I was recently drawn into a very well-produced documentary series called “Everest: Beyond The Limits” that’s available on Amazon Prime. Yes, I’m behind on my streaming entertainment because my new fascination actually was released back in 2006! In any case, it’s an extremely well-produced account of numerous Mount Everest guided expeditions over three seasons. The cinematography is stunning and makes you feel like you are right there on the mountain with the climbers. One of the most entertaining and emotion-stirring aspects of the show is watching the astonishing idiocy of ego-driven extreme competitors, who seemingly will stop at nothing to achieve their obsession of standing on the highest point on earth.
As I made my way through the episodes, I would often shout at the screen with exasperation at the behaviors and comments of the main protagonists. My need to vent results in an unusual newsletter article and accompanying podcast episode that steps outside my usual content themes. However, I think there is some relevance here: it’s important to reflect on how our competitive instincts and goal-oriented mentalities can easily spin out of control to our detriment. In the case of Everest, overdoing it or doing it wrong can cost climbers their lives. Witness how 80% of deaths occur on the descent from the summit because climbers extend past their limits and forget that getting to the top is only part of the challenge.
There are many aspects of extreme high altitude mountaineering that deserve scrutiny and perhaps recalibration that I discuss in detail in the upcoming podcast episode, but the five key ones are as follows:
1. Oxygen—WTF: This is where we get the “ridiculous” and “fake” for the headline. Try to convince me that climbing a mountain with an oxygen mask on your face is not cheating! Why not just climb lower mountains authentically? Climbing Everest with a mask and tanks is like running a downhill marathon to set a new PR, or completing a century (100-mile) bike ride where you get dropped off at the top of the Sierras and pedal downhill to Sacramento. Dig US climbing legend Ed Viesturs’ quote: “99 percent of the people who have climbed Everest wouldn’t have climbed Everest without bottled oxygen.” Ed is one of 200 people to climb Everest legitimately (no oxygen), while 6,000 people have summited. Yes, oxygen is much safer—it helps prevent frostbite, your brain works better, you sustain less long-term damage from oxygen deprivation. My point is that very few people have any business trying for the summit, so why orchestrate a fake summit experience for the traffic jam masses?
2. Prepare!: If you are going to risk your life attempting Everest, how about training your ASS off for a couple of years before showing up? Many enthusiasts show up lacking high fitness levels, seemingly there because they can afford it and want another bucket list trophy (guided excursion costs ~$60k). And how about climbing with honor and intention to feel strong, focused, and under control, or otherwise turn back? You would not believe how blatantly the show’s lead characters shortcutted this common-sense notion! “Push on, never give up, you got this!” yeah yeah yeah…What you often get is big trouble when you model these sentiments without common sense.
3. Understand the Goal: The (assumed!) goal is to summit AND return safely. The “summit fever” gripping many climbers causes them to disregard and disrespect the second part of the sentence. They blow their wad getting to the top, blow 20 minutes mugging for photos, and then get into heaps of trouble trying to get down under extreme fatigue and thin air. How about setting a goal of going as high as possible safely, honoring time guidelines set by expedition leaders (you’ll love how one protagonist blatantly ignored his leader’s orders to turn back, endangering the lives of himself and his support Sherpas while continuing to ascend). How about climbing to reach your personal summit at whatever elevation, and then turning back?
4. Economics: The amazing local community of Sherpas do the majority of the work to serve the paying climbers. These extreme endurance athletes are highly adapted to the altitude, carry heavy supply loads, build several tent camps up the mountain, and set ropes for the entire six-mile length of the climb from base camp to summit. They pave the way for success; without them, the opportunity would be impossible. The juxtaposition of this primitive living, extremely low socioeconomic population busting their butts and risking their lives to serve the sometimes ill-prepared, irrational, and royally arrogant affluent Westerners is tough to swallow. On the flip side, the high cost and time commitment of an Everest attempt also compels people to get desperate and make dangerous decisions. Witness the shocking imagery of “Mount Everest traffic jams” for perspective.
5. Get Over Yourself: Why formulate such a dangerous, self-indulgent, expensive, and often poorly prepared goal like climbing Mount Everest with artificial oxygen assistance? If you insist that you are compelled and captivated, then reaching the top of the world is your destiny, okay! I accept and appreciate your passion. Who can forget the epic reply from the first Mount Everest ascender in 1954, Sir Edmund Hilary of New Zealand, when he was asked why he climbed was simply: “Because it’s there.” How about honoring the aforementioned points and doing the effort with legitimacy (no O2), sensibility (turn back when it’s “time”), and strategy (train your ass off).
It seems these days that we are over-glorifying achievements—represented by ostentatious displays of wealth, physiques, power, and fame, and incredible athletic performances—performances that often transcend common sense and conflict with the perceived honor the participant is trying to earn (to listen to my episode covering the whole Liver King controversy, click here, and stay tuned for another episode coming soon offering more commentary on hormone therapy, performance-enhancing drugs, cheating, optimizing, and morality). Is your life void so large that you are willing to accept a 5% death rate on the mountain (310 overall deaths, 6,000+ summiteers…although the death rate is slowing in recent years as technology and safety measures improve.) If it’s just you on a wild ride (like the vagabond motorcyclist character in Season 1) to live for the moment, okay man go for it. If you have family back home, then wow does that make it a tough endeavor to rationalize—unless you exhibit impeccable preparation, restraint, and strategy. That “personal summit” ideal just doesn’t seem to be enough for many folks.
I look forward to fielding your comments by email at email@example.com. Keep in mind I’m a huge fan of high-altitude mountaineering and the incredible adventurous spirit of people who are called to great challenges like visiting the most inhospitable places on earth. I just have to call BS on stuff like doing so with an oxygen tank on your face, being less than impeccably prepared, or soldiering on with a broken-down body and putting yourself and others at peril.