Why Do People Climb Everest?

"The Top of the World" as a Window Into Human Nature

"Most climbers aren't in fact deranged,
they're just infected with a particularly virulent strain of
the Human Condition."
- Jon Krakauer

IN A NUTSHELL: Why do folks climb Everest? To many folks, of course, it makes absolutely zero sense. Yet folks still do it every year. Why?

Below, we (your intrepid LiveReal Agents) embarked on a daring expedition to find an answer. First, we explore several of the most popular explanations of why people subject themselves to this dangerous, apparently irrational, and seemingly pointless quest. (Why do we do anything, really?)

Then we explain why we don't think those explanations really add up.

Finally, we humbly offer our own answer. Which is, in brief: that climbing Everest is a certain way to answer the meaning of life, which is one of the existential riddles life forces each of us to answer. The psychology behind it looks something like this: there's something deeper in human nature than we're often unaware of in the day-to-day, rat-race grind of mundane life. But sometimes, certain things - or people -"bring that out" in us. Everest, then, can best be understood as a kind of spiritual quest, in that it calls forth these things that are usually dormant in us. In other words, we can project that deeper part of ourselves onto things that are external to us: onto people, the moon, and yes, even mountains. So, "conquering" the greatest mountain in the world is, on some level, is one way that we try to "conquer" ourselves, or, in other words, solve the meaning of life.  

That's the nutshell version. (Believe it or not.) The longer version is below.

It's dangerous. It's painful. It's difficult.

It's expensive. It can cost you fingers, toes, hands, feet, noses, and life itself. The prices to be paid in areas of life that most people claim to care most about - money, happiness, physical health, relationships, etc - can be steep.


It's easy to understand the opposite side of the argument.

To make that side of the case: climbing Everest is just a bad idea. And not just "bad." Given the prices one has to pay, from the very beginning, the very idea of walking to one particular hard-to-reach little patch of ground on the planet, just for the sake of walking there, is one of the dumbest, most absurd, pointless, ludicrous ways to spend your time, period, and anybody who does it is a fool.

"...I agree that, perhaps, from just a rational perspective,
climbing is only for people of unsound mind."
- Lou Kasischke, climber

The arguments for not climbing are strong and clear. Those who go can be easily ridiculed. Why not stay home, where it's relatively warm and safe? Why would you voluntarily put yourself anywhere close to what can be hurricane-force winds that blow in weather that's over 30 degrees below zero, making the temperature with wind chill colder than 140 degrees below zero? Why would you deliberately let yourself get anywhere remotely close to an area where your skin can freeze within a few seconds of being exposed? Why would you purposefully go to a place where there is so little oxygen that your body can't even digest food? Why would you even want to go to a place where taking off your protective glasses could mean that your retinas will be seared to total blindness within ten minutes? Why would anyone make a choice to go anywhere where historically there has been a 25% or so chance that they won't come back?

"Let's not mince words:
Everest doesn't attract a whole lot of
well-balanced folks..."
- Jon Krakauer

And so on.

Yet of course, people keep going. All the time.

Why? Why do people climb Everest?

As is often the case with things that seem insane...there may well be some deeper sanity in it. If that's the case with this...what is this deeper sanity? What is the deeper reason, if there is one?

We're going to jump right in and start by examining many of the usual, common explanations. Along the way, we're going to touch on why many of these explanations, while often containing a partial truth, ultimately fail to paint a true, accurate picture of what exactly is going on here. And then we'll keep going.

So, gear up. Strap your crampons on and pack an extra pair of mittens. Let's go exploring.

"The stresses of high-altitude climbing
reveal your true character;
they unmask who you really are.
You no longer have all the social graces
to hide behind, to play roles.
You are the essence of what you are."
- David Breashears

Part 1: The Problem

It's not surprising that people who don't climb Everest don't often understand the motivations of those who do. What is more surprising is that people who DO climb Everest don't necessarily know either. To illustrate the difficulty of the problem, we'll rely heavily on two of the most articulate, intelligent, and thoughtful writers on the topic, who know firsthand a few things about Everest: John Krakauer and David Breashears.

"Why climb?" he asks.
"That's a question that baffles me. It perplexes me.
I really asked that a lot on Everest. I can't justify it.
I can't say it's for a good cause.
All I can say is, look at the history of exploration:
it's full of vainglorious pursuits."
- Jon Krakauer

"...we conceived of a high-altitude twelve-step suport group,
Everest Anonymous...
The rationale was simple...
Everest Anynymous members promised periodic telephone calls
to remind you of your pledge never to return to the place."
- David Breashears

"...when I got back from Everest, I couldn't help but think
that maybe I'd devoted my life to something
that isn't just selfish and vainglorious and pointless, but actually wrong.
There's no way to defend it, even to yourself,
once you've been involved in something like this disaster.
And yet I've continued to climb."
- Jon Krakauer

"I never admitted to Sandy that while climbing,
with all the suffering and discomfort,
there were frequently times I said to myself,
'I will never ever do this again,' and all I wanted to do was go home.
And then, when I got back home, after about a week or so,
I wanted to go climbing again."
- Lou Kasischke,
survivor of the 1996 Everest expedition

This is the paradox, and a big clue: it makes no rational sense; all reason, in fact, goads us to do the opposite: "Give it up! Be reasonable! Stay at low altitudes where it's relatively safe, comfortable and warm...!"

