Two months ago, four climbers died attempting to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were caught in a sort-of traffic jam of 150 climbers. Each had spent approximately $25,000 on the trek.
Several years ago I read John Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, which chronicled the real-life, tragic journey the author made in 1996 to the top of Mount Everest. It was riveting and masterfully written, but also a journey through the selfish obsessions of well-healed, yet bored westerners who’ve lived lives of such detached comfort they’re desperate for an experience that will prove they’re still alive. Problem is, eight of them weren’t alive when Krakauer’s trip was over.
I finished the book puzzling over why anyone would want to risk death climbing Everest. Is it the same urge that makes a sheltered girl want to date the dangerous boy – the same giddy hunger that makes seemingly normal people bungee jump? Maybe. Truth is, there are lots of intoxicating, heart pounding thrills short of climbing Everest. But death defying roller coasters are for weekend warriors, Fight Club was just a movie, running with the bulls in Pamplona is an easy-in, easy-out tourist jaunt and parachuting is so routine now it’s safer than crossing Conner Street on foot during rush hour.
Climbing Everest is the ultimate high-risk experience. It requires weeks acclimating yourself to the altitude. There’s cool stuff like backpacks, mountain climbing gear and oxygen canisters. Add in life threatening weather, chances of a quarter mile vertical fall to your death and air so thin it acts on the brain much the same as a bottle of scotch and a handful of quaaludes, and you’ve got the makings of a real laugh-in-the-face-of-death experience.
For all the adventure, the people who die on Everest these days are still husbands, wives, fathers, sons and daughters. They risk their lives for the ultimate adventure. But leaving your child fatherless for the sake of a thrill baffles me. I understand completely why pioneers traveled into the western wilderness. Their survivors can proudly say, “They died looking for a better life.” I understand why astronauts go into space. The survivors of those who don’t make it home can proudly say, “They died trying to broaden man’s understanding of the universe.” But what do the survivors of those who died on Everest say about their deceased loved one who went searching to fill the unnamed void in their lives? “My Daddy died climbing Everest because he had an itch he couldn’t scratch?”
What’s the motivation? They’re not the first to climb the mountain. It won’t save mankind or Nepal from misery. If the cure for cancer were in a bottle at the summit, I’d understand. If the solution to world hunger were written on a piece of paper and trapped beneath a boulder at the mountain’s peak, I’d offer to go along, or at least help pay for the oxygen tanks. But those answers are not there, just as the explanations don’t exist for the widows and widowers whose spouses needed to climb Everest to prove themselves – test their metal. “Because it’s there,” doesn’t cut it for me.
If these folks feel the need to escape their mundane lives and accomplish a daunting task (an urge I understand completely) there are problems that desperately need the kind of time, money and energy that gets wasted on Everest every year. There are villages without clean water, drug-infested neighborhoods without hope, homeless people who need houses and children who can’t read. Imagine the difference that could be made in a community if the people who climbed Everest with John Krakauer focused all that time, money and energy on those types of problems. It would be an event worthy of planting a flag, raising a fist in the air, and triumphantly posing for a picture.
The fool-hardy adventure seeking doesn’t end on Everest. Every time millionaire Steve Fossett tried to fly his balloon around the world I wondered not only why he’s doing it, but also why the media paid any attention. I understand the value of Lindberg crossing the Atlantic – it helped push the boundaries of a revolutionary technology. But flying a balloon around the world in this new century will prove what? Why not circle the globe on a pogo stick? Would that be any less difficult or dangerous?