Our response to threat, isolation and hostility is rooted in our need to survive; our instincts acting to keep us alive. But there are some who find closure in proximity to danger, one example being mountaineers. With long, flat planes of snow, sheer drops, steep sheets of ice and uneven terrain, mountains represent an existential threat – an unforgiving and largely uninhabitable environment. Therefore, it may seem surprising that extreme sports have slowly been making their way into the mainstream, with Mount Everest experiencing a ‘boom’ in tourism since the 1990s. With such life-threatening conditions becoming more and more accessible, we must understand what exactly draws us to them, and the risks we take by visiting.
Everest is a regular fixture on the ‘standard’ bucket list – a life goal that is starting to be realised by more people around the world. Once reserved for scientists and experienced climbers, the site has in recent years started to experience ‘overtourism’ - a phenomenon whereby tourists overwhelm attractive locations, usually resulting in overcrowding and environmental damage. However, this amplifies a much more pressing issue for Everest hopefuls: more than 300 climbers have died on the mountain since 1953. Many of them were inexperienced and ill-prepared and were guided through unsuitable weather conditions by companies more focused on revenue than safety. Everest’s perceived difficulty gives it gravitas and promotes it to a status symbol, an achievement to boast about, with the extent of its danger often invisible to tourists. This is what sets professionals apart from the rest – not necessarily their higher success rate, but their strikingly practical relationship with the worst possible outcome: death.
Extreme climbs like Mount Everest do not guarantee safe return, whether you have a lifetime of experience or not. Ultimately, to carry out these types of expeditions, participants must accept the proximity to death and learn to live alongside it; indeed, famous climbers are often renowned for their steely regard of danger. Alex Honnold, subject of documentary Free Solo, was completely undeterred from scaling the 3,000 foot El Capitan cliff face - despite the fact that it was thought to be seemingly impossible. After careful planning and practise, he completed the ascent without any protective equipment at all (known as ‘free soloing') and has since been immortalised in climbing history. This recognition was as much due to the successful climb as his willingness to even attempt it. If faced with this idea, and the dilemma of balancing benefit and risk, most would turn away.
In some cases, this decision has to be made during the attempt itself. In his book Touching the Void, Joe Simpson famously describes how his climbing partner Simon Yates was forced to cut the rope connecting them in order to save his own life. Simpson had broken his leg near the top of Siula Grande, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and had been painfully lowered down about 3,000 feet on two ropes tied together until he found himself hanging over a cliff face, unable to be lowered further or pulled back up. This situation was heavily sensationalised by the media for how simply it demonstrated a common moral problem – would you put another in harm’s way to save yourself? In truth, the question has little to do with the choice Yates made; when reflecting on the incident, Simpson cited a lack of equipment and desire to rush the descent as contributing factors. If the two had more resources (and therefore more time) the process would have been much smoother, as well as much safer. The reality is that most climbers injured on such extreme expeditions (the route the two completed had not, and has not since, ever been replicated) will die with no hope of leaving the mountain. Had he not cut the rope, Yates would have been dragged off the cliff face too.
After the rope was cut, Simpson describes lying on a precarious ledge of ice in a state of complete confusion. As he revived, this was replaced by deep anger – he faced an existential future: he was alive, but all signs suggested he soon would not be. Although he ultimately did survive (in a feat that has also not been rivalled), the four-day journey to base camp was agonising and forced him to contend with the close and, in some ways inevitable, nature of his own death. Simpson’s future was out of his hands, and it had been ever since breaking his leg. By cutting the rope, Yates had consolidated this in his mind too –the only way he could re-take control was by continuing alone.
All three of these climbers accepted the inescapable uncertainty that their flagship attempts imposed on them. And it was this exact acceptance that, in Simpson’s case, lead to his fable-like return. Once he had come to terms with death being the most likely outcome, he was able to work towards the possibility of surviving, however slim. He later reconstructed part of his journey for the documentary Touching the Void, based on his book of the same name, but found the experience disorientating and somewhat harrowing, later accepting that this reaction was a form of post-traumatic stress.
This is what amateurs must come to appreciate – that the theoretic danger may be realised. It is only then that someone can determine whether, on balance, it may be worth it. For life-long climbing enthusiasts, the choice may be obvious, if not difficult. For others, the risk will just be too much.
Simpson continued to climb after his ordeal, eventually giving up in 2009 due to the after-effects of his injuries. When asked in 2019 what had replaced climbing in his life, he responded: “Nothing. Nothing ever will. (…) I sat up on this peak in Nepal in 2009 (…) I thought: “It doesn’t get much better than this. This is the time to stop.” And I just went to Kathmandu and sold all my gear, and I never climbed again. But it was like grief in a way, and it’s because it’s something you spent your entire life doing. It’s what you live for and then suddenly it’s not there.” But, as Joe Simpson explains regarding this exceptional mindset of Honnold: “(he) is an exception on various levels, but I was always struck by how selfish serious mountaineering is: you might love it, you might get killed and you have accepted that risk, but it’s your loved ones that pay. To do something like that, you have to be a little bit unhinged.”