| Late in my life I have fallen in love. Not with a man or a pet or an idea I have fallen in love with mountains. I have always liked mountains, found them beautiful and somewhat intimidating, but I have now come to love them, and in doing so, discovered a whole new and exciting aspect to my existence.
I have climbed mountains before when I was much younger and physically strong and fit. I've climbed mountains in California and years ago I climbed Mt Katahdin a couple of times, but I never understood serious mountain climbing or mountaineers. Mostly, I considered them certifiably insane. I never got why any sane individual would climb Everest or any vertical surface, and even though I have fallen in love with mountains, frankly, it still seems kind of crazy. But even though I would never have made the attempt myself, even when I was young, I find that I have come to better understand why other people do it, and like in all things, understanding is the key.
I just finished a book about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay's 1953 climb to the summit of Everest, the first known successful climb ever, and I decided to watch a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of their expedition. The documentary seemed kind of intriguing because the climb was going to be made by Hillary's son, Norgay's son, and the son of the first American to reach the summit. I thought that it might be kind of cool in a nostalgic sort of way. I didn't understand why anyone in their right mind would bother to do it, but the circumstances were kind of interesting. So I watched it.
Reading the book and watching the documentary were a kind of revelation. Many people who insist upon climbing Everest are, frankly, doing it for all the wrong reasons and quite a few of them are neither experienced, knowledgeable, or tough enough to even think about climbing it.
The book talked about Hillary's disgust with the commercialization of the mountain and the attitude of modern climbers. When he made the climb at the age of 33 he was already a highly experienced climber and mountaineer, had made the attempt once before, fought in a war, and knew more about the mountain than most people. Many people who climb it today are thrill seekers with too much time and money on their hands (the permit to climb costs about $25,000 US). An American climber in the documentary who has reached the summit 5 times and practically lives full time with the Sherpa people said that he always asks people who come why they want to climb the mountain. If they tell him that they are doing it for the challenge of conquering Everest he always tells them that they should just turn around and go home because climbing the mountain to conquer it is arrogant and childish. “A person cannot conquer Everest any more than he or she can conquer nature itself,” he tells them. “You don't conquer Everest if you are very good and very lucky, it allows you to reach the summit.” Good advice.
What I thought might be a nostalgic “remember when..” kind of thing among the sons of the ground-breaking climbers turned out to be a lesson in why any of them do it in the first place. For one thing, the bond among these men and the bond they had with their father's is completely unique and deeply felt. These guys are like brothers maybe better since I've known a few brothers who couldn't make it up that mountain without trying to toss each other off it at some point. Hillary's son is particularly bonded with the mountain and the Sherpas because his father spent so many years there attempting to help improve the life of the people by establishing a fund for their assistance and helping to build homes, hospitals, and schools. His children really kind of grew up there. The Sherpas love these guys because they treat the people with infinite respect and admiration and aren't just another pack of rich adrenaline junkies blowing into town and treating their tribe like pack animals. They are amazing people; tough, incredibly strong, wonderfully cheerful and kind, and desperately poor. According to their beliefs, Everest is the home of the mother goddess and thereby sacred. None of them would ever climb it if they didn't have to. They do it for the money because they want to take care of their families. None of them ever attempted to climb the mountain to the summit before the first expedition showed up in 1921, but their lives were so harsh and they were so poor that they were willing to do it for the opportunity to improve their lives. To them, the climbers were just a bunch of crazy Europeans who obviously were looking to commit suicide. Good call.
In the end, the son of Edmund Hillary made it to the summit and thanks to modern technology, called his father in New Zealand on a satellite phone. He wept, the Sherpas wept, the American climber, whose father had died in a car accident when he was young, wept because his beloved father would never know he made it to the top. These men had done this together because their fathers had done it and they shared a bond of life and death and adventure that few people ever do. They did it because they love mountains and Everest is the ultimate mountain, rising 29,029 thousand feet above the earth - the very top of the world. I still think that they are a little bit crazy, but I get it now. For these men its about their fathers, themselves, their shared love of the planet, and the breathtaking mountain that binds them together.