Monday, October 7, 2013

Why climb Mt. Everest?

If you're bored with life - you don't get up every morning with a burning desire to do things - you don't have enough goals -- Lou Holtz (former football coach of my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish)

Without some goal and some efforts to reach it, no [wo]man can live -- Fyodor Dostoevsky from his 1862 tale "House of the Dead"

Many people ask me why I want to climb Mt. Everest.  I suspect anyone who publicly declares a big goal fields similar questions.  My answer depends upon the time and interest of my audience but my basic response is simply "I chose to climb Mt. Everest to challenge myself and to see if I can meet that challenge."  That response, however, rarely meets the audience's approval because they maintain hidden perspectives that they may not fully realize.  Given the opportunity to fully elaborate my rationale in this forum, I intend to take full advantage.  Today's post includes my unabridged response to each of these hidden perspectives that may drive one to question goals like climbing Everest.  As I mentioned previously, many people have some implicit or explicit views of Everest as a goal.  I plan to enumerate many of the popular views and then explain how my simple reply is all I need to rationalize my goal.  I break them down into those who minimize the feat or exaggerate the risk.  So, why climb Mt. Everest when....

"Minimizing the feat" arguments

Climbing Mt. Everest no longer represents the great challenge.  

I hear this through many different sources.  People from all walks of life - sedentary people to expert mountaineers - claim that the challenge presented on Everest decreases with all the assistance and technology.  To be sure, the assistance provided by Sherpa teams, pack animals, bottled oxygen, advanced equipment, and more accurate forecasting all lessen the risk.  These advantages also enable many people who might be otherwise unable to complete the climb to at least attempt it.  I grant the critic that argument but making something easier does not make it easy.

A popular stance among the expert mountaineers these days is to claim Mt. Everest no longer is a real mountaineering challenge.  Perhaps for those elite few that statement holds true.  Not every person is capable of a first ascent or a highly technical climb.  Maybe these experts would do better climbing the lower but more deadly K2 peak (28,251 feet instead of 29,029 feet for Everest).  Let us look at the numbers just to prove their point.  Consider both Everest and K2 by the numbers; I think you will agree that there are more technical and deadly climbs than Mt. Everest.
  • K2 had 77 deaths with 297 successful summits (as of 2009 statistics) or roughly a 26% fatality rate.  Some of those successful summits included climbers who died on the descent - thus reducing the real summit successes by 31 and increasing the fatality rate to a almost 30%
  • Everest pales in comparison.  Yes, according to those comparison numbers, Everest seems almost safe.  From 1922 to 2006 (the latest year for climbing stats reported on, there were 10,094 attempts and 2,972 successful summits or a 29% success rate.  During that time, 207 people died on Mt. Everest so the total fatality rate is 2%.  
The success rate climbing Everest is equal to the fatality rate on K2.  Sheesh!  I bet a walk through one of those drug cartel controlled Mexican border towns would yield a fatality rate higher than Everest.  Is Everest the greatest climbing feat available?  No.  But I doubt anyone who sets a goal expects it to be the greatest feat ever or most dangerous endeavor.  Mt. Everest is the highest peak and nothing will change that fact.  Whether the goal is the most challenging is immaterial to me and to most others.  Only the elitists think that they need to be first, fastest, or best; I'm happy with achieving a goal that challenges me.  I learned a ton from Scott Jurek - not directly from him but rather from his behavior.  Scott is probably the most accomplished ultra runner ever.  What makes Jurek unique is that he values every competitor - always cheering on even the last runner in every race. Yes, he sees the value in the goal and I do too.  Thanks Scott for the great education in both sportsmanship and humility.

Popularity made Everest a lesser feat.

