Worth Dying For?

On Tuesday, Mt. Everest claimed yet another victim. Wu Wenhong was 40 years old ... an amateur climber from China who summited successfully, but succumbed to altitude sickness and/or exhaustion on the descent.

Over the years, more and more people have attempted Everest ... especially with the advent of professional guiding operations. And the death rate has stayed brutally consistent: for every 10 who make the peak, one dies. 

May is the best month of the year to attempt the Everest summit, so it's generally the time when most of the deaths occur. It was 13 years ago this month that the disaster chronicled by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air claimed 8 lives in a single day. By wild coincidence, I was hiking in the shadow of Mt. Everest just before that tragedy occurred; friends and I even spent a day with two climbers who, just two weeks later, would be caught up in the drama. 

My friends and I harbored far less grand ambitions. We weren't trying to summit Everest, snowboard down Lhotse, or do a solo climb of a 24,000-foot peak without oxygen. We contented ourselves with making it to the top of an 18,000-foot peak in the shadow of the Nuptse-Lhotse ridge, right in front of Everest. It wasn't a technical climb ... the biggest challenge was, as my experienced climber friend Rick very accurately predicted ... "every step above 16,000 feet is going to hurt." 

Making that peak, ego-leveling as it was to get that high and still be two miles below the peaks towering over you, was every bit as difficult and painful as Rick predicted. But as I struggled up the last steps on the snow-covered ridge to the top and the world fell away, revealing a fantastical, other-worldly landscape of snow lords and ice kingdoms ... it was also one of the most breathtaking, beautiful, and powerful moments I've ever experienced. So on one level, I get the appeal for those who want to see the world from the top. But I've also never had any desire to climb more hazardous slopes, or into the more lethal zones above 20,000 feet. 

So what goes on in the minds of people who make a different choice? Who keep throwing themselves at Everest (and other high-altitude, high-risk peaks) despite the risks, discomfort, and danger? 

Ambition, for sure. Competitive drive is legendary among Everest aspirants, to the point of callous disregard, at times, for fellow climbers. But that's not all there is to the equation. George Mallory, of course, is known for his famous "because it is there" answer. But far more telling of his thoughts is what he told a reporter earlier, in 1922, about his reasons for attempting Everest.

"What we get from this adventure," he said, "is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means, and what life is for."

Reading his quote, I suspect that, two years and two expeditions later, Mallory simply got tired of trying to explain the unexplainable to the press and resorted to the frustrated sound bite for which he's remembered. 

Undoubtedly, many mountain climbers would agree with Mallory's explanation. David Roberts, a dedicated and experienced climber who founded Hampshire College's Outdoor Program (and taught Jon Krakauer how to climb and write), used similar words in his memoir, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, to describe climbing's appeal:

"For me, climbing was always about transcendence. In that spell that risk and fear, barely tamed by skill and nerve, cast over me, I found a blissful escape from the petty pace of normal life."

Roberts also says that he's exceedingly proud of his accomplishments, and notes that in the course of some of his climbs, he "tasted some of the most piercing moments of joy I would ever be granted."

But what makes Roberts' book unusual is that he also looks at the price those moments exacted ... not only for himself, but for family members left behind worrying, or left behind forever when things went amiss on a mountainside. His account reveals a complex and flawed person, as we all are. But he offers a touch of surprisingly mature honesty, as well. Is it worth it? The risk, the chance of dying? Perhaps, he says, that's a question that can only be answered in terms of oneself. Because "there's no way you can ever rationalize the cost to others." 

Yes, there was joy. But unlike Mallory ... who, to be fair, died at 37 ... the 60-something Roberts, who's lost untold friends in climbing accidents, concludes soberly, "in the human heart ... there are nobler feelings than pride. And there are more important things in life than joy."  

A book well worth reading, for a glimpse inside a complex question and mind.