A Memorial Day Popeye: Life Competence And Climbing Everest

I’ve been tempted to write this post for more than a decade, but the picture above, of the line to reach the summit of Mount Everest stretching out like the ticket line for an Avengers movie, was the last straw. As Popeye said, “That’s all I can stand, cause I can’t stands no more!”

The operative words are life competence and narcissism. Climbing Everest requires and American to pay around $65,000, not counting travel and related expenses. It also involves risking one’s life, as the many perpetually frozen corpses on the way to the top vividly illustrate. And what, exactly, is one pretending to accomplish by reaching the top of Mount Everest?

I will defend to the death one’s right to spend one’s own money and time any way an individual pleases, as long as he or she isn’t neglecting a duty or harming someone in the process. Agreeing that people have the right to waste their time and money—and precious residence on Earth—in pursuit of phony achievements that in truth achieve nothing is very different from pronouncing it right and good are not the same thing.  If the only way you can claim that your life has meaning is to climb Mount Everest, you have flunked Life 101. Asserting that climbing to the top of a big mountain—with the assistance of paid guides who will literally drag you there if necessary—is admirable, a mark of character, and something to regard as a substantive life achievement is the height of delusion and narcissism—the Everest of delusion and narcissism, in fact.

See, climbing the highest mountain peak is a metaphor for rising to a challenge that is worth rising to, not a challenge itself. The first explorers who reached the top of Everest accomplished something. The 6, 561st climber to do it wasn’t an explorer, he was a tourist. If someone wants to visit Disneyland, that’s fine, but it’s nothing to boast about.

An achievement is building something, fixing something, helping someone, creating something, changing something, giving something, growing something, making a life other than your own, a community, a family, a nation, a culture, a little bit better, richer, more civilized. What does trying to climb Everest contribute to anything but the list of stupid and pointless deaths? That $65,000 could start a business, save a life, send someone to college or a trade school, feed hungry children, or save abused animals. If someone tried to impress me by saying, “I climbed to the top of Everest!,” my reaction would the same as if they said, “I once won a hot dog eating contest!” except that I would add, “Ah! You’re an idiot, then.” At least the hotdog eating contest didn’t cost $65,000 to enter.

Our culture has somehow become so perverted that it cannot distinguish real , meaningful achievements from phony ones. Kim Kardashian became a rich celebrity and made her whole. slutty  family celebrities along with her because she made a sex tape and has an unusually large and shapely butt. At least her tape and her butt entertain  and give pleasure to others: these aren’t great contributions to the culture, but they are contributions. Kim is more worthy of respect and admiration than someone whose claim to respect is climbing a mountain.

Today, Memorial Day, we honor men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation and the values it represents, not to fill in a “bucket list,” not so they could boast about it or bolster their self-esteem, but because they understood the difference between what matters in life,. and what, in the end, is trivia. Those rich mountain climbers are the victims of a sick culture that no longer makes that distinction. My father led us to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite, because, as a father, he felt it was hsi duty to enrich the experiences of his children. Every step he took was painful, because a hand grenade had mangled his left foot during the war. That climb was an achievement, and he never boasted about it to anyone.

Recognizing these artificial heroes for what they are is part of the trail down the mountain to a society that knows what is a genuine achievement, and what is only grandstanding and self-indulgence.

22 thoughts on “A Memorial Day Popeye: Life Competence And Climbing Everest

  1. I agree, however, I’d like to throw out what might be the other side to this coin. The same society that fails to distinguish between real achievements and grandstanding and self-indulgence is the society that is trashing accomplishments because the accomplisher wasn’t morally perfect. This country wouldn’t be what it is now without the governmental genius of Thomas Jefferson or the military and administrative brilliance of George Washington. Yet, because the former most likely had an affair with a slave and the latter was a slave owner, their accomplishments mean nothing and they should not be honored. It wouldn’t be what it is now without the energetic leadership of Andrew Jackson, but, because he was a man of his times, now they want to erase him. The history of this nation would be very different if Columbus hadn’t made his voyage, but, because he was a man of his times, now his statues have to get trashed and his holiday yanked off the calendar. Now they want to yank Miles Standish’s arm off the flag of Massachusetts, because he wasn’t “woke” either.

