So said George Mallory, Somme veteran and part of the first three mountaineering expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest when asked why he wanted to carry out such a mission (which would lead to his death in 1924).
Short, sharp and simple, it’s become a mantra for explorers worldwide. It sums up the inquisitive, pioneering human spirit as well as the desire to find new worlds. However, it also has a darker connotation. One that is selfish, demanding and unthinking.
Something that is of interest to philosophy professor, jazz vocalist and author Margret Grebowicz. As she writes in the introduction:
…it’s no accident that climbing should become an ever more popular spectator sport as the planet keeps sinking deeper into…environmental crisis. My working hypothesis is that climbing is not just something that happens on the mountain’s surface, not when the whole world is watching…it has taken the form of cultural/semiotic extraction, and this extraction seems to have reached its ‘peak’ moment.
With this in mind, Grebowicz is able to demonstrate to the reader how the ‘anarchistic utopia’ of mountaineering has been hijacked by capitalism, firstly on a basic level (it can cost up to $65,000 to climb Everest) and on a philosophical level (how many ads and magazine shoots have you seen set on top of mountains, implying #peakliving and #lifegoals?).
These are serious philosophical implications for the commercialisation of climbing, which also lead into a growing trend in climbing as well as in modern society in general: the demand for more health and safety. After all, if you’re shelling out enough for a mortgage to climb a mountain, then it makes sense that you want the expedition to be as safe as possible.
However, as Grebowicz points out:
On Everest, there are no explicit rules about helping others, and forging ahead to ensure one’s own survival is indeed common…In Styles’s day, a climber’s death was as valuable or meaningful as that of any explorer. Today’s general outrage over Everest deaths – on the grounds that they are unnecessary or meaningless – says a lot about what the mountain has come to mean. If the reason for Everest deaths are unclear to the public, then so are the reasons for climbing the mountain…Everest, as an idea and cultural force, is over.
An example of how capitalism, as well as middle-class commodification, takes the edges out of a primal experience to resell it as a Disneyland style experience.
But it’s not all negative, as there are discussions around how bionic technology can help people with missing limbs achieve their dream of climbing, and that there are often reports that they are able to achieve more than the average climber. Indeed, one case that is cited is Kyle Maynard who bear crawled to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro without his prosthetics (despite being a quadruple amputee).
Running in under 100 pages, Mountains and Desire is a fascinating, gripping read which makes the reader seriously ponder the questions being asked and makes them think about issues that had probably never occurred to them. If anything, it could have been stretched out to another 100 pages (especially in regard to the link between the reduction of mountaineering to some kind of self-love bullshit sold to middle aged office workers).
Highly recommended, especially if you’ve never given a moment’s thought to the subject.
Margret Grebowicz, 2021, Mountains and Desire: Climbing vs. the End of the World. Repeater Press. ISBN-13: 978-1912248933
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.