"...And yet I've continued to climb."

Krakauer, Kasischke and others (from the quote above) have clearly tasted "something" that has lured them to climb, and continued to lure them even after they resolved to give it up. Yet often, at least from we've been able to uncover, at least several of them have clearly struggled to articulate what exactly that allure is. They can't seem to find an "reasonable" reason for climbing that their own (or others') intellects will accept; yet they can't give it up. So for them, climbing can become an unsolveable riddle that must be solved. It has become a koan.

Part 2: A Few Common Explanations

"For every complex problem
there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
- H. L. Mencken

"The Answer Most Common"

The most famous answer to the question came from George Mallory. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, his (alleged) response: "Because it's there." Those are "the most famous three words in mountaineering." (Mallory later died trying to reach the top of Everest.)

In regards to the merit of Mallory's answer...It's clever, concise and a bit poetic, and serves as a retort to a questioner who is looking for an easy answer. But of course, "it's there" is not really a reason or explanation.

"'Because it's there.'
What a great answer.
I love the simplicity.
And I have no idea what it means."
- Lou Kasischke

The lasting power of this answer lies not in what it says - which is incomplete, a little baffling, more of a teaser than an answer with finality - but in what is unsaid. What does it mean? It leaves the hard work to the imagination.

"It's there." Everest, the roof of the world, is there, towering over us, defiant, impersonal, implacable, uncaring, intimidating...challenging. It challenges us. It makes us feel small and insignificant, and we don't like feeling small and insignificant. It doesn't care about us, and we don't like not being cared about. And it doesn't care that we don't like not being cared about. It just sits there, daring us to conquer it. "Yes, it's daring us to conquer it...are you daring me?"

- at least, that's the kind of conversation that can take place in the mind of certain young men with a healthy amount of pluck and testosterone. After all, us humans, being who we are, aren't against picking a fight with a mountain.

Climbing Everest is, after all, often described as if it's a military campaign. A mountain gets "conquered." An effort to reach the top is often referred to as an "assault." The entire effort can lead to the "victory" of a summit or many different kinds of "surrender." And once the imagination leads a strong and feisty young man down this line of thought - "are you, big mountain, by just sitting there, not paying any attention to me...are you disrespecting me? Are you dissing me?" - it's easy to see where it can lead.

"Because if you're dissing me, I'm going to climb to the top of you. And we'll see who respects who after that." And then it's only a matter of time before we have to try to show the mountain who is boss.

So...is this line of thought what Mallory meant by "it's there"? We'll never know what he actually meant, since he isn't here to explain himself. Which is all part of the genius of those three words - that it's so open to interpretation that it allows us to imagine all kinds of things.

But as a clear and direct explanation...it fails.

That said, "it's there" could speak to a different side of human nature, one where from birth we're focused on...

"They're Crazy."

One of the most common explanations is also the most simple: "anyone who does it is crazy."

Like we've covered before...this side of the argument is easy to make. And as Krakauer describes, there is plenty of evidence that Everest can at least be somewhat of a crazy-magnet.

Most folks who want nothing deeper than a cocktail-party one-liner can probably satisfy themselves with this explanation. Yet a closer look reveals that - unsurprisingly - the reality of the situation is actually much more complex. Several of those in the 1996 expedition were highly accomplished, successful, functioning members of society - several physicians, a lawyer, a journalist, a decorated ex-special forces officer, not to mention several "professional" climbers, a highly regarded filmmaker, and so on.

As an aside, we could ask the question - what exactly is real "sanity," anyway? Which is another interesting trail that we could wander down here...but to get back to our main pursuit, the point is this: if folks like these well-respected, accomplished, relatively successful individuals are "crazy," then what, exactly, is the dividing line between them and you or me?

At least in this case, the sole difference is that they had a desire to climb Everest and we (presumably) do not.

Which then begs the question: why do they desire to climb Everest?

Which leads us right back to our starting point.

We can return to this issue later - are they crazy? - after we've made a little more progress in our exploring. But for now, we can again suggest there may, perhaps, be a deeper logic and deeper sanity, under the surface, than is commonly supposed. Sometimes what appears "crazy" to us may, in fact, be something supremely reasonable once it is properly understood.

