It’s a hard question to answer..the infamous Why climb Everest?, but I like JFK’s notion (or his speechwriters)of struggle and challenge.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
JFK, Speech at Rice University 1962
Living at EBC
100 climbers will have 100 different reasons for climbing Everest and a 100 different ways of maintaining motivation. Cold, heat, hunger, thirst and fear all conspire against the climber. Terror and boredom are the emotional boundaries within which the climber endures for 2 months.
A climber may wait for 2 months and be shut down by weather; alternately a small window may mean a much early than anticipated strike for the summit. Not only are the physiological forces constantly hammering the aspiring climber, they must also contend with their inner selves.
Life in Everest Base camp is cramped; there is no escaping that fact. Life in a tent on a moving river of ice will never be easy. The glacier is in motion and as the season progresses, the glacier is alive and cracks and moans beneath the climber trying to rest. Holes open up and close, walking around camp, one should always watch out for new fissures and crevasses.
And you better get along with people as you will be sharing the same tents and communal loos for 2 months. Politics, religion, might best wait until everyone is safely back in Kathmandu. Although such are the extremes of temperature, hanging out in a communal tent is a relief from either sub zero temperature or sweltering on the rare still days with no clouds. Temperatures in the tents can range over 60 degrees from +40 to -20 degrees.
What pushes the climber to keep climbing, to face the hardship and dangers? A sense of pride, ego, endorphin addiction? A combination of all?
To this we submit, that every climber climbs Everest for a different reason and a quickly conceived stereotype maynot apply. It is very likely that a climber may not be able to fully articulate their reasons to climb to the satisfaction of a non-climber.
Whatever the reason, a climber must have a very advanced sense or purpose, of overcoming adversity and to be calm in the face of extremely hazardous conditions. To continue to climb when tired, cold and fearful requires a mental fortitude and inner strength not found in more mundane environments.
As the quotation states, climbers tackle the highest mountains not because they are easy but because they are hard and nowhere else can a climber measure their best skills and than tackling the highest mountain on earth.
What things can go wrong
To climb at extreme altitude is to learn a new language, as climbers frequently discuss O’s, Dex, HACE and HAPE..
Living in an environment where there is ½ to 1/3 of the oxygen means the body goes through a remarkable transformation. Respiration and heart rate increases and the body produces more red blood cells and EPO. Unfortunately a climber’s maximum heart rate decreases as does their VO2.
Despite the body’s wonderful short term adaptation to high altitudes, there is a reason no communities live long term above 5,300m. The lack of oxygen and extreme of temperatures means that the body is slowly shutting down.
The body can adapt only so much and unfortunately the body can turn against the climber if they climb too fast, too soon. HACE and HAPE, can strike at any time above 4,000m. High altitude cerebral edema (HACE and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is when the body rejects the low oxygen environment for reasons that still baffles the medical community. A climber with HACE will become drunken and disorientated and slowly die as fluid builds up in the cavity between brain and skull, effectively crushing the brain. HAPE is equally insidious as the lungs start to fill with fluid and the climber slowly drowns inside himself. The only cure is rapid descent, not always an easy option as these afflictions mainly occurs at night.
Not only does the climber have to contend with the possibility of self-sabotage. A climber also has to be constantly vigilant concerning frostbite and hypothermia. It is hard to imagine when warm and at a sea level but frostbite and hypothermia can strike without warning just by forgetting to fasten a jacket or wear extra gloves. When tired, thirsty and focused, it is incredibly easy to forget about maintaining warmth. The story of Everest is littered with tales of lost fingers, toes and lives. Ironically the climber in their death throes will shed their jackets and gloves as they feel a last burst of euphoric warmth.