May 28, 2013 by John Buckley
The 29th of May, 1953. Hillary and Norgay. A moment of conquest? A triumph of skill? A defeat of the impossible? All I can say is that day 60 years ago changed the landscape of mountaineering.
Many articles are being written as I type reflecting on that triumph and the subsequent evolution of how Sagarmāthā (Everest) is perceived, climbed, how people perish and how the mountain is in danger of being destroyed by us.
I wanted to try and look at it from a different perspective. Why do we want to climb into death zones? Why do people, with little experience want to summit Everest and the other Eight-Thousanders? What drives human nature to push those limits and what do we get out of it? Many label these ‘quests’ as irresponsible, thoughtless, but ask a mountaineer to give up the traversing seracs, roping up or finding an un-trodden track and they’ll tell you they can’t.
I remember waking up in the wee hours (well wee to me at the time, it was 12am!) in 1993. I was 7. My dad, who had just joined the mountain rescue that year, had been to a talk with the first ever Irish Everest expedition on their successful return from the mountain. Bleary eyed I woke to this A2 poster of the most beautiful mountain I had ever seen. And on it the autographs of the members of the expedition, I was taken by the spell of the wild.
That for me was the start of, and I’ll be honest, an infatuation with mountains. And until now I’ve never really reflected on that. Lets set things straight, I’ve never climbed Everest and I maybe never will, but I get out in the hills and peaks as often as I can and I push myself to climber higher, faster and where others haven’t. And I know I’m not the only one.
So why do we do it? Why do we have that infatuation with peaks? When you look at history, it wasn’t to do with achievement it was protection. The high point was the safe point; animals to this day still draw that strategy. So is this relationship with heights to do with a remainder of animal instinct? Part of me says yes, evolution has brought us so far, but there’s something that hasn’t killed off that wild instinct.
That doesn’t explain though why we push ourselves to dangerously depleted levels of oxygen and into the death zones. Or on a smaller scale, why we aim for narrow ridges, bouldering and traversing unsure ground. For me it was emersion. Having the opportunity to live a significant amount of my life and childhood within these peaks and ridges. I wanted to push further and harder to achieve more. In the 8,000+ club and other smaller (still massive) peaks it’s about pushing the boundaries. With these boundaries comes a freedom and buzz like no other. I can’t describe that feeling more then freedom. Real freedom. From phone reception, from social convention, from credit cards, Google search, from society, lost within your own space and connected to our true roots.
Yes there is danger, pain, mental challenges like no other, I don’t think anyone goes in unaware, but it’s the reward from facing that danger down that brings us back peak after peak. Today the beautiful isolation of these Eight Thousanders and many other mountains ranges is in jeopardy. The land on which we live is shrinking with the growth of populations and the proliferation of access and information. More want a part of these experiential gems. The questions we need to ask is how can we save these spaces?
Looking ahead on the 29th of May, 60 years on from Everest’s first summit, the thirst for adventure in this world hasn’t abated. I just wonder where it’s off to next.