"Mastering the environment"

As children we typically learn to "master our environment" to some degree - to crawl, walk, and eventually jump, run, skateboard, and join Cirque de Soliel. Everest, according to one line of thought, is naturally a logical progression of that: "I've mastered the living room, the front yard, the skateboard park, the ski slope...but that really big hill sticking up, way over there? That's one thing I haven't mastered yet. Let's go!"

It's instinctive whenever you see a mountain peak jutting up into the sky, towering over its neighbors, to think, "I wonder what it's like to be up there, on top of that?" And from there it's just another step - which doesn't require a great deal of more actual thought in regards to the "why" - to actually try to go. Another word for this could be "curious."

"I wanted to be an explorer,
but gradually found that the world had been explored
and that there was nowhere left, really."
- Michael Palin

As theories go, this one is broad, general and bland; it's not exactly false, but it doesn't really help us. Why do the few that do choose climbing instead of painting, motorcycle racing, stock trading, opera? There are no shortage of things we could master in life. Why choose this one?

And this line of thought also becomes circular fairly quickly: "we do it because it's in our nature to do it." Which doesn't help us understand our behavior; it merely re-labels it, categorizes it, and gives us a feeling of having accomplished or understood something without really understanding it. Why is it in our nature to do this kind of thing?

"Adrenaline Junkies"

A common explanation is the "adrenaline junkie" angle, which goes something like this: a certain breed of folks use adrenaline like a drug, and in that sense, they are drug addicts. "You feel most alive when you're closest to death." They want to feel alive, so naturally, they seek out experiences that, when things go as planned, as they sometimes do, give them a brief taste of death...which is then followed by a brief taste of life.

(An interesting trail here: why does "regular life" not give us, sometimes, the feeling of "being alive"? Why do you not "feel most alive" when you're just, well, alive - at the grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon - and living life? Why is "feeling alive" apparently, at least for some of us, something we need to seek out, sacrifice for, and find, to some degree, only under extreme circumstances? What is "feeling alive," exactly - because it's obviously more than the self-evident fact of "being" alive...? Perhaps that's another route to explore later. Back to our main pursuit.)

However well the "adrenaline" addiction theory might fit with other pursuits, it just doesn't fit in the case of mountain climbing. Again, Krakauer:

"People who don't climb mountains - the great majority of humankind, that is to say -
tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills.
But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy,
at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there
had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping
or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour.
Above the comforts of Base Camp,
the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistric undertaking.
The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude
than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand
that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.
And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering,
it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else,
something like a state of grace."
- John Krakauer

And Lou Kasischke backs him up:

"...the qualities for high altitude climbing came sharply into focus.
It's all about suffering.
Only about suffering.
Being a patient sufferer without yielding."
- Lou Kasischke

"Climbing As Medicine"

There are times when a person's specific character and situation incline one towards climbing. For example, someone struggles with depression, and discover that climbing mountains - for whatever mysterious reason - relieves that depression. The depression just goes away when they're climbing. And so they climb.

Take, for example, the Texas Rasputin, Beck Weathers:

"I fell into climbing, so to speak,
a willy-nilly response to a crushing bout of depression that began in my mid-thirties.
The disorder reduced my chronic low self-regard to a bottomless pit of despair and misery.
I recoiled from myself and my life, and came very close to suicide.
Then, salvation.
On a family vacation in Colorado I discovered the rigors and rewards of mountain climbing,
and gradually came to see the sport as my avenue of escape..."
- Beck Weathers

Or the backstory of John Taske, as told by Krakauer:

"'When I left the military, I sort of lost my way,' Taske bemoaned in a thick Aussie accent. He'd been a big deal in the army - a full-bird colonel in the Special Air Service, Australia's equivalent of the Green Berets. Having served two tours in Vietnam at the height of the war, he found himself woefully unprepared for the flat pitch of life out of uniform. 'I discovered that I couldn't really speak to civilians,' he continued. 'My marriage fell apart. All I could see was this long dark tunnel closing in, ending in infirmity, old age, and death. Then I started to climb, and the sport provided most of what had been missing for me in civvy street - the challenge, the comaraderie, the sense of mission...'"

This explanation - essentially, that climbing is medicinal, and relieves other symptoms or ailments, if only for a little while - is, like others, valid in part; yet it still leaves much of the picture incomplete. Why and how can it relieve depression and other ailments? What is it, exactly, about the circumstances of climbing that are medicinal?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the "climbing as symptom relief" angle has genuine merit; yet again, this leads us to circular arguments, and we're still left with asking..."why?"

