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For mountaineers, it’s not enough to get to the top – it must be done a certain way. But why is the harder way better?
When asked in the 1920s why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory notoriously quipped: ‘Because it’s there.’ It was a flippant remark, of course, but also an instance of what Friedrich Nietzsche had called ‘superficiality out of profundity’. For Mallory’s retort conveyed the deep human impulse to attempt challenging, dangerous and potentially even deadly endeavours, for no better reason than that one might succeed. Getting to the top of Everest – which has now claimed around 280 lives – is not something that mountaineers do for the fame, fortune or bragging rights. They do it because inside of them there is an impulse that demands that they try. If your response to the idea of standing on the highest point on earth is: ‘Yeah, that would be pretty cool,’ then you have something of that impulse too.
Mallory never summited Everest, dying during the attempt in 1924. In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to pull off the feat. It is now repeated, albeit in far less challenging conditions, by around 500 people each year. Yet despite improved technologies and expert help, it is still an unpleasant, painful and dangerous activity. In 2015 alone, 22 people lost their lives on the mountain, while 1977 was the last year to see no fatalities. In April this year, Ueli Steck – one of the greatest mountaineers of all time – died on Everest, the first casualty of the season.
But what kind of activity is climbing Everest, or indeed mountaineering in general? According to the philosopher Bernard Suits, it is a kind of game. In his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978), Suits defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. As he points out, if someone had offered Hillary a trip to the top via a free helicopter ride, he would certainly have declined and stuck to his goal of climbing Everest. For mountaineers, simply getting to the top can’t be the goal, in and of itself. Getting to the top via particular means – and thereby overcoming ‘unnecessary obstacles’ – is what counts. Hence, mountaineering is a game.
Such a conclusion might sit a little uneasily, with the label ‘game’ risking the trivialisation of the endeavour. This is because the stakes involved are so high and the obstacles faced so serious. For, in the mountains, humans are faced with a vast array of mortal threats. There are the risks posed by sudden avalanches, or of being crushed by car-sized blocks of ice and rock, or of tumbling fatally into deep icy crevasses. Then there are the potentially lethal effects of altitude sickness, which can cause deadly swelling of the brain, or the filling of the lungs with fluid until you drown in your own body. Plus frostbite, which can claim fingers, toes, noses and ears, before hypothermia sets in and you freeze to death. All of which is compounded by the fact that mountains attract storms: sudden, violent, pounding winds that can dump many feet of snow with little warning, trapping a climber for days. And if that happens, starvation and fatal dehydration threaten. (In the high mountains, you need to be able to melt ice to have enough water to drink; if you run out of stove gas, you die.)
Perhaps for these reasons mountaineering was described by John Menlove Edwards as ‘a psychoneurotic tendency’ rather than a sport. He probably knew what he was talking about: a psychiatrist as well as one of Britain’s premier early rock climbers, Edwards suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder, and tragically committed suicide in 1958, aged just 48. But putting aside the sanity of the average mountaineer, given the enormous risks associated with the pursuit, to call it a game risks unduly trivialising it. After what Hillary and Norgay put themselves through, if somebody back at base camp jauntily congratulated them on ‘winning the game’, they’d run the risk not just of missing the point, but of being outright offensive – even grotesque.
Yet there is nonetheless something right in Suits’s description of mountaineering as a game. This is due to the way that climbers continuously impose ‘unnecessary obstacles’ upon themselves: the invention and refinement of rules regarding how one is supposed to make it to the top...