Becca Balint: Understanding the drive to climb Everest

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I found the scenes from Mount Everest last week both absurd and chilling. Near the summit of the earth's highest peak, a long line of people waited to make the last push to the top. Dozens and dozens of climbers clung to a ridge line snaking across the so-called "death zone" — an altitude at which humans can only survive a few minutes without adequate oxygen. Brightly colored parkas and climbing gear stood out against the cerulean sky. In at least one photograph that went viral: a dead body is clearly visible on the side of the trail. These mountaineers literally stepped over a cadaver so they could take selfies at the peak. What have we become?

Over 300 people have died on Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully summitted in May of 1953. Although their fame spread immediately after their successful ascent, neither imagined that so many others would want to make similar attempts. Hillary said years later, "Both Tenzing and I thought that once we'd climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt. We couldn't have been more wrong."

The Nepalese and Chinese governments issue hundreds of Everest climbing permits each year, but there are only a few good clear days a season for actually reaching the summit. This leads to the bottleneck at the top that turns the summit into an amusement park ride — where the line can literally kill you. Eleven mountaineers have died this season alone — many on their way back down from the summit. The long wait to ascend causes extreme exhaustion and depletes precious oxygen supplies. One British climber, Robin Fisher, died just 45 minutes after he stood atop the summit.

It's not only the devastating human toll that horrifies me. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that Nepali climbers this season collected 11 metric tons of waste from the mountain: human excrement, used oxygen bottles, torn tents, ropes, broken ladders, and cans and plastic wrappers. We've turned Everest into just another garbage dump. Among the debris scattered across the mountain are approximately 100 bodies of climbers who have been encased in ice and snow. Global warming reveals more of these bodies each season.

Veteran climber Kami Rita Sherpa recently told the New York Times, "Snow is melting and bodies are surfacing. Finding bones has become the new normal for us." It is now nearly impossible to climb Everest now without seeing bodies lying on the icy slopes or bones poking up through the snow around the base camps. Most of these remains will stay on the mountain; a frozen corpse can weigh up to 300 pounds.

I certainly understand the drive to push myself physically. It's why I've run long distance races, including marathons and a 30K trail run in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. And I can understand the allure of taking some risks and seeking thrills. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy my motorcycle.

But lately I've been pondering the importance of our emotional Everests. Towards the end of the legislative season, I'm exhausted from weeks of 12-hour days and mountains of angry and poignant, heartfelt emails and phone calls from colleagues and constituents. I miss my family and my home and my dog. Managing my fear of failure, my shortcomings, and missed opportunities in my work is infinitely more challenging than any physical goal I set for myself.

I wonder what we would learn if we could talk to those who have died on the mountain? Was it worth it? Or would they tell us that seeking the peak allowed them to avoid the harder work of self-examination? For myself, I commit to seeking the balance between external and internal challenges.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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