot low-altitude environment is a darkie. He's a shameful better-forgotten part of a colonial legacy of uncool burmuda-short-donning caucasian safaris. Try to keep it straight.

It's not about that judgmental biblical loving your neighbor shit. It's about optics and protecting the value of your online personal brand. Of course, developing a meaningful relationship with a guy from Nepal might add more value to your life than planting that flag where no man with much sense has gone before, but that's not really what the Mount Everest experience is all about. 2) Standing naked in the shower room of a Turkish prison announcing "Any man who can kick my ass gets a piece of it" then surviving also makes a very impressive adventure story but costs virtually nothing. I'm just sayin'.


  1. I haven't seen the film yet, but I look forward to it. David Breashers, who was on the mountain that year directing an IMAX documentary and was involved in the rescue efforts, did a documentary some years ago called Storm Over Everest, getting commentary from the survivors and going over what happened.

    Part of the problem, and it really showed itself that year, is that too many people are just doing that for the ego trip. They haven't earned their way up the mountain, they don't show respect for the mountain, and all they talk about is the summit.

  2. William, I share your love of mountains. I hope to climb mountains the rest of my life, specifically whatever mountain isn't trendy at the moment - but I may sit down and stop a few meters short of the summit just to prove it can be done. Apparently, the biblical Tower of Babel story still isn't sinking in: it's not wrong to reach for the sky; it's wrong (and dangerous) to lose your humility in the process.

  3. One of the things that struck me from the stories about that year were the few people in the death zone that day that were able to say to themselves, no, and descend back down to the high camp instead of pushing for the summit and then getting caught out in the storm.

  4. Yeah, I was partly joking about stopping short of summits, but the book and movie truly made me wonder if we shouldn't make smelling the flowers and knowing when to say when the new "test of manhood or womanhood". Bottom line: we should stop trying to prove anything and enjoy the wonder of nature. Thoreau got outdoors to suck the marrow out of life. Extreme sports lunatics can suck the joy out of a panoramic vista. I once hiked a Montana glacier with a famous guide. When he sat down in the snow and pulled wine, cheese, and Granny Smith apples out of his backpack, it was an official BROmance in my heart.