Into Thick Air: Mount Everest And Political Rhetoric in the U.S.

Each month I anxiously await the arrival of one of the many magazines I subscribe to.  Print media is not dead.  While the newspaper may be going the way of the Titanic, magazines are alive and well, and thank goodness.  There’s nothing like the magazines’ shiny pages, the articles about topics I would never otherwise have explored, and the portability – allowing me to read in the tub, on the train, or the treadmill.  This month my Outside magazine arrived chock full of fascinating information: The 20 best places to live!  The island paradise with a dark secret!  The fanatical soccer (sorry, futbol) fans who risk life and limb to watch the sport in Argentina.  But it was the headline on the top of the cover that grabbed my attention – it read, in huge letters “Meltdown on Everest: Why the World’s Highest Peak Is Out of Control”.

Now, I’m no mountain climber, but ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air last year (I know, I know, I’m way behind the times) I have been obsessed with Everest.  And let me be clear: it is not because I want to summit that peak.  In fact it’s the very opposite.  No offense to the alpinists out there – but in my opinion, a mountain with altitudes so high that death is routine should, at all costs, be avoided.  Why?  Well, for starters, listen to how Krakauer himself explained his feelings about finally reaching the summit:

“I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.  It was early in the afternoon of May 10, 1996.  I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours.  The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial.  At 29,028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child.  Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.” (1996:6)

So…no thanks.  Couple those (lack of) feelings with the frozen bodies one encounters on the mountain and the generally accepted rule that if you can’t walk anymore you are left alone to die, and what I see is essentially suicide – that you pay for (sometimes in excess of $100,000) – a very expensive and very stupid suicide.  In fact, when reading Into Thin Air – I had to stop on nearly every page and recount (to anyone nearby) the below freezing temperatures, the limbs lost to frostbite, the routinization of stepping over frozen bodies (or moving them to the side when they blocked the path) and ask: “why would anyone do this???”.  I know, I know, it’s a big mountain – and people love big challenges – but given the risks I wonder about the draw.  Really, what is going on here?

Now, as an anthropologist I’m about to commit a very big taboo in my line of work – I’m going to use an example from another culture out of context to make a point about something in our culture.  When I taught college I regularly told my students not to do this, but sometimes I guess, one has to break the rules.  Because when I was reading the article about this mountain in Nepal I couldn’t help but think about some cultural issues and political questions surfacing in the U.S. at this very moment – and the parallels, which as a good anthropologist I shouldn’t make – I can’t seem to avoid. So here goes.

In light of the infamous 1996 season Krakauer chronicled in Into Thin Air – which claimed 12 lives (the mountain, not the book – just to be clear) – this month’s Outside magazine article (aptly titled “Take a Number”) discusses the 10 deaths which occurred on Everest this spring, with the author Grayson Schaffer asking the question: has anything changed?  Schaffer’s chilling response is yes, “things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse,” (2012:66).  Throughout the article Schaffer details several problems that are making the mountain more dangerous than ever – and some of those issues bear a remarkable resemblance to ideals (and debates about those ideals) in the current political rhetoric in the U.S.

First, Schaffer notes that even though the mountain routinely takes the lives of the world’s most experienced alpinists, Sherpas and guides – this new Everest of 2012 is more dangerous because “[t]here are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter,” (2012:66).  The problem, then, lies both with the aspiring climbers and with the start-ups that cater to them.  Let’s look first at the start-ups: as Dawa Steven Sherpa says, “[t]he problem right now is that anyone can set up a company on a laptop. And if they get clients, they can borrow their cousin’s tent, find a cook, and grab a ragtag bunch of guys and set up an expedition. It’s so dangerous,”  (2012:69).   While the mainstream American rhetoric extolls the entrepreneur who wanders bravely into the free-market, unbridled by governmental regulations, and seeks his claim to fame – the reality is (clearly) somewhat less romantic.  But let’s not put all the blame for what’s happening on Everest on these cut-rate start-ups, because as we all know in this land of unbridled consumerism – there are two sides to every cash transaction.   And it turns out that contrary to the service-industry managerial mantra, the customer is not always right.

At Everest, according to Schaffer, “many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring.  But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start,” (2012:66 – my emphasis).  This seems to me to be a little bit like someone with no training, but a strong interest in practicing medicine, deciding that removing a spleen is a good way to begin.  The problem here, unlike in the medical example above, is that there is nobody telling these would-be climbers that starting with Everest is just a bad idea.  While Schaffer notes that “some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash,” (2012:66).  This deadly combination of cash-strapped outfitters, inexperienced climbers and “no formal fitness or experience requirements for Everest clients,” (2012:69) is a recipe for disaster where people are (mis)led to believe that they can purchase the ability to summit the world’s highest peak.