Since climbing Mt. Everest gained popularity from movies, books, and news articles, we see a dramatic rise in the number of climbers attempting to climb it.  Those increasing numbers may also reflect the reduced challenge as I suggested above.  If you hold that Mt. Everest no longer represents the great challenge that the early climbers faced then consider a few other challenges that - according to that logic, ought to have lost their luster.
  • Marathons:  Once considered the ultimate challenge, marathons are now ordinary.  We see more people running marathons than ever before (see for more statistics than those reported below). How many you ask?  Well, since 2009 (according to the website, there were more than 500,000 finishers of marathons in the US and Canada.  In 2013 alone, there are more than 700 marathons scheduled in North America.  Marathons must be pretty routine if everyone is doing them, right?  Please run one and tell me how you feel afterwards.  I ran many over the past 30 years and I still contend that a marathon taxes my body like no other event - including climbing.  The popularity, in short, does not reflect the magnitude of the feat.  Perhaps marathons are too short; how about longer events?
  • Ultra-Marathons (LONG Distance Running):  The 2013-2014 ultramarathon calendar lists almost 800 events worldwide.  One database lists 1,626,446 finishes for 453,301 runners in 17,703 ultramarathon events worldwide.  Consider only one - the Badwater 135 mile ultramarathon through Death Valley whose organizers boasts it is "[g]lobally recognized as the toughest race of its kind."  The Badwater limits participation to 95 entrants and usually sees upwards of a 90% completion rate.  Even though the selection process probably eliminates those unfit for the challenge, there are still people who fail to finish.  Nobody dies, I presume. So, I guess ultramarathoning is a routine endeavor since it is so popular.  Right?  What about the Ironman?
  • Ironman Triathlons:  41,000 athletes competed in Ironman triathlons around the world last year.  Yes, 41,000 in one year alone.  The world championships in Kona had 1771 finishers out of 1847 starters or a 96% completion rate - a rate similar to the Badwater finishing rate most years.  Ironman triathletes outnumber climbers who attempt to climb Everest by more than 4 times.  I have run an Ironman and I assure you that those events are not trivial.  Again, popularity does not reflect difficulty.  Now my favorite...
  • Single-handed Round the World Sailing (Vendee Globe):  I have a soft spot in my heart for sailing and I must admit that there are few people I know tougher than the sailors who sail single-handed around the world.  Rich Wilson wrote in his book that Everest climbers and Vendee Globe sailors have some things in common but the latter are a more select group.  Mountaineers think they have it rough but no medium presents more challenges than the sea.  Consider the numbers alone to convince you.  The Vendee globe takes the route in the figure below and requires racers to sail continuously throughout - no stops, no breathers, no assistance, no kidding!  Since 1989 - and roughly every 4 years since - the race saw a total of 70 boats out of 138 finish the race (51% success rate) and 3 fatalities (2% fatality rate - same as Everest).  The fastest finisher completed the trip in 78 days.  Most Everest expeditions take that long but there are far more creature comforts available to climbers than to single-handed sailors.  I think Everest seems easier but still not a trivial feat.
    Vendee Globe route - from Wikipedia

Only the rich climb Mt. Everest or "buying your way up a mountain"

I am happy to be included among the "rich" although I doubt they would invite me into their club.  Rich is a strange label and one I find uncomfortable wearing, however, I admit that there are some aspects of my life and my socioeconomic standing that make me rich.  If you compare me to the poorest people in the world, I am beyond rich but that is not what most people think when they say Mt. Everest is only for the rich.  They mean "rich" in a derogatory way.  I think we need to consider this attack carefully.

Climbing - just like any specialized activity - requires money.  Climbing, sailing, skiing, snowboarding, triathlons, or any other activity that requires equipment, travel, and time also requires money.  Each of those activities costs something and the costs are difficult to overcome without some help.  Furthermore, we all have limits placed upon us by our local cultural norms.  Think of your life and how you have matured.  When we are young, we are dependent upon our parents.  Those of us who were lucky enough to be born to parents with the means to support expensive activities benefited by gaining experiences early on in life.  I had those benefits - not because my parents were terribly rich but because they valued outdoor activities like sailing and skiing.  Once we outgrow our parental support, we must prepare for the life we choose by going to college and getting a job.  Those activities often interfere with the long-term pursuit of adventure.  Some college kids struggle to make ends meet but still find a way for adventure.  I went to Colorado and Utah while I was a poor college kid and couch surfed my way around the ski areas.  Life was great but I sure didn't have a ton of money.  We all must value these activities to really pursue them with passion.  Unfortunately, those early years end and we find ourselves married with kids and financially obligated.  How on earth would anyone find time for adventure with those responsibilities?  Most of us put away our adventure toys to focus on what really matters - family.  Those years pass (not the caring about family but the stowed toys) and eventually some of us long to get out again.  Sometimes, we are fortunate to get out with our family but unless you have kids willing to brave the elements or a spouse who shares the same passions, you are left searching for others who have the same longing.  There are not many 40+ year old people who are fit or interested enough to leave their families for a weekend or month-long adventure.  Some of my sailing friends are retired and have the luxury of unencumbered time to travel to regattas (Hey Joan and Gary).

