“Because it’s there,” mountaineer George Mallory pondered.
Mount Everest is widely considered as the highest mountain on Earth. It is called by many as the “Roof of the World”. Everest is composed of various peaks and contours and its sheer geographical range is simply overwhelming. The highest recorded peaks of Everest are Kangchengjunga (located at the east end of the Himalayas) which reaches the height of 25,156 feet; and Peak XV with the height of 29,002 feet. The name Everest was given by Royal Geographical Society in 1865. It was named after George Everest, surveyor general of India from 1830-1840. It is pretty ironic though that Radhanath Sikdar, the Indian mathematician who calculated the height of Everest, was not given significant credit.
Everest, however, comes in a different name as it cuts across various geographical zones and cultural boundaries. To be precise, it stands at the international geopolitical borders of China, Tibet, and Nepal. In Nepal, it is locally referred to as Sagarmāthā. In Tibet, they call it Chomolungma. Sagarmāthā has popularly been translated as the “Forehead in the Sky”, while Chomolungma literally means “Mother of the World” or “Saint Mother”. In Darjeeling Himalayas, it is called Deodungha or “holy mountain”.
The fascination to conquer Everest started around 150 years ago when British geographical surveyors declared it as the tallest peak in the world. Everest’s unforgiving summit was first conquered in May 1953 by New Zealand mountaineer Edmun Percival Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. Hillary and Norgay were both parts of the 9th British-led expedition to the Everest. John Hunt headed that expedition with 400 participants under his command. Unfortunately for him, the challenge was too steep and it forced him to retire earlier than planned.
Back then, the logistics for Everest expeditions were particularly difficult because the Chinese-controlled Tibet barred the route to Everest while Nepal only allowed a single excursion each year. This explains why expeditions were planned for months and were composed of a large number of participants.
Today, the logistics have become relatively easier as compared to five decades ago. But the challenge of the ascent remains difficult. Mountaineers generally choose between two major mountain trails, namely: the southeast ridge (which is located in Nepal) and the north ridge (located at the grounds of Tibet). Between the two, the north ridge takes less time because its basecamp can already be accessed by vehicles. In both trails, a couple of helipads are in place in order to rescue injured climbers.
With its impressive physical feat, Mount Everest attracts thousands of professional mountain climbers (most of them are highly experienced) across the world. Despite stories of success, numerous Everest expeditions bring tragic stories. There are countless recorded cases of disappearance, deaths due avalanche, group fighting due to overcrowding and competition, injuries by means of treacherous icefalls, severe frostbites, and so on. Everest is the challenge beyond challenges. Based on the records, more than 290,000 people have died in the attempt to climb Everest. Given the accompanying risks and uncertainties, why do people still climb this mountain?
Looking at narratives, people climb for different sorts of reasons (though most of them are overlapping).
Sense of Achievement
For the longest time, Everest has been the metonym for humans’ desire to conquer “nature”. In both physical and symbolic level, it stands as the highest climb that an individual can conquer. The drive to challenge one’s self will always push people to keep going. And for the coming decades, it will surely remain as one of the grand symbols of success and failure. Thus, climbing Everest offers a personal sense of conquest. An extraordinary achievement that a person will always remember through the rest of his/her life.
But even though mountain climbing seems like an individual venture, it actually emanates a sense of community achievement. For instance, many communities celebrate successful Everest expedition time and time again. That’s why many countries even fund expeditions in order to etch their name in the social life of Everest.
Everest mountaineer Alan Arnette said, Everest represents the ultimate pinnacle for many people. Which also leads us the second point, that climbing the Everest is a life-changing experience.
Life Changing Experience
For the few who completed this sojourn, a recurring point from most of them would be the magical experience entrenched in the very act of conquering Everest. The climb itself is a learning experience. One will see how landscape changes as they ascent. One will see how stories are entangled in the geography and culture in place. One will realize (or even surpass) his physical and mental limits – reevaluating the personal walls that define ones’ self.
To reach the above 8,000 meters (they called this the Death Zone), is an experience that you will never understand if you simply read about it. Each step will make you appreciate the phenomenological spirit of life and its embeddedness to land.
As Arnette noted, “It brings to focus what’s important to you. There are a thousand reasons to turn around and only to keep going. You really have to focus on the one reason that’s most important to you.”
Lastly, Everest is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that many of us want to try someday. Some might even be penned Everest as part of their bucket list. Many mountaineers and scholars suggest that nature adventurism (as an extreme sport) has usually been linked to the euphoria that people get from risk-taking (in this case, one’s life). We need to recognize that thrill-seeking behaviors usually influence the way we approach life decisions. For some, the dangers/risks associated with extreme activities are balanced by the benefits/rewards.
In 1923, when a reporter asked Mallory on his decision to climb Everest again (after failing a couple of times), he drolly responded, “Because it’s there.” More than any monetary rewards and monumental fame, many decide to conquer Everest because it is part of human’s existential adventure to wander the universe.
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