    The ones who want to trash all this history didn’t build a nation with a new system (actually an old system made new) from scratch. They didn’t try to govern a nation creaking with growing pains. They didn’t sail out into the great unknown to find a world unknown. They didn’t protect the new colonies in that still largely unknown world so it would eventually become what it is now. In fact I submit to you they would probably fail miserably at any of those things. On the other hand they’ll bow and scrape and hail some actress who tweets a facile message they agree with. They’ll hail a singer who threatens to blow up the headquarters of the government. They’ll repost any amount of junk that some raging blogger posts. I have no respect for the unaccomplished who trash the accomplished, and neither should anyone who gives it more than a moment’s thought.

  2. It should be pointed out that KK has helped one person get out of jail and helped toward criminal justice reforms. That is her greatest achievement even if you wanted the grandma to rot in jail; she worked to improve the life of another.

    I could not care less about her otherwise.

  3. Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery is located in San Antonio. I happen to have a bunch of relatives there…my Grandfather (and Grandmother), my Mother (a Veteran in her own right), an Uncle who served with the Screamin’ Eagles in WW2, a Father-In-Law who served in North Africa (infantry) and Italy during WW2 9along with my Mother-In-Law) and my beloved Wife (also a veteran in her own right). My belief is that every person under one of those headstones or columbarium plaques has contributed more to our society, our culture and our story than the pack of self-serving, self-aggrandizing narcissists currently climbing a peak that has long since been conquered.

  4. How is there not a Starbucks there?
    There is a self-aggrandizing virtue signaling component here as well. I daresay few undertake to summit Everest, and then never mention it. They likely omit the wait in line.
    Similar in a way to the people who run (or walk) a marathon, and then put a “26.2” sticker on their car.
    Sustained physical effort is admirable in a way, I suppose. Few would admire someone who pogo-sticked in their driveway for 20 hours, however, plus the police told me it was keeping the neighbors awake.

      • I think we need to separate personal achievements from public ones. Climbing to the top of a previously climbed mountain is at best a personal achievement notable only to the person him/herself and some friends and family.

        Notable achievements create positive externalities for society. Society determines what is notable and worth commemorating. Those that do something to gain noteriety achieve nothing but temporal noteriety. For example, name just two of those frozen bodies still lying along the path to Everest’s summit or even two that climbed it successfully in the last 5 years.

  5. Is that a genuine photo? It looks like something photo-shopped and put on The Onion.

    This phenomenon of people doing crazy things is a baby boomer phenomenon, I think. I attribute it to summer reading lists we were given in high school. “Annapurna” was one of the books. I’m just now reading “Two Years Before the Mast.” Somehow, too many of us got the impression that anything we’d read about in books could be, and needed to be, replicated in life. This is the whole compulsive travel thing that baby boomer have as well. Just because you’ve read about the Himalayas does not mean you have to go there and see them your own self. It’s an arrogance born of relatively inexpensive jet air travel and color photography and a voracious travel industry. It’s bragging, as well, analogous to people in the northeast putting school decals on the back windows of their Volvos. Virtue signallying. Very pathetic. And I’m afraid it’s infected our children.

    Whatever happened to the term “conspicuous consumption?” We don’t see it anymore. The term, not the phenomenon. The phenomenon is ubiquitous.

  6. But if Sir Edmund and Tenzing hadn’t climbed Everest, where would Hillary’s mother have found inspiration for her name?

    • Extra points for John! I love that HRC story. I guess we could call it apocryphal. But let’s face it, it’s just Clinton self aggrandizement. Propaganda. But a classic, nonetheless.

  7. I disagree. I am acquainted with two people who have summited Everest. The first is a professional guide (I’ll call him Joe) and he has been there twice. Joe has also summited Denali numerous times and Kilimanjaro more times that he can count, and a number of other world-famous peaks.

    Joe makes part of his living doing this, but when you talk with him about it you know that there’s a lot more to it then the job. For Joe, it’s a spiritual thing. Ask him about his clients, and he’s up front – a small handful are jerks who are after the bragging rights (Joe will tell you that those are the ones LEAST likely to make it to the top). The rest are doing it for personal reasons – chiefly to set themselves the biggest challenge of which they can conceive. In this, they are really no different than the people who chose to solo-circumnavigate. They don’t do this to impress their friends. They do it for the personal experience. Chief difference? The climbers love the mountains; the sailors love the oceans.

