I don’t have much stomach for exploiting tragedies … the 11 mountaineers who perished on K2 were not hikers (and might’ve slapped anybody who called them such) … so I have a plausible excuse for not adding my voice to the peanut gallery of second-guessers (see the comments on this New York Times blog post to see what I mean).
The running theme among indoor adventurers is that mountaineers take insane risks and should not be seen as heroes because humanity at large doesn’t benefit from their exploits. Apparently they’ve never experienced the rush of reaching a summit, or seen the view available only to those who can get up there. Or they’ve never experienced a mountain’s specific gravity, its uncanny ability to draw people closer and urge them to the top.
I’ve never strapped on crampons or climbed on fixed ropes. There was a gravel road to the highest summit I’ve ever stood upon. I doubt that I’ll ever get to the top of Half Dome in my lifetime; I’ve had dreams that I was hiking in the Himalayas, but I don’t expect to make it up that far in my waking travels.
Nevertheless, I know how a hill gets inside you. When I started hiking seriously, I was at the top of Mission Peak — the only excuse for a mountain in my immediate orbit — within weeks. Years before it had tempted me, but I didn’t have the heart, much less the legs, to act on the temptation.
Mission is a puny peak with a mere 2K of elevation gain over 2.6 miles. But it might as well have been Everest when I was 40, flabby and unfit to walk up it. Once I started getting into shape, I had to know if I could get up there.
Though I’ll never be a much of a mountaineer, I think I understand what drives hard-core climbers to reach the highest heights: an unquenchable urge to know if they can make it to the top. And if they’ve done it once, they have to do it again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. And after that, well, hey, surviving the first few climbs makes the next ones just a bit easier to actually enjoy.
Your never the same person after you’ve proved the hill can be climbed. As long as people can experience that transformation, they’ll keep taking crazy risks at altitudes best experienced in a Boeing 767. A few will die trying.
The best we can do is lend comfort to the grieving when things go wrong; the worst we can do is belittle the efforts of people who manifest a distinct (though admittedly extreme) manifestation of human nature. Our explorations and adventures help us overcome our fears and outsmart our rivals.
People will never stop finding mountains to climb. Nor will they stop climbing them.