What’s the difference between God and a Climber?

George Mallory, slightly disgruntled (Source: Public Domain)

It was 1923, and it seemed that George Mallory was growing weary of discussing Everest with an incredulous media. After being queried about his motivations for attempting to summit the world’s tallest peak for the umpteenth time, he responded with a flippant remark.

In what has since been called “the most famous three words in mountaineering”, an exasperated Mallory delivered the now ubiquitous, though possibly apocryphal quote. “Because it’s there,” the New York Times reported, though it has been speculated that this may have been paraphrased by the reporter on duty.

The mere existence of a mountain is a singularly flimsy excuse for the implicit suffering, mortal danger and financial burden of mountaineering. Mallory’s one-liner therefore speaks less as to his true motives, and more to the inability for so-called “normal folk” to grasp the concept of climbing, and to the inability of climbers to articulate their intrinsic need to do so. Then as now, the media and its general audience found it difficult to understand why these men would voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way for an inherently pointless objective.

The media was nonetheless fascinated with the novel invention of high altitude mountaineering. The siege-style tactics of the age were gallant displays of patriotism for King and Country. Against the exotic Himalayan backdrop, a captivating human drama was unfolding, wresting the attention of an international audience.

These men were pushing the limits of human endurance with the support of two disparate empires. The 1924 expedition was ostensibly backed by the British Empire, which had by this time entered its twilight. In reality, the global media was the true powerhouse. It was fast becoming a major player in the new world order that was being shaped by the passage of two world wars, and would continue its meteoric rise in both influence and reach over the decades that followed. As technology progressed, so did the means for dissemination of information, and thus the power to shape the opinion of the masses.

Some 73 years later, Everest was in the news again. This time, however, the media reception was unfavourable to say the very least. It is often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but one must question the virtue of common wisdom in a culture where many still think that astrology is a legitimate science.

The 1996 Everest Disaster was unequivocally a bad news day.

Owing to the popularity of books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and more recently the 2015 film Everest by Baltasar Kormákur, the 1996 incident is somewhat famous in both climbing and non-climbing circles. But for those of you who have been living under a rock… actually, that might comprise a large percentage of our readership, come to think of it. In any case, if you’re unfamiliar with the event, allow me to touch briefly on the facts.

“The 1996 Mount Everest disaster refers to the events of 10–11 May 1996, when eight people caught in a blizzard died on Mount Everest during attempts to ascend or, having achieved their goal, descend from the summit. Over the entire season, 12 people died trying to reach the summit, making for the deadliest day and year on Mount Everest [at that time]. The 1996 disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.” (Source: wikipedia.org)

Before I’m accused of lazy journalism, I’d like to point out that I’ve decided to copy this excerpt verbatim in the interest of presenting an objective, widely available description of the event. I’m not interested in any deep analysis of the incident. This is something that has been achieved far more deftly than the scope of this article and my skill as a writer allows. What is largely interesting about the above passage is not the dates and details, but the allusions to “wide publicity and raised questions.”

“Raised questions” is certainly a mild manner with which to label the vitriolic castigation which characterised the public reaction to the event. Climbing has always been a fringe sport, one which largely escapes the notice of the general populace. The 1996 Everest Disaster abruptly thrust mountaineering into the media spotlight, and owing to the grim nature of the event, drastically skewed common perception of the sport.

The chief criticism of the Everest scene was concern over the growing commercialisation of the mountain, and the ethical, practical and environmental concerns that accompany this exploitation.

“It is just such western decadence and self-indulgence,” wrote Miranda Devine of The Daily Telegraph, “that has turned the pristine Himalayan landscape into a giant garbage dump of discarded oxygen bottles and soup tins and has lured increasing numbers of moneyed pseudo-adventurers to an early grave.”

Her opinion, and many others like it, met with little resistance from a puzzled audience and the exasperated climbing elite. Others questioned the very nature of climbing, decrying the worthlessness of the pursuit and the shamelessness of those who seek to pursue it.

In his Chicago Sun-Times piece titled “The Humdrum Life is Thrilling Enough”, Neil Steinberg seems to dismiss not only the dilettantes and nouveau-riche thrill seekers, but esteemed members of the mountain guiding community who also met their doom in the rarefied air on Everest in those dark hours.

“As reluctant as I am to detract from the grand, operatic techno-tragedy of dying climbers cell-phoning in their last words to their soon-to-be widowed spouses and half-orphaned children, somebody should point out, if only in a hushed whisper, that these people are idiots, throwing their lives away in pursuit of a transcendent thrill.”

These claims about the nature of climbing are easy to make and difficult to refute. It is very hard to explain the attraction of this seemingly pointless enterprise, especially to those to whom the answer is mentally and biologically incompatible. When he was in a more accommodating and eloquent mood, George Mallory was quoted as saying “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”

The blurst climbing movie of all time (Source: Columbia Pictures)

For climbers, the 1996 Everest Disaster is just one of many threads that form the tapestry of climbing lore. To non-climbers, books such as Into Thin Air and Touching the Void, and films such as Everest and everyone’s all-time favourite, Vertical Limit, form the touchstones by which general perception of the sport is formed. Is this perception limited, skewed and wrong? My word, yes. But that doesn’t mean that it ain’t so.

Many of the survivors of the incident are now reticent to speak about their involvement in the Everest disaster, largely due to what they perceive to be malice and misrepresentation on the part of mainstream media outlets. Though some claimed that they were treated well, the majority of those involved cited negative experiences. Charlotte Fox, a ski patroller from Aspen, Colorado who was present during the event, was one of many who withdrew from her initially open discussion with the media.

“The press took a story angle and then either created its own version or cherry-picked comments and used them completely out of context,” said Fox. “A lot of people felt like they got burned by the whole process.”