"To Live a Story"

Lou Kasischke, another survivor of the 1996 expedition, says this:

"...they frequently ask 'why.'
They point out that mountain climbing is irrational and conflicts with the innate sense of survival.
To that point, I agree
. And I agree that, perhaps, from just a rational perspective,
climbing is only for people of unsound mind.
But from an emotional perspective,
climbing makes perfect sense and is an obvious choice.
I also point out to them that climbing is about the richness of living a story. A whole story.
Standing on top of the mountain is only part of the story.
And frequently not even the most important part.
The climbing story I live is not one single moment. In the story of getting to the top,
many moments are more meaningful and more worthy of memory."

And he continues:

"Everest is also such a huge physical and mental challenge
that I knew there would be an interesting story from the climb, even if interesting only to me.
What would that story be? That as much as anything intrigued me.
Would I feel or find something more important than the summit I sought?
I wanted to live that story.
The story of the experience, whatever that would be, was what mattered."
- Lou Kasischke

So what does this mean, exactly?

We aren't really sure what this means. Neither does Lou's wife, by the way:

"I have often heard you tell other people you climb 'to live a story,'
which to me is nothing more than your way of putting a nice face on mountain climbing....
Enough is enough.
I want to do normal stuff - not sit home alone for weeks and months alone
while you go off to weird places by yourself to live some stupid story."
- Sandy Kasischke

And neither, maybe does Lou himself, as he expresses after communicating the above:

"Why would anyone ever want to climb Mount Everest?
My standard answer was not very convincing, even to me...
How does anybody ever really know why we do what we do?"
- Lou Kasischke

"To inspire others."

In the movie, Doug Hansen is portrayed as basically "doing it for the children."

However noble this sound be as a motivation and however it may play as a line in a movie, in reality, this just doesn't hold. Does anyone know any actual climbers who would claim that they are honestly, truthfully "doing it for the children?"

Or even if they do, is someone climbing Everest nowadays really, honestly going to inspire someone else to do something else (presumably something besides climb Everest) that is some kind of great deed? Might there not be a better way to inspire someone than climbing a tall mountain - such as, for example, helping them pay their rent, or in some way helping them out in the trenches of their everyday life?

Or to take this entire line of thought further...does all this even beg the question: "What's the point of inspiring others?"

The thinking seems to be this: I'm inspired to do something; I'm doing it it to inspire other people to do something, who will hopefully, actually do something worthwhile (perhaps try to inspire the next person down the line). What is at the end of the line? The last person who gets that last blast of inspiration - what exactly are they supposed to do with it? Is there some great deed that will finally be done because of all this baton-passing of mutual inspiration?

And since, tragically, Doug's actual story became less of an inspirational story and more of a cautionary one...is there a chance that, perhaps, it will instead inspire some children to play it safe? And is there a chance that, sometimes, "playing it safe" is the wise choice?

At least in Doug's case, it seemed to be.

"By noon, three climbers from our group descended toward me:
Stuart Hutchison, Lou Kasischke and John Taske
(Frank Fishbeck already had turned back)...
Because of the bottleneck of climbers,
the three of them realized there was no way they could make the summit by two...
They said good-bye and continued on down.
Three wise men.
In retrospect I clearly should have joined them."
- Beck Weathers

"Evolutionary Biology"

This is the theory of human nature that, in a few words, states that we're all essentially animals, and are driven by evolution to want to pass on our genes the best we possibly can, so therefore, we basically spend the bulk of our time trying to survive, stay secure and relatively comfortable, impress our peers, attract a higher caliber of mate, and pass our genes on to the next generation. Climbing Everest in this context could be seen as a status-boosting achievement that we can either crow about or make money from in order to get a little more alpha-male or alpha-female in the pecking order of natural life.

We've already covered fairly well how the idea of climbing Everest makes no rational sense from the typical, "animal" or evolutionary biological perspective. Many climbers of Everest - Weathers, Taske, Kasischke and others - seemed to already have plenty of status already, and had plenty of other opportunities for getting status in other ways, if that's what they wanted, and they sure didn't seem to be doing it for the acclaim or the women.

It seems likely that few climbers would put much merit into this theory at all; it's more likely that they would be insulted by it. In many cases, at least, it just doesn't ring true.

This theory, being the dominant view of human nature in academia nowadays, will be touched on later.

Part 3: The Missing Piece

"Most climbers aren't in fact deranged,
they're just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition."
- Jon Krakauer

We've now covered many of the potential explanations of why people climb Everest, and why - although make sense of things to some degree - they still, in the end, fall short.

One aspect seems to be clear: no clear bumper-sticker explanation is within easy reach. And if traveling this far still comes up short of an answer, it means we just have to keep pushing on. And if we have to go beyond the conventional ways of thinking, even beyond reason itself, well...sounds fun.