So why is it that only the rich climb Mt. Everest?  I think the critics have it all wrong.  The rich - those with a ton of cash - get featured as climbers on the mountain.  Meanwhile, many of us get to mimic the rich by having jobs that afford us time to get away.   Climbing outfits like Summit Climb and other expeditions allow the less well off to afford the climbing permit without breaking the bank.  Many provide excellent service and no different (if not superior) to the high-end expedition groups.  I have a job that allows me the time flexibility but does not pay me millions of dollars.  Thus, I had to make sacrifices, work more on the side, save when I would have preferred to spend, and carefully select the group to climb with next year.  All of those efforts enable me to be among the rich and I consider myself fortunate.  Am I rich?  Yes.  I am rich with desire, time, and some spare money to afford the climb.

Climbers get pampered on Mt. Everest

I heard through many friends and acquaintances that the amenities on Everest range from surround sound movie theaters to fully stocked bars.  Every activity has some rendition of the fully pampered approach.  Just because some are pampered does not mean that all are pampered.  I sailed on luxurious boats and stripped down hulls with no amenities; all offered challenging conditions.  Plus, why is pampering so bad?  I suspect those who dislike the idea of these "amenities" are those who are the least likely to ever find themselves in rugged conditions.  One of the great benefits from roughing the outdoors is the new-found appreciation for creature comforts.  I like to be comfortable as do most of you.  Somehow though, comfort and "roughing it" do not seem to mesh well.  I beg to differ.  We pamper ourselves with down outfits, smart wool base layers, stink-proof clothing (although I seem to stink them up all the same), and well-designed and form fitting footwear.  Where does smart equipment choices end and excessive pampering begin?  I don't know but I don't worry myself with those distinctions.  Some people get even more pampering by having a personal Sherpa whose responsibility is to ensure the safety of his client.  The Sherpa assists the climber with equipment - sometimes going so far as to help the climber with crampons and oxygen masks, regulator, and bottle replacement.  Are these excessive acts that pamper the climber?  Perhaps to some.  Everyone has a limit on their capabilities and I assume the fact that some limited climbers successfully summit Everest is why the elite mountaineers find Everest no longer challenging.   Perhaps the amenities make the mountain more accessible in the same way that wheelchair ramps make the Grand Canyon accessible to those who cannot get down the trails.  We all get pampered if we choose to be pampered.  The choice is ours and ours alone to opt for pampering.  I prefer to climb without pampering but I have little care what others prefer - just as I prefer vanilla while others prefer chocolate.  A preference makes a poor argument and certainly a poor case for devaluing a choice.  Let them eat cake!

"Alpine style (and "fast and light") climbing is the only acceptable climbing style" or "Everest climbing is not true climbing"

I hear these claims from experienced mountaineers who state that "alpine style" is the only true form of mountaineering.  Alpine style requires every climber to carry his/her load - along with any shared equipment.  Climbers acclimatize by climbing high and sleeping low just as the original alpinists did decades ago.  The first expeditions of most peaks made ascents using these general principles.  Our climb in 2011 on Denali was done alpine style because animals were not allowed on the mountain and we climbed as an unguided group.

Sometimes, you might hear a climber talk about "fast and light" as a style.  Fast and light means exactly what it states; climbers are expected to go as fast as possible with the least amount of gear.  I hear the "fast and light" mantra frequently among climbers as if it were a badge of honor to be among the elite.  Yes, the elite go fast and light because that is what they do for a living or at least with most of their free time.  Alpinists who ascribe to the claim that alpine style is the only true form of mountaineering also hold that fast and light are the best rules for climbing.

Why do I bring up alpine style when I am trying to address why I want to climb Everest?  Simple.  Many climbers who choose not to climb Everest claim that the traffic on the mountain along with the permit costs eliminates the opportunity for true climbing (aka alpine style).  Their choice not to climb Everest may result in the question "why do you want to climb a mountain that eliminates the pure, alpine style of mountaineering?"  While the question seems appropriate for those who hold this belief, I contend it holds nothing for me.  I believe there are reasons why alpine style might be suitable for some peaks and for some people but I doubt it ought to be the standard by which all climbs are judged.  As I stated in my previous point, I believe everyone ought to have the freedom to choose between expedition styles.  Sure, one style might be more challenging than another but every climber must be comfortable with his/her choices.  One of the most popular books on mountaineering titled "Freedom of the Hills" emphasizes freedom where everyone may share the high alpine experiences.  Why must freedom be limited by what others' view as "correct" or "proper" styles of climbing?  If you want to climb in a fashion that makes it safe for you and safe for others around you then I recommend you do so without reservation.  I don't let other people's opinions persuade me to avoid Everest or any other goal.

