Opinion

Everest: the tragic quest for glory

What’s driving so many to the summit?

The disturbing events playing out on Mount Everest over the past two weeks confirm why I hate such extreme pursuits.

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Eleven people have lost their lives in the past 11 days, as queues of hopeful climbers step over dead bodies in their unswerving push to the summit of the world’s highest mountain in Nepal.

“Death. Carnage. Chaos. Line-ups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at camp 4. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies,” wrote filmmaker Elia Saikaly, whose image of a dead climber being stepped over has gone viral. So too has that tweeted by climber ‘Nimsdai’ of a trail of people, like a bus stop line-up, waiting, oxygen-starved, in the ‘death zone’.

Australian hiker Gilian Lee was rescued from the mountain after falling unconscious as he refused to use oxygen tanks or to take the Sherpa’s advice to turn back. Lee, who is recovering in a Kathmandu hospital, has now failed his fourth attempt to reach Everest’s summit. Before the climb he outlined his ultimate goal on his blog: to climb to the top of 14 mountains that are 8000 metres high “without supplemental oxygen or drugs.”

A record 381 climbing permits were issued at Everest this season at a cost of over AU$14,000 each. The average cost of tackling the mountain blows out to more than AU$83,000 when all expenses are included.

Lee describes himself as “just an average person chasing a long term dream,” but admitted in a post about this climb: “I have put a lot of pressure onto myself. I am running out of [money] to keep chasing this dream. I will never take supplemental O2, as it is just not me … Defeats the purpose of being there in the first place in my opinion. This will be the last throw of the dice.”

During the climb Lee expressed on social media the severity of the conditions and his own health, tweeting that he had a “persistent chest infection”. So what drove this Canberra public servant to keep going, against all advice and logic, to this self-determined goal?

As recent events show, Lee is certainly not alone in harbouring such ambitions, with more and more first-time climbers endeavouring to reach the world’s highest peaks. A record 381 climbing permits were issued at Everest this season at a cost of over AU$14,000 each. The average cost of tackling the mountain blows out to more than AU$83,000 when all expenses are included. The Everest bucket-list has in fact become such a common pursuit that many see it as a corporate team sport and a highly-prized addition to CVs, according to ABC podcast The Signal.

It’s the meaningless quest for personal glory that I find hard to stomach, especially when it has little or no concern about the impact on others and, indeed, puts the lives of others at risk – such as the rescuers tasked with hauling climbers down Everest.

When I hear about unreasoned pursuits like these, where the only outcome is to say “I did it!”, my thoughts always turn to the anxious family members waiting, helplessly, to hear if their loved one survives. And to the hours spent on training for and pursuing experiences that are, in the light of eternity, fruitless. Not to mention the countless dollars that could have been spent on investments with lasting impact.

Let me clarify: I’m not talking about the mountaineering efforts of those exploring new terrain, never before set foot on by humans. I also understand the drive behind extreme fundraisers like that undertaken by Australian CEO Mina Guli, who attempted to run 100 marathons in 100 days to draw attention to the global water crisis. And I can relate to the love of the sport that compels seasoned mountaineers, even if I doubt their choice of such a risky pastime.

But it’s the meaningless quest for personal glory that I find hard to stomach, especially when it has little or no concern about the impact on others and, indeed, puts the lives of others at risk – such as the rescuers tasked with hauling climbers down Everest.

For me, the only valuable lesson to come from the Everest climbing season so far is a chilling prompt to consider what I spend my time, money and talents pursuing – and if these have kingdom value both in and beyond this world.

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