"...attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act -
a triumph of desire over sensibility.
Any person who would seriously consider
it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument."
- Jon Krakauer

"I agree that, perhaps, from just a rational perspective,
climbing is only for people of unsound mind."
- Lou Kasischke, survivor of 1996 Everest expedition

This "beyond the sway of reasoned argument" is fully demonstrated by this story in Krakauer's book about a Canadian named Earl Denman who announced his intention to climb Everest, as described by Tenzing Norgay (the first, along with Hillary, to summit Everest) in his autobiography:

"Nothing made sense about it.
First, we would probably not even get into Tibet.
Second, if we did get in we would probably be caught,
and, as his guides, we, as well as Denman, would be in serious trouble.
Third, I did not believe for a moment that, even if we reached the mountain,
a party such as this would be able to climb it.
Fourth, the attempt would be highly dangerous.
Fifth, Denman had the money neither to pay us well
nor to guarantee a decent sum to our dependents in case something happened to us.
And so on and so on.
Any man in his right mind would have said no.
But I couldn't say no.
For in my heart I needed to go,
and the pull of Everest was stronger for me
than any force on earth."

So what is the source of this lack of rationality? What has the power to seduce a person "beyond the sway of reasoned argument"? If they are "in the grip of something more powerful" that is "stronger...than any force on earth..." - then, what, exactly, is that force?

To explain why one person does one thing, it's eventually necessary to explain why anyone does anything. To explain why people climb Everest, we need a larger theory of human nature.

"It's because they're stupid.
That's why everyone does everything."
- Homer Simpson

For the one side of the argument, let's assume that in regards to "human nature," the evolutionary biology argument has at least some merit, and we're at least to some degree, animals. Intelligent animals with opposable thumbs, fancy clothes and cars, no doubt, but animals nonetheless. We eat, sleep, mate and die, and spend much of our time seeking out status, mates, creature comforts, security for ourselves and those in our tribe, and better avenues to passing on our genes.

With this in mind, as we stated earlier, from purely this side of the argument - aside from the possible boost in status/bragging rights/potentially higher mate selection that might follow - climbing Everest makes no sense.

Yet people still climb.

Does the fact of people climbing Everest disprove evolutionary biology as a comprehensive theory of human nature? It's debatable - of course, the theory could somewhat easily be stretched to fit, as most (Freudianism, Marxism, etc) can be to fit whatever is needed. But aside from a few college professors and hard-core atheistic intellectuals, few people really seem to put a lot of stock in this theory. "We're animals, end of story" just, in some ways, isn't a very compelling idea. Living, eating, mating and dying intuitively strikes many as coming up short.

In other words, many people intuitively think that there is more to human nature than the merely "animal" side of it. And if there's something more to human nature than merely "animal" nature, then this might be the key. Or at least something worth exploring, that might fit the facts a little better.

For this side of the argument, let's approach it from the moment everything else in this problem seems to revolve around: the moment you step up to the peak of Everest.

Imagine the moment, after years of preparation, weeks of acclimatizing, and several days of the most strenuous physical activity you've ever done in your life, when you muster every shred of will in your being to force your exhausted, dehydrated, malnourished, oxygen-deprived body to make the final few steps up to the summit of Mount Everest.

You take the last step...and you arrive. You've reached the top of the physical world. You can walk no higher on this earth.

What would that feel like? If it was possible to put it into words, what is one phrase that might capture that sensation?

"I have overcome the world."

Consider this possibility: all of human activity can be understood as a form of mysticism, with varying degress of success and failure. If this is the case, then individual human activities - such as climbing a really big mountain - can be seen through this perspective. And Everest, more than many other activities, can provide a great deal of clarity into the problem of understanding human nature. And the desire to climb to the top of Everest can be seen for what it is: a certain kind of spiritual quest.

"Mysticism" can be defined as trying to taste, in one's direct experience, something that is "higher" than the normal, ordinary "animal" life, with the usual routine of mundane highs and lows, something that transcends time, space, and death. As it's defined here, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with organized religion; it has more to do with a person's direct, first-hand experience.

What drives a person to reach the top of the physical world? Everyone - even someone who sees themselves as non-religious, atheist or agnostic - has to do something with their life; must find some way to spend their time in a way that they see as potentially rewarding or fulfilling. For some of these people, clearly, climbing to the summit of Everest serves this purpose. The true climber of Everest is, on some level, searching for "IT," and thinks, on some level, that reaching the top of Everest is - or might be - "IT."

But how? And why?

The summit of Everest, either consciously or not, is typically seen as something more than what it physically, literally is, at it's most basic level (a certain patch of land that is hard to walk to). Nobody says "I want to go walk up to a certain patch of land that is hard to walk to." No - they want to summit EVEREST. When we hear about Everest, something can "click" inside us; Everest isn't just a mountain - it's a myth, it becomes something larger, it fits into some kind of template that we have pre-built in us. To strive, with great difficulty, toward something nearly unnattainable, the biggest, the highest, the toughest, the highest point on the planet, the peak of the physical world - it is, literally, reaching the limits of what humans are are able to experience in this world. If there is such a thing, then at least in our minds, it must border on what could be described as "the spiritual."

