Many of you may have seen in the news recently the earthquake in Nepal that caught climbers on Mt. Everest. While I’m nowhere near Mt. Everest climbing in ability, I have been on a couple of mountaineering expeditions. Crossing glaciers on rope teams, building snow brick walls to protect fragile tents, blisters, the freedom of the hills are hard to explain to someone who’s never strapped on a harness. Mountaineering is one of the most beautiful, hard-won and selfish experiences a person can have. It’s equal parts hubris and communion with nature. Everest has taken all of this to extremes. Anyone who’s interested in the subject, I suggest reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a classic in mountaineering literature from a great writer and adventurer. It tells of so many people with little experience and too much money, setting out to conquer a mountain that is now seen as more status symbol and less accomplishment or journey. A quote I found in Outside Magazine captures the attitude all too well,
“Hey, experience is overrated,” another guide, Scott Fischer, told Krakauer while we were shopping around for a commercial expedition for him to join. “We’ve got the big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired. These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”
Scott Fischer died on Everest despite years of training and experience, despite being one of the most respected guides on the mountain. It’s important to remember that every time we think we’ve conquered nature we must realize, we do not stand apart from the natural world. We all owe the same debt to physics, chemistry and biology that any creature owes. We are but mortals and we should all stand in awe of the world, from Everest to the grand canyon, to the house fly that dares land on your arm. A better name for Everest than the one we use, named after a surveyor who never climbed the mountain is the Tibetan name, Chomolungma which basically means “mother earth” or “earth goddess”. It gives more of a feeling of reverence and humility.
To put into perspective how small we are in comparison to something like Mt. Everest, much less the world or the entire universe, consider this: The top of Everest is sea floor sediment. The Himalayas started forming 65 million years ago, so when the dinosaurs went extinct, it was the bottom of the ocean. Since then Mt Everest rose to be 29,035-feet (8,850-meters) tall and the Himalayas formed the headwaters of three major rivers, The Indus, Ganges, and Tsampo-Bramhaputra rivers. Before that, the limestone capping the top of mount Everest was formed from the secretions of millions of sea animals, living out lives we may never fully understand. Mount Everest is just one relatively small feature of an incredible planet in an amazing universe and we’re nothing but ants even compared to that mountain.
So, we can feel sorry for the mountaineers on Everest and even more so for the locals in Nepal but when it comes to mountaineering, it’s good to remember that mountaineers who really think clearly about it know; their life is not in their own hands. And neither do we hold our own lives. Live while you can.