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Why I won't climb Mount Everest

The Mighty Suilven

When I give talks at schools there are two questions (not counting “where do you go to the toilet?”) that I can guarantee will be asked every time. I have pretty set answers by now:

  1. Q: “Did you set a world record cycling round the world?” A: “No, the world record for cycling round the world belongs to Thomas Stevens, the first man to cycle round the world. He rode round the world on a Penny Farthing and was much cooler than me. But he’s dead, so you’ve got me today instead.”
  2. Q: “Are you going to climb Mount Everest?” A: There are lots of reasons why I don’t intend to climb Mount Everest. Here’s a few of the reasons I tend to choose from according to the audience:
  • I’mm not a climber. And getting dragged up the mountain by a professional guide like a gasping sack of potatoes does not appeal.
  • It’s too crowded. I would rather climb a smaller peak and have it all to myself. There are still a heck of a lot of exciting, challenging, beautiful mountains that remain unclimbed. Read this article by the legend that is Janne Corax for more info.
  • There is mobile phone reception at the mountain. Guilty as I am of frequenting Twitter, I firmly believe that some places should be off limits for sharing banalities with the world. The photo in this blog article sums up the distastefulness of all this.
  • It’s becoming a gathering point for egos, celebrities, freaks, and the sort of nonsense that deems that the Death Zone is a suitable place for a 9-year-old child.

And so, although the yoof I speak to often see me as a bit of a loser for being neither a celebrity nor a World Record Holder, I have no intention of climbing Mount Everest. Kids today [Did I really just type that? How old have I become?!] are brought up, thanks to the X-Factorisation of our society, on the idea that Celebrity and Instant Fame are great, and if you can update your Facebook status on your way towards Glory then so much the better.

But there are other ways. You can serve your apprenticeship. Go climb Suilven. Have the mountain to yourself. Test yourself, challenge yourself, learn about mountains, learn about yourself. This is preferable to typing “I Want To Climb Mount Everest” into Google and getting out my chequebook.

What do you think? Am I totally wrong?
Was climbing Everest rendered obsolete the day that Irvine and Mallory stood on its summit? Or is the achievement as undiminished for each individual as it ever was?

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  1. I think it’s also worth mentioning this list on Wikipedia of all the eight thousand metre peaks – If danger and death is what one seeks, without the crowds, perhaps try Annapurna I with a fatality rate of 42%!

    I think you’re right about Suilven though.

  2. Sambhram Patel Posted

    Just because its crowded with Egos,Celebs and ‘Freaks’ (?),doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be climbed.Thats like saying,just because the world is run by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats,we should stop living in it.

  3. John Thompson Posted

    There are always people who want to climb the highest and run the fastest. Which is all great if that is what appeals to you. I have a similar feeling about the really not so dangerous 3 peaks challenge. If I am going to go to 3 beautiful places I want to savour it, not race up there like pack of wild animals or do it at night! I advocate more the ‘Slow’ approach to these kind of things.

    I get the challenge aspects of all these pursuits but it comes down to what you aim to get out of these activities. Does the singular goal of being on top of the world appeal to you enough to climb over that frost-bitten person with the blackberry in their hand on the way up? Cool if it does, because it is an awesome achievement. Personally, having trekked up Kilimanjaro I found it pretty disappointing to realise just how many others were clambering up the peak at the same time, and also made me concerned about the environmental impact.

  4. Gill Brown Posted

    I totally agree.

  5. Al, I also won’t climb Everest, for it’s getting way too crowded up there. Most of the Seven Summits are now so overrun that the masses interfere with having a great outdoor experience. I would recommend trying the Second Seven Summits instead: They are both harder and offer far more solitude. For example, during my Panamerican Peaks adventure through the Americas, both Denali and Aconcagua were very busy, but Logan and Ojos were almost completely devoid of climbers.

    I also decided against Everest (or any other 8000m peak) since from my experience my function at high altitude is a bit of a mystery and because of this climbing up there is just too much risk for me.