    The second person I know who has been to the top of Everest is a young chap named Chris Bombardier, whom I had the enormous pleasure of working with a few years back. I don’t mind sharing his name because he’s willing to do so. Chris has a bleeding disorder – a specific type of hemophilia – and he works with a marvelous organization that helps kids and young adults with bleeding disorders discover that they can, in fact, enjoy physical challenge and being in the wild. This can be something of a revelation to these kids, because the first thing moms want to do upon their kid’s diagnosis is swaddle them up in bubble wrap.

    Chris loves the outdoors, but he also knows the value that wilderness experience has brought to his own life and he knows first-hand how, as long as one is careful and diligent with meds, persons with bleeding disorders can live almost entirely normal lives. Years ago, he set himself a goal to do the Seven Summits – the highest peak on each continent. By the time I met him he had two to go – Everest and Kosciusko, which is in Antarctica.

    Ironically enough, he actually went to Antarctica a year or two before I met him for his attempt. They turned him back due to his disease. “Screw ’em,” Chris said, “I’ll go bag Everest and then return. They know Everest is a much harder mountain.”

    Not sure if he’s been back yet, but if he hasn’t he will soon. And lest you think this guy is an egotist, I can assure you he’s one of the most self-effacing, gentle and generous people I’ve had the privilege to work with. He positively inspires the people with whom he works by word and action – and it’s not like he makes much money doing so. A thoroughly remarkable young man.

    • And the inevitable exception that proves the rule. If one climbed Everest to win a bet with a trillionaire who would pay off by funding a cure for cancer, that would be an achievement too. Your friend’s achievement is inspiring kids by making the summit, not the climb itself.

      • A trillionaire offering to fund a cure for cancer only if someone else reached the top? Unethical. And, from where I sit, a non-sequitur.

        Chris’s story is exceptional, granted, but it seems you overlooked the rest of my post, which offered commentary on why OTHER people make the attempt.

        Oh, and I just remembered a third person, now deceased, of my acquaintance who summited Everest many years ago (in fact, he did all Seven Summits when he was well into his fifties. A spectacular man, with huge successes and huge losses in his life. I saw him maybe once a year and every time he treated me like he’d been waiting since the last encounter.

        I also had a college friend who died on an expedition in the Himalya. Avalanche; he was an anesthesiologist, and thus popular in serious climbing circles as an expedition doc.

        I know a lot of other folks who are serious climbers and wilderness junkies, too. Know what they all have in common? A love of mountains and personal challenge that have been in place since they were kids. Trust me, it isn’t about the bragging rights. I’d also bet that the people in that photograph were every bit as appalled by the bottleneck as you are.

        Look, we agree that what’s currently going on there is ridiculous. I would add that it’s wildly unsafe. However, if we’re to put the blame anywhere, it should probably be on the government of Nepal. One needs a permit to attempt to climb Everest; clearly, far too many of them are available.

        Hate to say it, Jack, but your dudgeon on this one almost sounds like sour grapes that some people are wealthy enough to afford this sort of thing. The simple fact is that serious climbers are a different breed. Know any?

        • $65,000. So you can climb a mountain. I put it the same category of a billionaire buying a seat on a space shuttle. In all of your cases, is it really necessary to climb that mountain? Not Mount Chinborazo? When he wanted to stick it to the doctors who told him he had a heart murmur and should be not exert himself, Teddy Roosevelt climbed a mountain, it was good enough.

          Sour grapes because I wouldn’t spend money to do something you couldn’t pay me to do? I cannot imagine having so much money, or so much disregard for how money could be used, that I would think spending 65,000 bucks for THAT would be anything but foolish. I feel exactly the same way about people who pay a thousand dollars or more for tickets to Broadway shows or for a gourmet dinner, or for a bottle of wine. I’m not jealous. I reject their priorities.

  8. Thank you, Jack. That picture has been bugging me all week and you’ve eloquently explained why. And today is an excellent day for putting things in perspective.

  9. Well, Jack, I guess you’ll never want to see “Free Solo.” Though, maybe . . . after all it is a different way to climb a mountain. And El Capitan is still a challenge.p

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