It was a fatal weekend near the summit of Mount Everest. Three climbers are confirmed dead and two others are missing, according to the Vancouver Sun. Reporting so far identifies various elements of the local conditions as contributing to the deaths, some of those conditions possibly attributable to global warming. But the main culprit here seems to be overcrowding. So many people tried to trek through what’s charmingly referred to as the “death zone” than people at the back of the queue were starting for the summit nearly three hours later in the day than experts recommend. That’s an astonishing fact, and I think it calls for a breaking point in the very concept of adventuring in the modern world.
In a 1949 episode of my favorite radio series, Quiet, Please, the author, Wyllis Cooper, presents a story of two men’s attempt to summit Mount Everest, and he taps into the sentiment entertained among some mountaineers at the time that the world’s tallest mountain might actually be unclimbable. A short sixty-three years later – less than the span of one human lifetime – people flock to the conquered vertical frontier in droves, and carrying ultra-modern, life-preserving equipment, they file to the top of the world like a line of ants, all attempting to re-experience en masse the seminal achievement of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29th, 1953.
But it is no longer possible to re-experience that same triumph now that the world has been so much transformed. Without question, summiting Mount Everest remains among the most challenging and impressive feats that one can achieve, but it is nowhere near as difficult as it was decades ago. It still claims lives, as it has for as long as men have struggled against its inhospitable environment. But it is remarkable that the probability of death upon the mountain is now more a function of the number of people making their way up its slopes than of the amount of difficulty faced by a well-equipped person in good climbing conditions.
By way of technological advancement, we have steadily made Everest easier to climb. Yet at the same time, by way of collective pride and lack of imagination, we have kept pace with other changes that make it as risky as ever. I’d say that it’s time that the 25,000 annual tourists to Mount Everest start more closely considering the economics of risk and reward in attempting to climb the mountain these days.
The exaltation that accompanied surviving the summit in 1953 must have been unparalleled and inexpressible. I’m sure that the experience today is a highlight of the life of every person who survives it, but for no one does it rise to the level of what Hillary and Norgay accomplished. Rarity enhances the value of every commodity, even human experience, and with multiple climbers reaching the peak of Everest every year, it just doesn’t have the same august status of human endeavor that it might have. Meanwhile the absent rarity increases the risk. You can die coming down from Everest these days not because those who went before you died as well, but precisely because those who went before you survived to both delay and encourage your ascent.
The world is inspiringly long on the noble aspirations of men and women who wish to do amazing things with their time on Earth. I respect and admire that impulse to the utmost. But I wish that such people were more prone to use that ambition to pursue feats of endurance and ingenuity that other men had not yet accomplished. As our ability to master the once-seemingly impossible grows, our efforts ought to grow proportionally.
Now, I acknowledge that the world is all but out of new frontiers now. James Cameron’s descent into the Marina Trench proved that it is not entirely devoid of remote places to conquer, and indeed he should stand as an example of what remains to be had of headline-worthy ventures. Nevertheless, unconquered places are exceptionally rare now. There are still grand feats that can be accomplished within the realms that have already been explored, but with the climbing of Everest almost passé, and deadly now in part because of its human congestion, the world is lacking in the sense of magic that it once possessed, the sense that allowed Wyllis Cooper to imagine the peak of Everest as the dwelling place of the world’s last living goddess.
We live in a time that is more challenging for the very concept of adventuring than it is for most individual adventurers. It will probably be several generations yet before we have new frontiers to conquer out in space, and that will be a brilliant time for the collective imagination regarding the possibilities of bold, individualistic human endeavor. In the meantime, though, I hope that people with a truly adventurous spirit will see it as their prerogative not to queue up for a re-experience of long-ago conquests, but to find those rare frontiers of exploration and human strength which still exist in the corners of the Earth and the human spirit, and to demonstrate thereby that there is still true majesty in both.