  6. The reasons you have given seem like smaller factors to me.. not the ones that I would have come up with, I think the risk of death and the expense are the ones that would put me off. Also, personally speaking, I have climbed a few mountains in the ~6000 metre range and found that quite challenging, so probably wouldn’t make it on Everest anyway.
    Even though you don’t want to do it, I bet you are drawn to it. Would you go if someone paid for you?

  7. Jim Hardy Posted

    Few thoughts…

    – While I think that Western Culture has brought pollution, glitz, consumerism and general negativity to climbing Everest I think there are still incredible achievements and inspirations that come from it. I refer to Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit. His documentary ‘Further that the eye can see’ was incredible, so too was his project to get blind tibetan children up similar mountains (Blindsight).

    – Secondly, I would love to see another post spawn out of this… ‘what’s wrong with the culture we have created for young people.’ I currently work in a school, and I hate this x-box/x-factor culture. While individual’s bursts of inspiration through presentions, assemblies, etc is wonderful in itself, how can we change culture on a wider scale?

    – Finally, and to play devil’s advocate for a while: When is it acceptable to take communications on an expedition? An ocean row? A long bike ride perhaps?

  8. “What do you think? Am I totally wrong?
    Was climbing Everest rendered obsolete the day that Irvine and Mallory stood on its summit?”

    I think a lot was lost when the commercialization started on the mountains. When people who would never be able to climb up by themselves started being dragged up the mountain. But this is of course always on the normal routes which require less technical abilities. As soon as you look at the more technical routes, then the real climbers are most of the time alone in that area of the mountain. Also, if you climb off-season then you will be almost alone on the mountain. Eric Larsen climbed Everest in November this year with a few sherpas and they were the only people on the mountain.

    One amazing challenge which is still left on the mountain and which has been attempted by people like Denis Urubko and Simon Moro is the Everest-Lhotse traverse.

  9. I think the first two points are spot on. However, I’m not sure that last two would or should impact personal motivation.

    The placing of ladders at critical points, traffic jams because even the ladders are beyond some people, and the fear that you life is in the hands of some idiot in front of you whose climbing Cv reads: Hiking, Aconcagua/Denali and then Everest. Climb it because you are a climber and it is the ultimate trophy peak on your bagging list, but not have at as by far the hardest and highest you will ever attempt.

    Personally my fear of freezing to death probably just wins out as a reason not to. Aconcagua by a quieter backside route, late in the season, with no other groups in sight until summit day, was the perfect blend of physical challenge and peace and quiet for me. As someone above pointed out, even the well known, accessible mountains have an interesting side if you look hard enough.

  10. The point that you made Al which interested me most was the first regarding Everest. You say you’re not a climber. At the moment that is true – you could decide to learn – but for now it’s the fact of the matter.

    Someone asking you whether you’ll climb Everest is rather like asking the Dalai Lama if he’ll be running for the Papacy. Not all ‘adventure’ pursuits are the same and interchangeable. You’re clearly a damn good distance cyclist and common-sense traveller.

  11. It is interesting that costs do not appear in your list of reasons not to climb, but you admit that you would climb it if somebody paid it for you.
    At least you admit this, unlike many others that make similar statements. So apparently you would Climb Everest, but are just waiting for a sponsor and the article is frankly BS? Just being a devil’s advocate here 🙂

    First time I climbed Everest, our 9 person team (6 climbers + 3 Sherpas) was alone on the mountain. This was August 2004, we were in Tibet, the only team and there was nobody on the Nepal side either.
    Some routes still have never been climbed, others only once or twice. So it is not Everest that is busy, but 2 main routes in 2 specific months (April-June).

    Also as only a few thousand summits have been made (including several repeat summits of guides and sherpas), there is statistically less than 1 in a million chance that you meet an Everest summiteer when tapping a random person on the shoulder (of course it depends in which country you are and in Kathmandu chances might be much higher :).