Climbing can give some individuals a taste of this - whatever it is. Call it "holy," "otherworldly," or "spiritual" or anything else...whatever "it" is, it affects people strongly enough to make them abandon all else in their lives, even when those lives seem perfectly good by common standards. It's enough to heal them of depression and other maladies, embue them with a sense of meaning and purpose, and fascinates them enough to rebuild their lives around it. It could almost be described, by its symptoms, as a religious conversion.

In this sense, those who climb Everest, purely for the sake of climbing Everest, could be described as a fledgling mystics, even if they don't consciously see themselves that way.

But how would this work?

"Compensation" can be defined as "substituting something spiritual with the nearest physical equivalent." In this case, we could say that something "spiritual" is a taste of some kind of "higher" experience that is the realm of mysticism. The "nearest physical equivalent" piece of the definition is, in this case, the uppermost point on the planet. In this sense, those who climb Everest aren't necessarily reaching the highest point of the soul (which is something seemingly intangible, abstract, and ethereal); they're reaching the highest point in the physical world (which is something seemingly tangible, literal, and concrete). In that sense, climbing Everest could be described as an external enactment of an otherwise internal process. This process in traditional mysticism could be described as reaching the highest point of our soul, or of ourselves. But instead of an internal struggle to experience something higher within "the soul," climbers of Everest struggle to experience something higher - physically higher - with their physical bodies.

Of course, this isn't to say that anyone who hikes Everest consciously expects to find God sitting in a chair at the top of the mountain. Plenty of folks have gone to the top with no credible reports of rubbing elbows with the Almighty at 29,000 foot mark. And there are plenty who climb Everest purely for the glory, status, ego, money, and so on.

But there are those who don't do it for these reasons. They are in the grip of something more powerful. These are what we could call the "purists" or the "pure-hearted" because for them, none of the above reasons apply; in fact, no reason applies at all.

If an individual doesn't consider themselves particularly religious, or if they don't necessarily believe with all their hearts in whatever their local denomination is telling them on Sundays, or if they don't necessarily have another outlet for what could be considered "spiritual"...and yet they have a great deal of pluck, and thirst for adventure, and hunger to experience the "heights" life has to offer...then it seems reasonable to see how Everest could come to signify the best, the most challenging, the deepest taste of what life has to offer. Truly - it seems almost a short and simple step: if you can overcome Everest, you truly can overcome the world. You can "overcome" life itself.

If the words "I have overcome the world" are successful, even to a small degree, in articulating the sensation of reaching the summit of Everest, then we've made some progress. From this point, we can acknowledge that these also appear in the New Testament, John 16:33: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." In that context of the New Testament, the words are presumably referring to a spiritual process, not a physical one.

(And of course, the disclaimers for anyone who would take any of this too literally: obviously, plenty of those who climb Everest were not Christian; we aren't saying that this entire perspective hinges on "I have overcome the world" being the exact phrase that each summiter has in mind, consciously, when they take those last few steps; and we obviously aren't saying that Jesus strapped on crampons and scaled over the Hillary Step (or whatever that little spot of rock was called two thousand years before HIllary existed.)

But if you're forced to describe that sensaton in words, then whatever exact words you use - "I'm the king of the world!" "I did it!" "I beat it!" "I'm on top of the world!" "Wow!" "Golly!" - however articulate or inarticulate they may be - the same basic underlying idea is not far off. No matter how you understand or believe/disbelieve in the words, "I have overcome the world" are in the New Testament, and they refer to something inner or "spiritual." And the outer sensation of "I have overcome the world" could be an echo of that - a physical representation of that inner process. In this sense, climbing Everest can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Of course, not actual spiritual enlightenment; climbers' bodies reach the summit of the world; their souls don't reach the summit of the Almighty (or whatever you might call it). But one can be seen as a parallel of, an echo of, the other.

Whether one is religious or not, or whether one believes that those words of the New Testament have any significance or not, or whether one believes there is such a thing as spiritual enlightenment or not, is largely irrelevant. Whatever one believes, what actually drives human beings can be understood as, in part, purely "animal," with all the status-seeking and mate-hunting and gene-passing that that entiails; yet as the pursuit of Everest can draw into focus clearly, there is more to us than that; there is also"something more," a striving toward something holy and transcendent and, as it is stated in the movie, "beyond the power of words to describe."