While we seem to be in a love affair with pushing ourselves to physical extremes – as my Facebook newsfeed recently played host to friends posting pictures of themselves mud-covered and sweating from their participation in the “Warrior Dash”, “Tough Mudder”, the “Spartan Race” or even the “Antarctic Ultra Race” – the stakes at Everest are way higher (pun absolutely intended).  If you want to take a turn at one of these extreme races, be my guest, but even Schaffer contends that non-alpinists attempting to summit Everest is “a situation that would be inconceivable in other extreme outdoor pursuits,” (2012:69). And so I wonder if the situation on Everest could be a cautionary tale about the fearless rugged individual/entrepreneur that has come to define the mainstream Republican vision of American citizens: pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, ignoring the science propagated by those “liberal elites”, and believing that they alone can succeed.  It’s a twisted version of ‘we built this’ that allows people with no experience or knowledge to think ‘we can climb this’.  No, you can’t.  And you might die trying.

Now I know that we, here in North America, are really attached to the whole rugged individualist/man against the wild/anyone can become president nonsense (sorry, narrative)  – but just like in many things in life – Everest is not really the place that you want to find yourself having to pull yourself up by your (frozen) bootstraps and march onward.  Moreover, as my friend Nerissa pointed out when I told her my take on the parallels between Everest and political rhetoric, it speaks to the psychic disconnect some privileged Americans have between the (American) dream and the reality.  Mainstream Republicans may be able to talk the good talk about the poor and underprivileged in our country and truly believe that they are either (at worst) lazy and content to feed off the government, or (at best) able succeed if they took the initiative – but silver spooners like Mitt Romney can never know what it is like to live poverty, to embody disenfranchisement, or to exist on the margins of American society where phrases like “anyone can become president” are as relevant as the idea that you can fly if you just really really believe you can fly.  Nerissa linked this disconnect and naivety to the one about Everest, as she said, “you can sit over here in America and think about Everest but you can’t know that you actually can’t breathe there unless you’ve been there yourself.”

Lastly but perhaps most importantly is the question plaguing Everest right now.  Schaffer states that some think, “it’s time for the government of Nepal to step in and regulate Everest, but [others] are…wary of more oversight from bureaucrats,” (2012:72).  Sound familiar?  On the surface at least (anthropologists close your eyes) the question of governmental regulation is met with the same fear and distrust on that mountain as here in the U.S.  ‘Regulation’, ‘bureaucrats’, ‘government’ – they have become dirty words – they are invasive, a road block for the unbridled rugged individualist who wants to make his own way in the world – or up the world’s highest peak.

But in truth, even those who carp loudly at governmental ‘oversight’ want some guaranteed level of training and knowledge in those whose services they seek.  There’s a reason why people undergo years – if not decades – of training in order to practice in their field.  I mean, I’m sure that medical students would theoretically rather skip the whole medical school-internship-residency-fellowship trajectory (and the myriad exams those years entail) and skip right to earning the big bucks, but let’s be honest – that’s not the doctor you want to treat you.  If you need brain surgery (and I hope that you don’t) you’d probably like your surgeon to have more than just an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ and ‘can do’ attitude – you want them to know their shit.  There’s a reason why doctors hang their degrees on the wall, and it’s not (just) because they want to look at the piece of paper they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn – it’s because when you see those degrees you know you are in the hands of a trained professional.  Now granted, this is an extreme example, but even in situations that aren’t ‘life and death’ my money goes on you wanting that same “I’ve been trained to do this” guarantee from almost everyone you ‘purchase’ a service from: your mechanic, your kid’s teacher, your electrician, plumber, HVAC dude – heck, even your baristas at Starbucks receive training.  And you’re glad they do, because otherwise the FrappaMochaChaiCcino you spend five bucks on wouldn’t taste the same no matter which franchise you visit.  So yeah, I’d like the person who is going to help me avoid (an almost certain) death on the top of the world’s tallest mountain, to have had more than a laptop and a logo – I want them to be trained.  And if that means that someone, somewhere, has to put ‘regulations’ on them – or on me – and there has to be some type of governmental oversight (yep, I said it) – well, so-freaking-be it.

So whether you’re on the worlds highest peak – or a citizen of the United States in this pre-election insanity – you may find yourself swayed by narratives of the rugged individualist/unbridled entrepreneur which don’t quite ring true, or frightened by horror stories of the governmental ogre who’s inevitable next step is to ‘oversee’ and ‘regulate’ what you eat for breakfast.  But in both places what it comes down to is rhetoric versus reality.  And guess what – reality always trumps.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t take us all losing our noses to frostbite to learn that lesson.

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