    In the end most climbers like to climb high and there is only one highest mountain; how you climb it is a matter of personal choice, but do not forget the rather important safety aspect of climbing in the safest seasons and with more people. Most people -and I do not include you in this group, Al- should stay away from Everest, as they would likely harm themselves and likely others and they do not have the persistence needed for both the fundraising as well as the climbing and the surviving of it. Of course that is harder to admit, so other ‘reasons’ surface!

    Cheers, Harry

    BtwThere has been satellite coverage on Everest and the rest of the world for a long time, which is actually much cheaper to use and more reliable than most GSM roaming, so no real news there.

    • I love mountains and the lure of mountains and decent mountain literature (Annapurna, Tilman, White Spider) so I could definitely be persuaded to backtrack on all I have said on this issue. And being paid to go climb would certainly send me that way!
      And it is undoubtedly a heck of an achievement to climb any big mountain (let alone the multitude that you have climbed). 1 in a million, as you say.

  12. Al, this is a brilliant post, it really opens up a debate. I agree with a lot of what you are saying in the post. Being happy and learning for personal development is a far more rewarding and wholesome experience that I imagine instant fame could ever bring.

  13. There is a tendency to look down upon mountaineers as selfish, publicity craving, rich, good for nothings. However, I love reading about mountain climbing expeditions. My two favorite books for very specific personal reasons are Joe Simpson’s ‘Touching the Void’ and Ed Viesturs ‘K2’. There is lot of personal and group-setting oriented learning that can be had from reading material on mountain climbing adventures.

    Other than such books as these, I recently read Al’s Thunder and Sunshine. I had similar take away and some more – the way Al described people and their habits in those lands he cycled in – is brilliant.

    So learning should always be the prime goal.

    As far as heroism in concerned, it is a subjective debate. Summiting Everest and K2 is heroism, so is rowing from Scotland to Syria and cycling around the world. But we can’t forget heroism in our backyard. I am a long distance hiker, max 7 days trekker, and a frequent canoeist / kayaker on Canadian / US rivers. However, I considered my two little ones (back then) heroes when they completed 7 hours of kayaking trip with me for the first time.

  14. I think most of your concerns about Everest can be overcome by climbing a non-standard route out of season. Of course, a few people have mentioned that already.

    As far as getting it paid for and doing it and what that says about you. Well, I think as in on all things in life it comes down to value. I don’t have much interest in climbing Everest for many of the reasons you indicated. I’d get little value out of it for a large expense of both time and money. However, If somebody paid me for my time (in addition for the cost of the trip), I’d likely do it as well. The reality is would I rather spend 3 months working or on Everest. Either way I am going to be surrounded by a bunch of arsehats 🙂 so I might as well be on Everest. Simply put it’d be a better value for my 3 months than being at home working.

    But all things considered, I don’t really care how anybody “adventures” these days as long as their honest about their accomplishments. And let’s face it guided trips up Everest these days is nothing world class, Messner took Everest off that map nearly 40 years ago. All I’d like is for Everest summiters to say these days is, “yes…I climbed a rope ladder to the top, had most of my equipment hauled up by Sherpas, and had constant supervision so I didn’t have to make any major decisions…but getting to the top is something I’ve always wanted to do”. And then I pat them on the back, nothing wrong with that.

  15. Al, for solitude you need to get out to sea – there is nooooone for miles and miles and miles. And miles again. Certainly no queues for rowing/sailing boats.

  16. christopher gregory Posted

    “It’s not where you go, it’s how you get there”

    I think this applies well to the Everest question. I often think there is no reason for me not to want to go and climb it. However for me the “how” I climb it would be the important part. Being escorted up, very kindly it must be said, by sherpas carrying your gear and laying the “hotel chocolate” on your pillow each night (I probably made that bit up) would not be the way for me. For me it would have to be, as someone has pointed, another route away from the hoard without sherpa aid or something akin to a Messner style solo non oxygen route. Those for me would satisfy a “how”.

  17. To say nothing of the bleeping garbage.



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