In this sense, if one is willing to entertain a few of the premises, then the entire proposition of climbing Everest can start to make sense, and can even seem to be truly, wholly rational: the ordinary life of the individual is destined to end in death. We all face the problem that we all have to do something with our lives. Accomplishing something so difficult that only a few in the world can even try...succeeding at a task that can instantly instill respect in people all around the world...struggling at great cost to reach the outermost limits of the human experience - which can intuitively feel like an experience of intimacy with something holy - can emotionally, intuitively, feel as if one is "overcoming the world." "Overcoming death." Overcoming whatever it is "in the way" of the perfect happiness we crave, the people we feel we are supposed to be. After all, if the only thing standing between overcoming death, experiencing "the holy" or whatever else it may by called, and solving the problem of old age/sickness/disease/death ("the way of all flesh"), reaching perfect and complete happiness is walking up a mountain... wouldn't you want to walk it? Wouldn't that then seem like the smart thing - the only intelligent thing to do? Especially when tasting even a small piece of it - can be healing, restorative, powerful enough to alleviate depression and other forms of suffering. And seems to imply that it can heal more.

Everest seems to affect some individuals in this way, touching something very deep and personal within them, which can make all this seem extremely real. And those who know Everest best would likely agree - those from Nepal, Tibet, and China, who have lived near and with Everest for thousands of years, have traditionally regarded Everest (Tibetan Jomolungma ("goddess, mother of the world," and Nepali "Gagarmatha, goddess of the sky") as a holy place. The Sherpa say "Only the gods live here. This is no place for men." And the trek to Everest is surrounded and imbued with rituals, monasteries, customs and superstitions that all echo the idea of it being a holy place.

The words of real Everest-lovers, or true climbers, give evidence to this.

As many of them try to articulate what drives them, they sound very little like status-seekers or adrenaline-hunters and begin sounding more and more, perhaps not coincidentally, like mystics:

"It's certainly nothing that stands up to sober-minded scrutiny.
Before going to Nepal, I wasn't thinking, "If I climb Everest,
my life will improve in such and such specific ways." It's not like that.
You simply think that if you can succeed at something that huge,
that seemingly impossible, surely it won't merely alter your life,
it will transform it. As naive as that sounds, saying it out loud,
I think it's a pretty common expectation."
- Jon Krakauer

"Mountains are not stadiums
where I satisfy my ambition to achieve,
they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion."
- Anatoli Boukreev,
Senior Guide in the 1996 Everest expedition,
later died in an avalanche while climbing

"...in my heart I needed to go,
and the pull of Everest was stronger for me
than any force on earth."
- Tenzing Norgay

"See, when I stand on top of a mountain,
and it's taken all my strength and all my courage to get there,
just for one second, just one second...I feel the truth of my life. I have to have that."
- from the movie K2,
written by Patrick Meyers and Scott Roberts,
Directed by Franc Roddam

"I fell into climbing, so to speak,
a willy-nilly response to a crushing bout of depression that began in my mid-thirties.
The disorder reduced my chronic low self-regard to a bottomless pit of despair and misery.
I recoiled from myself and my life, and came very close to suicide.
Then, salvation..."
- Beck Weathers,
"Left For Dead: My Journey Home From Everest"

"All I could see was this long dark tunnel closing in,
ending in infirmity, old age, and death.
Then I started to climb..."
- John Taske,
survivor of the 1996 Everest expedition,
as reported by Jon Krakauer

"There's no malingering at the South Col camp.
It's too high, too barren, and the air is too thin.
There's no earthy reason to be there except to gain Everest's summit."
- David Breashears

"Everest was the embodiment of the physical forces of the world.
Against it he had to pit the spirit of man."
- Sir Francis Younghusband,
The Epic of Mount Everest

"Even if I knew exactly everything that was going to happen to me on Mount Everest...
(Editor's Note: meaning, getting severe hypotheria, losing two hands and a nose, being left for dead several times, trying unsuccessfully to gnaw a wristwatch off because hands were useless, swelling, and becoming discolored, and etc...),
...I would do it again.
That day on the mountain
I traded my hands for my family and for my future.
It is a bargain I readily accept."
- Beck Weathers

“People ask me, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use.'There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron... If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
- George Mallory, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory

