I’ve always been drawn to mountain climbing. The allure of hiking some of the most beautiful places on Earth, the test of physical stamina, and overcoming inevitable mental challenges culminate in the irresistible opportunity to achieve.
The penultimate in mountaineering is, of course, Mount Everest in the Himalayas. Its peak stands more than 29,000 feet above sea level. The South Col and Northeast Ridge routes, the Hillary Step, the Khumbu Icefall, and Mushroom Rock are names associated with Everest that every serious mountaineer knows. Thousands of climbers have attempted to summit Everest, and sometimes the mountain wins; about 300 people have died trying to scale it (coincidentally, 80 percent of accidents on Everest occur on the way down).
Yet the allure of Everest endures because human nature does not change. Legendary British mountaineer George Mallory (who died on Everest in 1924) uttered the three most famous words in mountaineering when asked why he wanted to climb the mountain: because it’s there. Thus, Everest for decades presented the ultimate confrontation between man and nature.
But today the situation is much different. Instead of man challenging nature mano-a-mano, scaling Everest today is a carefully planned campaign where those able to shell out $50,000 enjoy a massive support team and logistical network that have the ability to literally lead the paying customer by the hand to the summit and back.
Climbing Everest today has morphed into a parody of excessive consumption, personal vainglory, and reality TV. What was once admirable and inspirational is now an embarrassing display of modern society at its worst. Much of what you see in the Climbing Mount Everest Complex echoes hypocrisy on issues prevalent in society today.
The most visible hypocrisy is acting as if scaling Everest places the climber in an isolated rapture with nature. From its base camps to its summit, today Everest resembles countless other global tourist traps during peak season. Climbers wait in traffic jams of long lines at bottlenecks along the route, resembling adult, cold weather versions of kids in line for Space Mountain in Orlando.
Those who reach the summit perform the inevitable photo shoot to hastily post on social media, much like those snapping and posting shots of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or Times Square in New York. Hurry up and don’t take long, there are a hundred people behind you waiting for their turn to snap their shots. I’m guessing the selfie stick is becoming as common of a sight at the summit as the oxygen cylinder.
Another hypocrisy is that although many of the climbers undoubtedly embrace worthy concepts such as inclusiveness and human equity, the summit, and the progression to it, are not exactly an economic inclusive zone. There is more economic disparity and stratification at the summit of Everest than in Manhattan.
Most people think the biggest determinants for success in summitting Everest are physical stamina, weather, and luck. Although all three are crucial, they are not the most important determinant. That honor goes to the net worth of the climber; because if you cannot come up with over $50,000 and put your job on hold for a couple of months, you are not going to have the chance to scale Everest.
Those standing on the summit hail from the two extreme ends of the economic spectrum, the “haves” with extensive economic means and the Sherpas who make it possible for the “haves” to reach the peak.
Speaking of Sherpas, the Climbing Mount Everest Complex has yet another hypocrisy problem. Sherpas place their lives on the line to get the paying customer to the top of the mountain, not just once, but time and time again through a climbing season. Worse yet, typically Sherpas spend the most time in highly dangerous situations because they are the first responders to try to save inept, imperiled, or stranded climbers when things turn for the worst on the mountain. About a third of the total fatalities on Everest were Sherpas.
For all this risk, a Sherpa can expect compensation under $10,000 for an entire climbing season. The most crucial piece of the logistical chain to get a well-to-do climber from a developed country to the top is a worker from a developing nation paid a wage that would place him under the poverty threshold in the US. Despite being a strident advocate of the free market, something about the allocation of the economic rent across the Climbing Mount Everest Complex just doesn’t feel right to me.
The penultimate hypocrisy aspect of the Climbing Mount Everest Complex is its adherence to climate change zealotry. Key constituents in the complex, including the outfitters, climbers, gear manufacturers, and journalists, by and large subscribe to the belief that climate change is the singular, biggest threat facing mankind today. Their words, policies, and websites regurgitate the standard credos and commitments. Yet their actions grotesquely defy the words.
That’s because climbing Everest is one of the most carbon-intensive endeavors known to man. Someone needs to calculate the all-in carbon footprint on a per-summit-climber basis. The footprint includes:
- the travel to and from the Himalayas spewing carbon dioxide;
- the manufacturing of oxygen and the tanks storing it (a massively carbon-intensive endeavor);
- the head-to-toe climbing gear and tents that utilize petroleum- and carbon-based materials and fibers;
- the carbon-fueled supply chain to produce and package specialty foodstuffs; and,
- all the mountain camps’ fossil-fueled heating sources.
You’re not getting to the top of Everest on windmills and solar panels. You’re getting there on the vital carbon atom; the very thing the Everest Complex vilifies.
Those lucky enough to summit Everest should thank the trio that made it possible: free enterprise providing the financial wherewithal to pay for the adventure, Sherpas providing the physical paths and assistance to the top and back down, and carbon providing the necessary energy and products needed to get you there and to live to tell about it. Without any of those three, today’s adventurer stands no chance to stand atop Everest.
From time to time I entertain in my head thoughts of giving Everest a go. But then two realities hit home. First, my window might have passed; the thought of dragging my old butt up Everest makes me tired. Second, I don’t want to become a willing participant in the hypocrisy. I may not end up with the money shot of the summit on the credenza, but I will sleep well knowing my actions are consistent with my beliefs.