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.

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7 Responses to High

  1. Kay Sexton says:

    Well I do a lot of physical exercise, so I can’t comment on that aspect but I concur on the ‘hero’ climbers and the ‘hero’ solo yachtsmen. Replace ‘hero’ with ‘blithering idiot’ and you have my opinion in a nutshell.Isn’t that what fiction is for – sharing transcendent experiences and learning powerful truths? John Masters taught me everything I needed to know about climbing mountains in his novels about India, and I didn’t risk my life or that of others, to learn it.

  2. I’m absolutely not against exercise – I used to run half-marathons before my knees went, and I’ve spent months if not years of my life in gyms (yes, doing weight training). I even spent the fee for my first poetry reading on a bullworker – remember them? – many, many years ago. I did all this because it made me feel good, and it made me look good. Entirely valid motives, but also entirely without intrinsic social value. And certainly not heroic (although the struggle with love handles came close.)As you say, it’s the glorification of it that gets the goat.

  3. Anne says:

    …of no real value other than as an entirely personal experience, of no earthly use to anyone else…Oh, Charles, you’re being so practical! Doesn’t it lift the spirits at all? It takes courage, skill, resourcefulness, and dedication. Unless you’re climbing solo, it requires teamwork too, and that can be beautiful. When you get to the top, the view can be fabulous.And of course it’s a romantic thing – man against the elements, the elevation, the wilderness (somewhat lessened these days by the need to have litter patrols on Everest). Same with round-the-world yachtsmen. A lot of us admire , envy, are even inspired by that sense of mastery. It’s more abstract when there isn’t an adversary, less partisan. So it’s different in that regard from bullfighting or rugby. Transcendent even. Of course the newspapers love it!Interesting to compare the media attitude to potholers. Caving is a sport that requires all these skills and virtues, and is even more dangerous, yet somehow doesn’t get the hero treatment except among fellow enthusiasts. On the contrary, it only gets noticed when there’s a disaster, and the press is universal in condemnation of the folly. Could this be because it’s done underground and that is somehow not so noble?I suppose you’d have no patience with this sort of thing, either?

  4. Well, I was intending this post to be a little provocative, Anne, so I got my wish. You’re absolutely right that mountaineering, or solo circumnavigation or what have you, take courage, skill, resourcefulness and dedication. I could say that acquiring and maintaining a serious drug habit also requires most of these qualities, in one way or another, but I won’t (although I just have). I’m simply exasperated by the myth-making attention these people get and I wonder if our attention and admiration isn’t misplaced, particularly when they seem to be driven less by the qualities you list and more by sheer foolhardiness, lack of preparation, hubris, substantial amounts of money and a total disregard for the environment and culture they’re playing around in like arrogant schoolboys.I think your point about caving is fascinating – there’s certainly something mythical about heights and skimming over water that holes don’t have. I wonder what it is. And I love the man on the wire, but I’d make a case for him on the grounds of his activity being art, of a sort. There’s a cheekiness and affront about it, as well as sheer deliberate spectacle. It’s meant to be engaged with, unlike the solipsism of the K2 exhibition and its like.

  5. Lally says:

    I’m with you on this one. Maybe the “first to conquer Everest” etc. but not the expensive, self-indulgent so-I-can-say-I-did-it (and maybe not point out how actually several other people from guides to helpers better described as “servants” actually did it for me, or at least made it possible) types. Being a descendant of the “servant” class and having ghostwrtitten a few things here and there (or secretly edited writing that someone else pretended to have done on their own) for which others took the credit or pretended there wasn’t all this undergirding of support without which etc. Or maybe it’s just because, like you, I’d rather be reading (and writing and watching old movies on TV or in my case spending time with my kids and grandkids and old friends and etc.), or conquering more private fears that overcomimg may bring me closer to the person I would like to be (though I suppose many of those who do this kind of thing, the risky mountain climbing. might say the same about conquering that fear).

  6. Thanks for your comments. Along with what Anne said, they’ve made me think about the sheer business of all this top-end mastery of the elements stuff, and realise how much I prefer the daredevil honesty of circus performers, who aren’t seen as noble at all…

  7. Ms Baroque says:

    You said it, baby.

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