"You can see the fatigue in his face.
But behind the tiredness is a clear expression of triumph, even joy.
And therein lies the eternal tug of Everest,
the sense of unworldly adventure that brings sober men and women
halfway around the world and out into the midnight snows to climb its majestic heights.
I recognized something very familiar about this scene; yet I also felt an acute sense of displacement. I've always looked to the sky, the snow, the clouds for that light.
I've climbed to the highest reaches of the planet in search of it.
But when I looked closely into Bruce Herrod's eyes, facing his own camera lens,
I saw what I might have known all along, and it is this:
The risk inherent in climbing such mountains carries its own reward, deep and abiding,
because it provides as profound a sense of self-knowledge
as anything else on earth.
A mountain is perilous, true;
but it is also redemptive.
Maybe I had dimly understood this when, as a rootless boy, with no earthly place to call my own,
I deliberately chose the iconoclast's rocky path of mountain climbing.
But in this moment of pure clarity
I realized that ascending Everest had been, for me,
both a personal declaration of liberty and a defiant act of escape.
Now, suddenly, I felt an inexpressible serenity,
a full-blooded reaffirmation of life,
on Everest's icy ridges.
At last, I was ready to descend the mountain and go home."
- David Breashears

(And again, Krakauer, in a quote we've already seen above, but perhaps now the last four words can taken on greater significance, as they were perhaps not accidental...)

"People who don't climb mountains - the great majority of humankind, that is to say -
tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills.
But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy,
at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour.
Above the comforts of Base Camp,
the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistric undertaking.
The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude
than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.
And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering,
it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else,
something like
a state of grace."
- John Krakauer

"...But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way
only to find that what I really sought
was something I left behind."
Tom Hornbein,
succesfully summited Everest in 1963

Part 4: Return Home

We can return now, possibly seeing Everest as providing a window into understanding human nature.

Starting with defining "human nature" as essentially that of evolved, intelligent animals...then trying to understand why people climb Everest, that definition comes up short. If we're merely and solely animals, then as we discussed above, no one would climb Everest.

But seemingly against all reason, we climb, and continue to climb. Which can quite possibly mean that there must be more to human nature than there mere "evolved animal."

In this sense, all of it can point to a view of human nature as part "animal," and part...something else. Those who are so inclined could describe human nature as a duality of both "matter" and "spirit." Those more skeptical of the "spirit" piece of that equation might describe human nature as that of an "evolving animal" paired with also a symbol-interpreting, pattern-recognizing awareness. However you describe it, there's "animal-plus-something-else-we-don't-entirely-understand." And that "something else," whatever it is, our climbing of Everest is testament to.

And having explored this, and possibly decided that there is some Great Reason for embarking on such a perilous, difficult, dangrous journey...we can also return back to those who say that climbing Everest is just a bad idea, for everyone, with the idea that the quest to conquer Everest is, at heart, a form of spiritual quest...and perhaps even goad them back at least a little bit: so if Everest isn't your adventure, what is? If climbing is a bad idea, then is staying home and to some Netflix marathoning from the couch a better one? If hiking up to some uninhabitable torture-land is a bad solution to the problem of old age/sickness/disease/death ("the way of all flesh")...then what, exactly, is your solution? If enduring the brutally punishing conditions of Everest aren't worth the sacrifices for the reward it promises...then what reward are you working toward, and what other sacrifice are you willing to make for it? If you repeat any of the common life-philosophy-courtesy-of-Hollywood cliches ("follow your dreams!" or "live with passion!" "be true to yourself" or other fortune-cookie fodder), why would you ridicule someone who is actually out there putting it into practice?

After all, for every multiple-million or so "be yourself!" phrases that echo across the planet as empty words, there is one lone soul out there, hunkered and shivering in the cold, following some unseen, unheard push that has prompted them to leave the comforts behind to aim for something higher. And they have followed it.

Is physical comfort, security, relaxation, nice restaurants and celebrity gossip the highest we can aim for? Is that really a better answer?

What is a better answer?

Obviously, climbing Everest isn't for everyone, and that's a good thing. If it was for everyone, and if everyone - meaning billions of people - actually followed that passion, then the traffic jam at the Hillary Step would be a serious problem. And it already is a problem.

But the bigger problem is this: If Everest truly is a form of spiritual quest that operates by some kind of compensation, then what is it a compensation for? If there really is such a thing as "overcoming the world" - and if it has nothing at all to do with the physical world, but the world inside us - then how is that done? What is the real and valid way to "overcoming the world"?

That is what we, your loveable LiveReal Agents, are still exploring.

Stay tuned.

If you liked this, check out:

Why Soft Nihilism Is So Popular These Days

What is "The Meaning of Life"? A User's Guide in Plain English

Does Human Nature Have a Spiritual Component?

10 Existential Riddles Life Asks Each Of Us

Spirituality for Skeptics

Experiential Spirituality: A User's Guide

7 Practical Spiritual Experiments You Can Run To "See For Yourself"


1. Breashears, David. High Exposure. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

2. Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Villard Books, 1997.

3. Kasischke, Lou. After the Wind. Harbor Springs, MI: Good Hart Publishing LC, 2014.

4. Egan, Timothy. At Home With: Jon Krakauer, Back From Everest, Haunted, 1996.

5. Weathers, Beck. Left For Dead. New York: Villard Books, 2000

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