Following the recent mountaineering deaths on K2 I’ve been thinking about the way we react, or we’re supposed to react, to this kind of disaster. A bunch of people push their bodies to the limit to achieve a sort of temporary exaltation, of no real value other than as an entirely personal experience, of no earthly use to anyone else. They spend substantial amounts of money, their own or that of others (sponsors), ignoring any claims their families and loved ones may have on them in pursuit of this elusive satisfaction. When anything goes wrong, as it often does, dozens of other people are obliged to risk their lives to rescue them. Yet everyone seems to agree that the death of a mountaineer is a tragedy, on a par with that of a fire-fighter, soldier, etc. Pages of newspapers, hours of television are devoted to glorifying the noble aspects of their lives and deaths. They’re seen as heroes dying heroes’ deaths.
Well, I don’t get it. I don’t say people shouldn’t climb mountains, any more than that they shouldn’t dive from high places or wrestle big cats in Las Vegas. I’m sure these are all pretty exciting ways to pass the time. But I don’t see the intrinsic difference between using a lump of snow-covered rock to get high and using a rock of crack or a line of snow to achieve the same effect. Let’s face it. They’re dragging their expensively kitted bodies up the side of Everest, or wherever, for the kick. They’re not doing it for anyone else’s good. In human terms, Reinhold Messner and Amy Winehouse are each worth as much as the other, except that Amy Winehouse is also a genius, and Messner just climbs things.
It’s as though physical exercise were, in itself, ennobling. It’s rather like the shocked reaction to these new drugs that may induce fitness in – horror of horrors- people who don’t deserve it. Why not? Because they just sit around thinking, or reading, or watching TV, instead of running in endless circles or lifting weights. Well, good for them. Pass me the pills while I read Omega Minor.
Interestingly, the only time I remember seeing a climber criticised for failing to consider the social fallout their addictive and selfish activities might have on someone else was when the climber in question was – wait for it – a mother. A woman’s place is clearly not up the Eiger. Leave that to the (sponsored) boys.