"Exaggerated risk" arguments

Rank amateurs have increased the risk of the climb.  

No doubt there are far more inexperienced climbers on Mt. Everest today than there were years ago - just as there are untrained and, perhaps ill-prepared runners in every marathon.  The only problem with that comparison is that inexperienced climbers increase the risk for everyone on a mountain whereas ill-prepared runners in a marathon get passed by and rarely interfere with the experience for others.  Climbing companies mitigate the problems to a degree but not completely.  Some groups cull the weak climbers from the summit groups early on; other climbing expeditions allow anyone to remain on the mountain.  I guess you get what you pay for with expeditions.

Experience comes from both direct exposure to the endeavor and the vicarious learning via the collective wisdom of the group.  I argue that we have more experienced people on the mountain today than in previous years because the technology enables the more ordinary person to accomplish this extraordinary feat.  Yes, I believe climbing Mt. Everest remains an extraordinary event.  I appeal to the numbers I presented above to show that there are still far fewer people climbing Mt. Everest than people doing anything other than sailing the Vendee Globe.

Another piece of evidence that favors my perspective comes form this article by Westhoff, Koepsell, and Littell (2012).  The authors concluded that "no net survival benefit is associated with increased Himalayan experience."  They go on to say that.."[a] veteran of many climbs was, on average, no more or no less likely to die on a climb than a mountaineer on a first expedition to the region."  Furthermore, their data analysis of the most complete data source available for Everest suggests that the negative attention to the commercialization of Himalayan mountaineering - at least as far as deaths are concerned - is undeserved.  "[P]articipation in a commercial expedition was associated with a potentially important decrease of 37% in the odds of death" but that difference was non-significant.  Despite the non-significant finding, the amateurs are not making the mountain more risky for climbers.  More crowded?  Yes.  Riskier?  No.

Mountaineering is dangerous (also stated as..."$#!@! are you nuts?")

I don't really have a response to this assertion (or question) other than to say that life is dangerous.  If you combine all the ways a person can die before "old age," you might be surprised to learn that something will get you before too long.  Let us turn our attention to Everest fatalities.  If we exclude porters (i.e., those people employed to carry the heavy loads, run fixed lines, and face dangerous situations at a much higher rate than ordinary climbers), the fatality rate on Mt. Everest is 1.34% for all those who attempt to climb.  That fatality rate is significantly lower than the all cause mortality rate of 19-64 year olds (3.7%) in the US (according to the CDC statistics reported here).  Even if we include everyone - climbers, porters, guides, and the misguided - the fatality rate only increases to 2.04%.  Mowing your lawn, eating ice cream every night, and boozing it up on weekends (or even nightly) probably pose more risks to your longevity than a single climb.  Mountaineering can be dangerous for sure but probably not as dangerous as most non-climbers think as long as the climbers are trained or guided by experts.  Even this last qualification seems unnecessary given the empirical evidence reported above.

If we shift our focus away from fatalities and to injuries, I think mountaineering comes out way ahead of the more popular sports such as football and soccer.  Traumatic brain injuries - once seen as a rare occurrence - are as common as head colds (perhaps a bit exaggerated but I left the statement in for effect).  According to the CDC, an estimated 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur each year.  So not only are we (ordinary US citizens) dying at almost twice the rate as Everest climbers, we also suffer a high rate of head injuries when we get off the couch.  Mountaineering databases I have at my disposal do not track head injuries but even if there were a high rate, the total number of those who suffer from head injuries would pale in comparison to the 75% of football players (males) or 50% of soccer players (females) who suffer head injuries while playing their games.  We lose fingers and toes (rarer now with the new equipment) and we all show slight cognitive impairment while at altitude.  While these are non-trivial problems, they do not compare to the lasting effects of head injuries sustained in our nation's preferred sports.  Get your kids out on the mountain; they will be safer and probably happier.

Preparing to climb takes away from valuable family time.

