The self-fulfilling prophecy is … a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true … the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning. Robert K. Merton, The Self Fulfilling Prophecy
The other day I was copied into the following conversation on Twitter, which raised an old chestnut:
I don’t know whether these ladies were being entirely serious (they had read my book, after all), but their reaction was a common false assumption that people make in response to media hype about Everest – that inexperienced people pay a lot of money to try and climb it, therefore it must be easy to climb if you can afford it.
They were reacting to an article in the Daily Telegraph about crowds of inexperienced people on Everest. The article was largely accurate – it’s true that more people try to climb Everest each year, and the competence of the least experienced appears to be diminishing – but it wasn’t reporting anything new.
The mistaken belief that climbing Everest has now become a piece of piss has been around for a few years now. When I returned from my own ascent of Everest five years ago, I was so incensed by the media hyperbole that I wrote a blog post entitled 5 media myths about Everest busted, that was shared widely and is still my all-time most-read post.
The very first myth I addressed was that climbing Everest is easy. I pointed out that in the course of a six-day summit push, I lost my appetite and hardly ate. My summit day lasted eighteen hours, I drank no more than a litre of fluid. My mouth was so dry by the end that I felt like I was going to retch up a small piece of my throat. I was not only at the end of my tether physically, I was mentally exhausted after an eighteen-hour rock scramble which demanded concentration for almost every step. I saw people who had collapsed and died of exhaustion, and others who had fallen. Death stalked me for most of the ascent. Throughout the climb I was terrified that a single misplaced step could send me tumbling down the North Face into a rock graveyard that had claimed George Mallory and many others.
When you’ve had experiences like these, the idea that it’s possible to climb Everest with no experience and very little effort is laughable.
As we shall see, it is also dangerous. A handful of people die climbing Everest every year. The majority of these deaths are preventable; some are a result of inexperience. The mountain should never be underestimated, even by the most experienced climbers.
Alex, who copied me into the conversation, actually edited my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten-year journey to climb Everest, so he knew better.
In the book, I describe this reaction as a self-fulfilling prophecy. People show up at Everest Base Camp, believing they can climb the mountain with no experience. They get reported in the media, along with the false conclusion that it must therefore be easy to climb Everest. People read these articles and believe them. More novices show up the following year without doing their research. They get reported in the media, and so on, ad infinitum.
The inexperienced climbers were not the root cause of this fallacy, but they have now become a contributing factor in this circle of ignorance. Everest is the highest mountain in the world, so it’s always going to appeal to people’s spirit of adventure. The trouble is that there continues to be minimal regulation, either of climbers or operators. You can obtain a permit to climb Everest if you pay $11,000 to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism. You don’t need anything else; you don’t have to demonstrate any previous qualifications. Similarly, you don’t need a license to be an operator. There are no rules about health and safety, no minimum standards, or requirement to hire experienced staff, and pay them a good wage. It doesn’t matter how many of your previous clients have been killed.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that as long as this situation persists, the trend will continue. More and more climbers with less and less experience will arrive every year. There is no shortage of unscrupulous operators ready to prey on gullible clients. Regulation is badly needed. I blogged some suggestions three years ago; there has been virtually no progress despite major tragedies.
But of course, just because the wrong people are climbing Everest doesn’t make it any easier to climb – any more than the fact that you can catch a train up Snowdon means that you can ascend the Pyg Track by sitting on your backside. Even the man who crawled up on his hands and knees, pushing a brussels sprout with his nose, did some practice first.
In Seven Steps I cited the example of a brain surgeon who wrote to me asking if I thought he could climb Everest with no previous experience. If he was a brain surgeon, then he must have been a clever chap, but even he had been taken in by the hype. I wrote back to him and asked if he thought I could carry out brain surgery without any medical training.
Last week I was reminded by a respected mountaineering statistician that 245 people reached the summit of Everest on 19 May 2012. I was one of them, and it’s a record number of successful ascents for a single day on Everest.
“Hopefully this will stay a world record for eternity,” he added.
It almost certainly won’t, but I can understand his disappointment with these numbers. It will never be easy, but Everest is certainly getting easier as techniques, technology and experience grow. The mountain gods appear to have assisted too – this year climbers are confirming what we suspected last year, that the Hillary Step has now collapsed.
It’s certainly true that in global terms climbing Everest is no longer as special as it used to be. But it will always be special for everyone who stands on its summit. It remains the single most remarkable experience of my own life, something I wouldn’t swap for anything else. Every year, people who have served their apprenticeship, made sacrifices, and summoned up the strength and determination to succeed when their moment came, achieve their dreams on the world’s highest mountain. These are the people who should be serving as an example to others, not the ones who attempted it too soon.
If you are reading this as an armchair observer then give Everest some respect. Ask questions of the media hype, and remember the hardest hill you ever climbed. Think of a slightly harder hill and go and climb that one. Don’t pretend to know Everest until you’ve been up many more and gone beyond what you thought were your limits.
And if you are thinking of following the dream and climbing Everest yourself then take your time. Enjoy the whole experience by climbing as many mountains as you can along the way. Climb at high altitude, to 6000, 7000, then 8000m. If you can, follow the seven steps that I did, when the time comes, you will be ready. You will make the right choices, and you will help to dispel the self-fulfilling prophecy.
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