Just as a glacier shapes and is shaped by the surrounding landscape, the media coverage shapes and is shaped by popular opinion. Reporters and editorial staff of large news outlets are very shrewd at predicting the prejudices of their audience, sculpting their coverage of events in response. In turn, public perception is formed and moulded by the inherent emphasis and bias of this coverage. Essentially, a positive feedback loop.

Without a genuine point of reference within the climbing community, the portrayal of climbers in the mainstream media as selfish, egomaniacal adrenaline junkies has become a mainstay. This image has proved so persistent that it has coloured reporting on significant climbing milestones decades later, despite the overwhelming positivity of recent events which have achieved comparable media coverage.

FFA of the Dawn Wall (Photo Credit: Corey Rich)

When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson freed the Dawn Wall on 14th January 2015, the media circus surrounding the event was unprecedented. The scale of coverage was exponentially larger than could ever have been achieved in 1996. The internet has changed the game significantly since then, with many people receiving their newsfeeds from social media, blogs and online video platforms as well as from more traditional sources such as television and print.

But then as now, mainstream media was unable to grasp the meaning of this accomplishment and lacked the ability to communicate this effectively with an incredulous and at times cynical audience. Even basic nomenclature and descriptions went beyond the ken of the average journalist.

“They were scaling the Dawn Wall,” The New York Times reported, “— as smooth as alabaster, as steep as the bedroom wall, more than half a mile tall — without the benefit of ropes, other than to catch their falls.”

One internet blogger took extreme umbrage with this description, more as a writer than a climber. His conclusion was that “The rock is as smooth as rock and the wall is as steep as a wall” may be a contender for the worst analogy ever committed to print.

In many ways, the 2015 Dawn Wall ascent was the antithesis of the 1996 Everest Disaster. A free ascent of the Dawn Wall is a monumental, unprecedented achievement, a very far cry from a guided slog up the fixed ropes of Everest’s flanks. It was completed by two seasoned, professional athletes whom none could argue are bereft of the experience required in such terrain. Most of all, it was achieved with minimal impact and under conditions of safety in which the only casualties were layers of finger skin.

Despite the manifold differences between the two events, the Dawn Wall ascensionists nonetheless drew almost as much criticism as praise. The chagrin of many detractors was encapsulated by Adventure Journal, who made it their mandate to catalogue the unsolicited opinions of the unimpressed, the dubious and the reproachful. The comments mostly serve to highlight the lack of understanding that members of the general populace exhibit toward the sport of climbing and its impacts, both human and environmental.

“Not cool to be peeing off the side into the valley,” wrote one keyboard warrior going by under the moniker me not frugal. “Also really not cool to be defacing El Cap with bolts. That is no way to treat the treasure that is Yosemite. Furthermore, this is not technically a free climb, as they are secured with safety ropes.”

Some were more concerned about the impact on themselves as taxpayers and potential patrons.

“These two are an argument against Universal Health Care….or health Insurance period,” pens Adameyeball. “Without a doubt one day they will get injured and ask the other insured to pay for them. Yes this takes tremendous courage, or stupidity. Giving it press will only encourage copycats and injury. I don’t know why I/We have to pay for this, do you?”

The summation of all this commentary could be achieved by Ed Burke, who said “This is simply foolish and irresponsible. There is nothing to be gained in such foolhardy adventures.”

After poring through the echo chamber of negative comments, one begins to wonder… perhaps Mr Burke is right? What, after all, is the point in climbing? Why do we do it? Climbers are certainly a minority group, one engaged in the continual pursuit of an activity which a majority of our civilisation deems “foolish and irresponsible” and without demonstrable gain. Is it possible that (gulp) they are right?

Telemetry feed from the Red Bull Stratos Jump (Source: Red Bull)

The question brings to mind the record-breaking Red Bull Stratos project, in which Felix Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon some 39 kilometres above the Earth to achieve the longest skydive in history. This achievement was met with similar negative comments at the time, generally falling under the “who cares” or “waste of money” categories.

To me, the Stratos jump was amazing and inspiring. It was the culmination of years of labour that included many logistical and engineering hurdles, not to mention the expertise and dedication of Baumgartner himself. It exemplified the human spirit, the very same curiosity which propelled Magellan, Columbus and Cook across the horizon. It personified the human conundrum – what next? I see this ideal mirrored in the sport of climbing. If it weren’t for pioneers, we’d still be living in caves painting murals with our own faeces.

Sure, we’re not all record breakers and first ascensionists, so the explorative facet to climbing is only part of the equation. But in conclusion to his elucidation of the struggle of mountaineering being analogous to life, George Mallory said this: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy.”

The motivation to climb is extremely variable from person to person. It is definitely fair to say that selfishness and matters of the ego are driving forces for some, but certainly not for all. Society and its members are complex and diverse – climbers are no different. To characterise the many with the negative aspects of the few is to disregard a vast gamut of facets within the human character.

The common thread that links every climber is their singular, inexplicable passion for the simple act of climbing, the “sheer joy” if you will. Just as Mallory experienced, we’ve begun to feel the Empire crumbling around us. We’ve seen our civilisation become populated by disillusioned, over-fed, under-achieving automatons. As a climber, we decide that the best use for one’s life is to follow one’s passion, and in doing so foster the virtues that our society once held in the highest regard – bravery tempered by caution, community without the abandonment of self-sufficiency, ambition strengthened by determination.

Perhaps John Meyer said it best in his article “Why we climb: If you have to ask, you won’t understand”.

“Everest still summons the best qualities of the human spirit. Yes, it is a graveyard. It also is a monument to will, courage, discipline, self-reliance, individuality, responsibility, ambition and achievement, qualities too often belittled or attacked in other circles.”

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?