Destroying the Aura of Mt Everest

People like to say I ran a marathon.  I completed a triathlon.  I swam 90 miles.  I did it.  While many individuals find a sense of accomplishment in completing these events, Jean Baudrillard instead asks why “[d]o we continually have to prove ourselves that we exist?”  For Baudrillard, people who participate in events just to prove to themselves that they can will find themselves unfulfilled.  The act of completing a triathlon or running a marathon is empty – there is no greater consequence.  Unlike Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian’s defeat of Persia, the modern marathon runner participates for selfish reasons – just to say “I did it!”  According to Baudrillard, this feeling is ephemeral and will lead individuals to find another event to feel satisfied, which lead to another and so on.  Thus individuals continually participate in events to prove to themselves they exist.

In naming examples for the “I did it” discussion, Baudrillard specifically addresses mountain climbing which quickly brought to mind the commercialization of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.  Throughout the early 20th century, newspapers closely followed the successful and unsuccessful attempts of westerner mountaineers to climb the world’s tallest peaks.  The goal to summit Mt. Everest was taken up by British mountaineers who spent decades climbing and discovering routes to the mountain’s peak.  The initial expedition, led by George Mallory in 1921, located many of the routes that aided future climbers, but the expedition was not equipped or prepared to summit the mountain.  Over the next thirty years numerous climbers attempted to follow the routes established by Mallory, however, no climber ever reached the summit.  Expeditions either turned around due to weather or perished in their attempts.  Finally, in 1953, an expedition led by John Hunt reached the summit.  The climbers who accomplished the feat being Edmund Hillary and a Tibetan Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay.  Although their successful attempt could be interpreted as just another “I did it,” Hillary and Norgay’s climbing of Everest was the first successful attempt recorded by man, making it an exceptional accomplishment and not another ephemeral event.

However, since Hillary and Tenzing summited Mt. Everest, individuals have continued to strive to summit Everest’s peak, and throughout the years, this objective has developed into a commercial enterprise.  It is no longer a unique action; it is now an “I did it” event.  For example, between 1953 and 1980 only 112 individuals reached the summit, but since 1980, 5,544 people climbed Mt. Everest.  This explosion in numbers is due to the fact that individuals no longer train or practice climbing, rather enterprising individuals have created an entire industry out of getting as many people to the summit as they can.  Not only are these “I did it” climbers paying upwards of $30,000 dollars but they are also not doing much of the actual work involved in climbing.  The companies they pay follow set climbing routes and Tibetan Sherpas continue to haul the gear and set the routes for these intrepid climbers.  In fact, Sherpas remain one of the most marginalized employees in the service industry as they are frequently maimed, injured, and killed but receive no health benefits or death benefits from the companies they work. 

The “I did it” climbers have effectively destroyed the aura of Mt. Everest in their need to prove to themselves that they do indeed exist, but this short ephemeral burst of life is short lived and ultimately lead to other feats of money or strength to prove once again that they are alive.  As the son of Norgay recently stated to The Guardian “the spirit of adventure is not there anymore. It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish.”

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