Rock and Ice did a good job back in May of riling the climbing public with Jeff Jackson's editorial "Mount Everest is Completely Irrelevant." It was definitely trending with 100+ comments and counting. And a lot of them were downright hostile. But now about a month after the hype of this season's 500 plus ascents, it is clear that Everest is more relevant than ever. My impression was that never before has Everest seen more attention both in climbing and mainstream media. It seemed as though hourly accounts were coming in from Outside Online, National Geographic, and the North Face while daily, new articles and editorials were weighing in on the situation on the mountain, enhanced by numerous photos of apparently endless lines of aspirants on their way to the summit.
Alan Arnette's excellent Everest blog kept readers up to date (check out his season recap) on all the drama and there was quite a bit of drama. One seasoned expedition leader Russel Brice pulled his entire team off the mountain. Italian Alpinist Simone Moro appeared to have cancelled his Everest plans, describing the atmosphere on the normal route like this:
"In short, I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I
counted more than 200 people above and below me ascending up to the
South Col. Unbelievable, it really was like being in an amusement
And this is exactly why Everest is so relevant. Like any classic amusement park, it has changed with the times. Not so much the mountain, though there was certainly discussion of how dry and dangerous the upper reaches of the Southeast Ridge and West Ridge had begun, probably because of global warming (my view, so disagree if you want). Everest has become the reflection of the new idea of climbing, that climbing is entirely what we make it and that this manufactured artifact is the only goal, since we long ago demolished the real thing, whatever that might have been.
By this I mean that it is significant to climb Everest precisely because of the degenerate state of what Everest has become, or what humans have made of it. The Base Camp scene, the trash, the lines of "climbers" and of course the frozen bodies of those who didn't make it back, all these and more are part of the curious and increasingly twisted image of the mountain. Everest the mountain has been transformed into Everest the abstract spectacle, morphing under the media's constant exposure in a continuous feedback loop. And given the extraordinary financial costs of an attempt (at least in the world of climbing) there is always the associated glamor of expending huge sums of money in a conspicuously wasteful and dangerous pursuit.
So Everest has become a green screen for a drama of Western-style consumption set in the Himalaya, fed by the constant drip, even occasional torrent, of media: video, interviews, and photos all building their own climate of fascination. As George Mallory, in an eerily prescient remark, considering the fate of his own body, doomed eventually to be part of the media cycle, "Because it's there." Isn't it time we started seriously asking what was/is actually there and what we are replacing it with? Everest appears more like a dying white elephant, steadily being killed off by an increasingly obsolete pursuit of exploration and adventure in a world less and less capable of sustaining it.
So yes Everest is relevant, if only because it perfectly reflects the hollowness of our understanding of what really matters about climbing and the world in general. It is an extreme case to be sure but its lessons are everywhere, if we can only turn our heads from the latest update from Outside or National Geographic. Here's hoping.