Mount Everest is so tall, you can see it from pretty far away. This created a bit of a problem for British surveyors, back in the day; so many people who lived in the area could see it, and everyone had their own name for it. Unfortunately, all the different names were far from similar. Since they liked to name things so much, often without regard for the local language or people, they went ahead and dubbed it Mount Everest.
Sir George Everest had a problem with that, and did not see the situation as the honor the guy who suggested it probably thought he would. He argued that there was no way to spell his name in the languages spoken nearby, and pronouncing it would be even harder for the locals than spelling it. Despite his protestations, the name stuck; we don’t pronounce it the same way he did his name, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about that. The locals get it wrong, too.
In those days, nobody thought climbing the highest peak sounded like a good idea; they just wanted to note that it was the tallest one in the world, and give it a western name. More arguments ensued, concerning the true height of it; was it realistic to include the snow, or did the highest point end where the rock did? They decided on the rock, and put the elevation of Mount Everest at just over twenty-nine thousand feet.
A few decades later, some folks decided it would be a good idea to climb Mount Everest. They couldn’t get all the way to the top, for various reasons; and it was several decades after that before someone officially reached the top and lived to tell the tale. The final first ascent was not made until over a hundred years after it was named, marking the first time someone had reached the top using the hard route.
Mount Everest is not really a rigorous climb, as far as such things go. One of the reasons so many people have summited it is because the path to the top is pretty clear, if you take the popular route. The climbing itself is not what is so hard about this ascent; it’s the altitude, and the weather conditions that often accompany such elevated positions. We just aren’t made to survive with so little air and so much cold, and the human body starts to break down even with minimal exertion in these conditions.
Not to say ascending Mount Everest is easy, or anything. You can certainly find much more difficult climbs, though; they just don’t go as high as the highest peak in the world. Obviously. The real battle on this big climb is the one going on in the body; it thinks it’s dying, because that’s one of the symptoms of altitude sickness. You’ve got to fight that feeling as you climb those last few thousand feet, and it doesn’t help that corpses line the trail to remind you of who came before and failed.
Yeah, that’s right. Hundreds of people have died up there, and there’s no safe way to remove the bodies. Even when you go the modern route and have guides do all the heavy lifting while you suck on oxygen, you can still die from exposure or an avalanche. A twisted ankle might not seem like a big deal down here at lower elevations; but at over twenty thousand feet up, the most minor mishap can end in an icy death.
Some of the most easily navigated stretches of trail are marked by these corpses, since weather can quickly turn even those areas into death traps. Climbers have been known to track how far they have gone by the better known bodies, identifying frozen hunks of flesh that used to be people and using them as macabre mile markers. Many of them get covered in snow, of course; either the flakes fall over the years, or the weight of an avalanche buries them in moments. A lot of them don’t, though; and they sit in stiff silent testimony to how dangerous the highest peaks in the world can really be.
One of those bodies may well have been the guy that started the fad climbing this mountain was to become. George Mallory was intent on summiting Mount Everest, and made several attempts to do so. His final attempt is shrouded in mystery, and many a mountaineer will tell you he most certainly reached the top. Unfortunately, he died on the mountain; and no one really knows whether it was on the way up or on the way down. In fact, his body was not even found until seventy five years after he made that final attempt.
Although well preserved, Mallory’s body offered no tangible evidence to indicate he was the first to summit Mount Everest. The corpse was too high up to recover, so a service was conducted and his remains were covered with a cairn. That’s just a fancy way of saying they buried him under a pile of rocks, but that still could not have been an easy task at such extreme altitudes. Mallory may have had the spirit needed to take him to the top, but his body just wasn’t up to the task. We probably shouldn’t even call it his body, at this point; it belongs to the mountain now.
Sir Edmund Hilary actually gets the credit for summiting the mountain first, and paving the way for the thousands that have come since. A lot of people try and fail, without paying the ultimate price. Apparently you can’t really imagine what it’s like to be in those high altitudes until you get up there. They call it ‘the death zone’ when you ascend past about twenty-six thousand feet, because there isn’t enough oxygen at that altitude to support life.
The death zone might sound like a ride at an amusement park, but in this case the name is to be taken quite literally. If you don’t have the oxygen or the experience to comfortably climb, you might just be one of those folks who start but don’t finish this adventure. I say good for you, to anyone who decides to abort the mission for any reason; bringing your body home with you is worth much more than saying you summited, in my opinion.
Climbers today complain about the cost of tackling Everest, the trash along the trails, and how the number of people climbing can get a little out of hand; but they don’t complain about the bodies. Each corpse they pass is a testament to their own power to push on, and they help figure out how far you have gotten. Instead of mumbling, “one more step” over and over in your mind like runners often do, you can claim a much more original mantra. “Just one more corpse” may just be the words that keep you going, once you start passing them, Also, they’re good reminders…the slightest misstep can kill you up here, so don’t make the slightest misstep.
Of course, that’s a pretty dark reminder. Imagine if all the twisted hunks of metal from every car accident that ever happened never got cleaned up, and the bodies inside were never removed. It may reduce speeding, but it would make the drive to work in the morning a grim affair indeed. I guess we can all be glad this “leave ‘em where they die” policy only applies to the death zone.
Even if the best answer anyone can give for risking life and limb to climb a mountain is “because it was there”, human motivations are often a little more complicated than that. We all generally do things to reap the rewards of having done them, and people who take risks are getting some result from the behavior. Some people believe this brand of human have more dopamine inhibitors than the rest of us, and have to take increasingly bigger risks to get the same kind of high the rest of us get from more ordinary activities; others think it works the other way, and people prone to taking risks are getting a bigger dump of this chemical when they engage in dangerous activities.
The latter makes more sense to me. If you have ever done cocaine or been around someone on it, you have felt or seen the results of unusually high dopamine levels on a personality. You also know how grand ideas can leap into the mind of someone in this heightened state. Whether it’s a plan for a business, the decision to climb a mountain, or a manifesto to take over the world…most of these plans are abandoned when the high wears off, and people wonder why they thought that was a good idea when they examine it from a sober standpoint.
If some people live in this state all the time, it only makes sense that they would follow through on desires others see as foolish. They wake up in the morning with those increased levels of dopamine still pumping through their system, and climbing a mountain sounds just as plausible as it did the night before. The high they will get from taking a risk might make a simple cocaine buzz look minuscule by comparison, and the rest of us just don’t know how the world looks to a danger junkie.
Climbing Everest may seem like a lot of risk for a hit of dopamine, but that high is so appealing to some people that even dead bodies along the path don’t deter them. You can’t tell me these are normal folks, stirring the same chemical cocktail as the rest of us. Maybe it isn’t dopamine that makes them see things differently, but they definitely don’t live in the same world as most of us.
Next week we’ll talk about other roles drugs can play in people’s lives. We already know we’re all on drugs, but not everyone is familiar with the role psychedelics have played in getting humanity from one version of itself to another, or how many times it may have been instrumental in that very process. This goes way beyond Steve Jobs claiming he was inspired to create the iPhone based on a vision he had while taking psychedelics. The fact of the matter is that life is always reaching out, constantly looking for the next rung on whatever ladder it is climbing. From meditation to chemical intervention to learning and loving, life both individually and collectively keeps looking for a better way. To put it in other words…
‘Life seeks higher states!’
We’ll talk about that, next week.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,