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Deadliest Sport Ever? Why People Risk Their Lives Mountain Climbing

September 17, 2015
mt everest climbing
mt everest climbing

Mt. Everest (Photo: AP)

It’s been the deadliest mountain climbing season in history, and it’s not over. With the tragedies on Mt. Rainier in Washington and Nepal, one question remains: Why do they do it? Why do people regularly risk their lives to summit a mountain peak or scale sheer cliffs? 

“Because it’s there,” George Mallory famously replied in 1923 when asked why he was trying to climb Mount Everest. The quote caught the public’s imagination, as it expressed both the childlike whimsy of doing something just for the fun of it, and the adult heroic ideal of dedicating oneself to meet any challenge, no matter how tall.

Although Mallory perished the next year on Everest, (and his body not found for 75 years), his legacy of big mountain climbing remains. Last year, over 650 people summited Mt. Everest; each of them coming home probably had to answer the same question: “Why’d you do it?”

They likely answered with one of these three prime motivators of mountain climbers:   

1. Conquering the Challenge:  “Because it’s there”

Alpine guide Rich Meyer agrees with the “conquering the challenge” motivation.  He told Yahoo Travel, “Climbing offers a series of mental and physical challenges played out in some of the most beautiful places on our planet. Overcoming those challenges, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and learning a little more about yourself is tremendously rewarding.”

But unless you’re the rare extreme climber seeking out a first ascent, the challenge isn’t to conquer the mountain — it’s been done before, by hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people.  Climbers on Mt. Kilimanjaro, for example, grew from barely a thousand per year in the 1960s to 28,000 in 2003 and 52,000 in 2012.  You won’t get any fame for being the 52,001st person atop the summit.  So what’s the point of this “conquest?”

george mallory 1909
george mallory 1909

Mallory in a file photo dated 1909 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Mallory asked himself a similar question about one of his expeditions in the Alps. ”Have we vanquished an enemy?” He answered, satisfied: “None but ourselves.”

And that remains one of the primary motivations for mountain climbers — conquering your own internal challenges, whether they be overcoming fears, pushing your limits, or trying to create a personal best in terms of physical and mental accomplishment. The mountain is really just an innocent bystander during this process. 

2. Learning Life Lessons:  “Because it’s good for me”  

Serious climbs require diligent training, planning, teamwork, and a step-by-step discipline that can be usefully applied to other parts of personal and professional life. Jenny Fellows, director of NASTC (which guides rock climbs in the Sierra Nevada mountains), told Yahoo Travel she sees a lot of families happy with the climbing clinics — and not just because they got from Point A to Point B on a large rock. “The group dynamics of climbing is a great learning experience — you’re really forced to work together to reach a common goal. I’ve seen some really nice father-son bonding out here.”

father son hiking mountain
father son hiking mountain

Father and son climb to the peak of Alpspitz mountain (Photo: Getty Images)

The criticism of many of the high-priced expeditions up Mt. Everest is that people are buying their way out of the key learning experiences and personal development inherent in mountain climbing. Having a set of expert guides and hard-working Sherpas basically drag you to the top of a summit offers neither a proper sense of achievement, nor any life lessons for dedication, planning, or teamwork.  Essentially you’ve just become a really expensive piece of baggage.

Those climbers who tackle the mountains not for glory or bragging rights, but for personal development and sheer enjoyment of the moment are those who tend to find the trips most rewarding.

3. Managing Risks: “Because I can”

The availability of high-tech safety equipment, well-trained guides, and easier global access to climbing sites has made mountaineering more popular than ever. The credo may be changing from “Because it’s There,” to “Because I Can.”

oxygen tank mountain climber
oxygen tank mountain climber

Climber tests his oxygen tank (Photo: Getty Images)

Climbing has come a long way since Alpinists were hammering nails in their boots to get a better grip on icy slopes.  The evolution of equipment into lightweight, super-strong, technically rated tools has revolutionized the sport of rock and mountain climbing in recent years, making ever-more extreme ascents possible, and possibly even enabling too many novices to get into situations beyond their capabilities.

Climbers are better-informed than ever about routes to the summit, weather systems, rescue techniques and supply planning. This has made mountain climbing more available to the masses, giving people the confidence to attempt climbs that were previously only available to the climbing elite.  Because of this ability to manage risk, the vast majority of climbs are done safely. Despite the recent tragedy, Mt. Rainier averaged only 1.4 fatalities per 10,000 climbers over the past 20 years (according to National Park Service data).  But this is no consolation for those who perish, or the families they leave behind. 

For regardless of training, equipment, and planning, there will always be an inherent danger in mountain climbing. Despite the best forecasting data, weather remains as a potentially lethal wildcard to any expedition. “You can mitigate risks, but you can never remove them” says NASTC’s Fellows. “But as long as those mountain routes exist, people are going to keep going up there.”

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