There may be many, many reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act – a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasonable argument.
[…]these escapades had occurred years earlier, in some cases decades earlier, when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was forty-one now, well past my climbing prime, with a graying beard, bad gums, and fifteen extra pounds around my midriff. I was married to a woman I loved fiercely – and who loved me back. Having stumbled upon a tolerable career, for the first time in my life I was actually living above the poverty line. My hunger to climb had been blunted, in short, by a bunch of small satisfactions that added up to something like happiness.
It seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque. Most of the people who live in this rugged country seem to have no desire to be severed from the modern world or the untidy flow of human progress. The last ting Sherpas want is to be preserved as specimens in an anthropological museum.
The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: You deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivialities. It’s a small scale model for living, but with a difference: Unlike your routine life, where mistakes can usually be recouped and some kind of compromise patched up, your actions, for however brief a period, are deadly serious. – A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Sucide
The slopes of Everest did not lack for dreamers in the spring of 1996; the credentials of many who’d come to climb the mountain were as thin as mine, or thinner. When it came time for each of us to assess our own abilities and weigh them against the formidable challenges of the world’s highest mountain, it sometimes seemed as though half the population at Base Camp was clinically delusional. But perhaps this shouldn’t have come as surprise. Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, an others with shaky hold on reality.
People who don’t climb mountains – the great majority of humankind, that is to say – tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 lies per hour.
Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.
<<With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,>> Hall observed. <<The trick is to get back down alive.>>>
During my thirty-four-year tenure as a climber, I’d found that the most rewarding aspects of mountaineering derive from the sport’s emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal responsibility. When you sign on as a client, I discovered, you are forced to give up all of that, and more. For safety’s sake, a responsible guide will always insist on calling the shots – he or she simply can’t afford to let each client make important decisions independently.
Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; again long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I’d coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt towards self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.