Every family is different.  When I was a kid, my brother, mother, and I waited for my dad to finish his workout before we sat down for our evening meal.  Some people hear this summary and say that my dad was really selfish - not a conclusion we ever stated.  Sean (my brother) and I did not care a bit.  Well, maybe my mom groused a bit but my brother and I both swam so we usually ate a hearty snack after swim practice.  A meal served at 6:30 or 7pm would have strained our already bloated stomachs.  We also learned a lot from our dad's dedication to exercise.  He ran in all weather - often in those 70's short-shorts and a frickin' tank top until it dipped below 30 degrees.  Yes, my dad was insane but now I recognize that I inherited his insanity.  Today, I am the one who runs without a shirt until it dips below 50 degrees F and then wear short sleeves until my nose hairs freeze.  

Working out does take time away from family gatherings but it also provides your family with time away from you.  Ever consider that?  Work takes time away from the family but most workers justify their time away with higher wages.  Heck, workaholics often work more to avoid family time.  I would rather workout with my family and share the preparation with them than avoid them.  My wife and I sleep in a tent together.  How much together can you get?  We also swim together once each week and spend our mornings discussing all sorts of things - vocational and avocational.  I only have one kid - a son - and we run together about 2-3 times each week.  We also read together.  Both activities are great together time.  There are many ways to fold in family time to climbing preparation.  Sometimes there are solitary activities but I try to make the most of the time I have with them.  I even watch movies with them while I do my IHT workouts.  The heavy breathing and Darth Vader sounds that come from me often provide more entertainment value than the movie itself.  These are all examples of how the general conclusion of family crushing, selfish behavior that comes with expedition training might be more of a myth than a reality.  For some families, I am sure there are strains.  My family enjoys my least most of the time.  Right Kat?

Some closing thoughts that I found helpful to keep me focused....

  1. Elitist attitudes pervade throughout all sports - focus on you, your family, and your goals
  2. A person's goal is personal - let each person choose goals and cheer them on for having one (or many)
  3. Choosing to climb a high mountain is no different than choosing to bake a souffle - both are choices that affect you and others.  Careful choices and proper preparation make all strivings defensible.
  4. Critics come and go but "you need to overcome the tug of people against you as you reach for high goals" says General George Patton.  I agree.
  5. I come back from climbs exhausted but with a renewed perspective on life and an appreciation for the simple pleasures (e.g., toilets, running water, etc.) of our modern society.  That renewed perspective makes me a better me.

I chose to climb Mt. Everest to challenge myself and to see if I can meet that challenge.

Now let us move on to other, more exciting topics.


  1. Yeah, I guess I figure you're nuts but then I am terrified by heights and many will say I'm nuts for riding a motorcycle at age 76. You got the passion, do it!
    your father in law

  2. I'd say that just about covers all the angles.
    "I'll have what he's drinking!"

  3. Besides all these great arguments, it seems you also just really love climbing. Solid reason as any.

    1. Yep. Well said. I love climbing and being in the mountains. Pretty much sums it up. Thanks Ewart.

  4. Thanks for the thought provoking essay.

    Of course, there are any number of ways to challenge oneself. (Try learning Arabic or Chinese, for example.)

    We are social animals and it seems we feel more euphoric when we complete challenges that others recognize as "epic." However, don't you think it might be healthier if the satisfaction was more internally derived?

    For example, I'm dabbing with Randonneuring -- long distance bicycle riding. I did 130 miles and climbed 10,000 feet last Saturday. At the end of the ride, the finishers sat around and discussed whether one of the hills in the middle of the ride was the longest and steepest they had ever done. It just seemed that satisfaction for completing the ride was somehow dependent on others believing that it included one of the toughest hills around.

  5. Nabeel,

    Yes, I agree that the most important satisfaction level comes from within (intrinsic) rather then from outside (extrinsic) but your example shows that some of us are sensitive to the latter. My entire post is a testament to the fact that I am sensitive to extrinsic factors. I felt some obligation to justify the goal; if I were completely comfortable with my decision then there would be no need to justify it. The "best" or "hardest" qualifiers help us justify why our goals are important - at least to others and sometimes to ourselves. Everest, for me, is quite a challenge and I will be very happy if I can meet that challenge no matter what others think. Perhaps the fact that it is the highest peak affords me that luxury.

    Thanks so much for reading my blog and posting a comment.