Forget the bucket list, forget the ego. If you want to be a hero, stop conquering Everest was the clickbait headline that appeared in The Guardian last week (you will notice I’ve doffed my hat to the headline writer by tossing a similar one back at them).
The article was a response to the story about the Indian couple who doctored their Everest summit photos. Although it was originally reported in The Himalayan Times a couple of months ago, the mainstream media have only just picked it up, and there have been a flurry of articles reporting the story in the last week.
While the New York Times opted just to repeat the facts, The Guardian chose to continue its Daily Mail approach to Everest reporting by tossing the story to someone who has no empathy with those who climb mountains to follow up with an opinion piece.
In this case Brigid (sic) Delaney (the journalist in question) posed this question:
Why do we still feel the urge to “conquer” mountains?
If you read this blog every week then the chances are you don’t need me to answer this question. We are a community of people with a shared love of mountains. We might love them in different ways. Some of us climb quite tough ones, while sometimes we are happy just pootling on the gentle ones. Some of you climb much more challenging ones than I do, which require a much higher degree of technical skill than I have. We all have our reasons for enjoying the mountains. The reasons may be different, but whatever they are, I don’t need to waste words spelling them out.
Most of us don’t feel we conquer mountains at all. As Edmund Hillary said a long time ago, it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. A deeper point is that if Brigid Delaney needs to ask this question at all then she’s probably not best placed to comment on the motives of people who climb mountains.
For example, here are some of the motives she thinks we have:
- It’s for the bucket list.
- It’s to be the first Snapchatter on Everest.
- It’s to be the first Indian couple on the mountain.
- It’s to see how close you can get to death.
Assuming Adrian Ballinger doesn’t read this blog (though I’m sure even he would tell you Snapchatting isn’t the be-all and end-all) I can’t imagine these reasons figure highly on the lists of most of you, even the bucket list one (we all have lists of places we want to go, but we have much deeper reasons for wanting to go there than this sneery phrase implies).
One thing I think many couch potatoes don’t appreciate is that you’re not just lounging on a settee one day, stuffing your face with snacks in the course of a sedentary lifestyle, when you suddenly decide, “hey, I want to climb Everest”. Sure, there may be some who do that, but they are unlikely to get very far with it.
Instead, it happens in the course of an extremely active lifestyle. The overwhelming majority of Everest aspirants have journeyed to many faraway places and climbed many challenging peaks before the thought occurs to them. They have already travelled some way along the path without realising it. And still, it is only a thought. If they want to turn it into an ambition, then there are still many more mountains to climb, skills to learn, and experiences to acquire before it becomes a realistic goal.
I described this journey in my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. It has to be viewed in this context, as the last bold step in a very long journey which has become a part of your life because you enjoy it – it has given you a love of high mountains and wild places, and taken you to increasingly high altitude. In this context climbing Everest no longer seems such an extreme challenge. It’s much easier to understand why we have chosen to do it. Bucket list, my arse.
The article is pitted with ignorant statements. For example, she falls into the old trap of romanticising the motives of the early explorers.
This testing-yourself-against-the-limits, Pepsi Max-style tourism is a far cry from the early days of climbing Everest. It’s individualistic, ego-driven adventure that is all about pitting you, the individual, against nature – conquering it, and winning.
If she’d bothered to read the writing of George Mallory and Edmund Hillary, for example, she would realise their motives were no different from the most ambitious of today’s adventurers who know that completing such a unique achievement would guarantee them fame and wealth.
Then there is the statement that proves its opposite. Jennifer Peedom, director of the film Sherpa is quoted as saying:
The idea of conquering a mountain is a relatively recent concept. Just 300 years ago, the idea of even setting out to climb a mountain would have been considered lunacy.
All things are relative, but I don’t think many people would describe something that’s been happening for 300 years as a recent concept (and in point of fact, climbing mountains for the sheer hell of it has been around for much longer than this).
Then there are the statements that are so comically stupid that you wonder whether The Guardian even bothered to edit the article before publishing it.
The mountain has been conquered over and over again. Now big bits of it are sliding off.
The big bits sliding off it are avalanches. I don’t think these are a recent phenomenon either.
The concept of conquest runs through her article like a virus, even though it’s a concept that is alien to most of us who climb mountains. She questions why people visit fragile places like the Galapagos Islands or Antartica, and argues that if we want to be heroes, then instead of climbing mountains we should make it our life’s work to help fight climate change, so that we protect the places we travel to rather than destroy them. She says that:
Our personal challenges (even if for noble reasons like raising money for charity, or for self-development, or goal-setting purposes) are no longer serving a greater good.
Perhaps they’re not, but that’s not the point of them at all. Neither is watching an opera, going to an art gallery, watching a football match, having a glass of wine in a nice restaurant, spending an afternoon on a beach, walking the dog, going for a swim, attending a knitting gala, indulging in the annual Gloucestershire ‘throw a cheese down a hill and tumble after it’ day, frittering away an evening watching a cake-baking competition on prime time TV, or any number of things people do for pleasure (this last one strikes me as far more barking mad than wanting to climb Everest).
I don’t want to spend too many words dissecting Brigid Delaney’s words. She clearly lives in a different world to adventurous people. In an attempt to discover what greater good was served by her article I started reading the comments. I soon found myself wallowing in a frothing vat of opinionated bile. Not everyone agreed with Brigid Delaney. On the contrary, there were an equal number of commenters on each side of the debate. It was obvious that none of them were going to reconcile their differences.
I know you’ve got better things to do with your time (like charity work), so I’m not going to waste your time reporting a whole load of them here, but they broadly fell into one of two categories.
Spot on Brigid. Like most of the things that the wealthy of the world spend their money on, and no matter how they justify it, it is expensive self-gratification. It is self-serving.
And the adventurous:
Horse shit. Do something BIG that other people don’t have the balls for.
But there were also some worthwhile comments, such as this one:
If you want to test your limits of courage, why not buy a Galaxy Note 7 and keep it in your trouser pocket?
The Galaxy Note 7, in case you are wondering, is Samsung’s new smartphone, which has just been recalled because it keeps bursting into flames.
My problem isn’t Brigid Delaney. She lives on a different planet. Good luck to her. Our paths aren’t going to cross. I’m not going to share a drink with her, and it’s unlikely I will bump into her in the hills. I expect she doesn’t get outdoors much, so I’m safe there.
But I do have a problem with The Guardian tossing these commissions to people who haven’t got a clue about the subject they’re asked to write about. It’s purely an exercise in shit stirring that achieves nothing. This particular piece was harmless enough compared with the horror show of an article they published by Tanya Gold after the 2014 Everest tragedy. It didn’t generate the same levels of hate as The Economist piece I highlighted a few months ago; in this case the comments section was just a series of futile arguments, but at the end of the day what’s the point?
If you want to generate a debate about a pair of Indian climbers forging their summit photos, then there a lots of well informed people who could offer useful insight. Readers would learn something, instead of being stuck with preconceived ideas.
But if not, then why don’t they commission me to write an opinion piece about parenting while I wait for my vasectomy? I’m confident I would be able to generate a few comments and shares.
More enlightened journalists who want to learn a little more about the motives of amateur climbers who climb Everest might like to invest £2.99 in my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. It’s money well spent. You don’t have to get into the mountains to read it, but it increases the enjoyment if you do.