ad astra per alia porci

everest dreams of death and glory
September 16, 2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,


I am beginning to become a fan of Jon Krakauer, a writer whom I think writes really well about the lives of people living on the edge of experience, rejecting the tragedy of a bland existence. Straight after finishing Into the Wild (the review of which I am yet to write, regrettably. I am trying to find a slot of time when I can write a really thorough review of it) I reserved Krakauer’s chronicle of the doomed 1996 Everest expedition, Into Thin Air.

The more improbable the situation and the greater the demands made on [the climber], the more sweetly the blood flows later in release from all that tension. The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: You deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivalities. It’s a small scale model for living, but with a difference: Unlike your routine life, where mistakes can usually be recouped and some kind of compromise patched up, your actions, for however brief a period, are deadly serious

A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide

But there are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. Usually they are not experts: their ambitions and fantasies are strong enough to brush the doubts which more cautious men might have. Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad…

Everest has attracted its share of men like these. Their mountaineering experience varied from none at all to very slight- certainly none of them had the kind of experience which would make an ascent of Everest a reasonable goal. Three things they all had in common: faith in themselves, great determination, and endurance.

Walt Unsworth, Everest

How much of the appeal of mountaineering lies in its simplification of interpersonal relationships, its reduction of friendship to smooth interaction (like war), its substitution of an Other (the mountain, the challenge) for the relationship itself? Behind a mystique of adventure, toughness, footloose vagabondage- all much needed antidotes to our culture’s built-in comfort and convenience- may lie a kind of adolescent refusal to take seriously aging, the frailty of others, interpersonal responsibility, weakness of all kinds, the slow and unspectacular course of life itself

David Roberts “Patey Agonistes”, Moments of Doubt

It is everyone’s dream to stand at the top of Everest. It is like walking on the Moon, or flying a jet airplane. The problem is most dreams remain as dreams and most people don’t ever do climb Everest in their lifetimes.

The power of Everest to attract many climbers to both triumph and death is immense, and well worth examining.

What exactly does Everest, and the process and allure of climbing it, represent and mean to the collective human psyche, transcending boundaries and striking a common vein through humans of all creeds and race?

The mystique that Everest and the sport of mountaineering holds is a reflection of our modern existence. A further examination of this said mystique unravels an indictment of the inadequacies of our modern lives, and the falsity of the values we hold and the lives we lead.

Here’s what I can deduce from the book, and my personal observations. A disclaimer: I am no mountaineer myself so I guess there is some degree of hubris in my exposition, but I hope to be able to do some justice to the subject matter.

At the core of the Everest ideal is a view to live life truthfully, in every sense of the word. A person who daydreams about being on top of a mountain or physically goes to climb a mountain is escaping from what he already is, the life that he is already leading. This suggests that the current life is perhaps a kind of second-notch replacement for what could have been, the first grade genuine life.

So what is a life led truthfully? In this modern age where simulacra is more important than substance, it is not easy to discern that what is pure, and for that matter even harder to make people who are used to the comforts and numbness of modern life to understand what is pure. Life in its purity can be ascertained from the spiritual significance of climbing and the symbol that Everest has become.

A truthful life is one attuned to the actual realities of existence, without denial and false pretences. The forces of nature are brutally honest, and the price to pay for dishonesty is death. Honesty is a commodity most valued, and which effect is most starkly made clear, when you have to climb the highest mountain on Earth. One has to be crystal clear about the boundaries of one’s proficiency. Any drip of self-delusion, pride or overestimation results in a broken lifeless body at the bottom of a cliff. Everest claims as forfeit the lives of those who think too much of themselves, and set up mirrors that tell them that they are bigger and stronger than they really are.

Contrast this with the kind of life we lead normally. People boast, talk about accomplishments, they exaggerate the value of their experience. People might lead life carelessly in all their pecuniary richness, oblivious to the fragility of life and the stark fact that nature maintains its stranglehold over humanity, and that we are still very much at the mercy of forces much larger than us. Life in fact is way more tenuous and risky than we would admit.

Climbing Everest is a return to adolescent idealism, something which most adults lose with the passing of years. It is a reenactment of a time when you still had dreams and were not afraid to chase them, when the fire of pursuing something meaningful instead of money and a stable existence still burnt. Everest is a means to escape a monotonous, aimless existence of 9-5 jobs and ritualised meals at the same food court.

Everest is life led as if it mattered again: where the meaning and importance of each action has been put under a microscope and magnified thousands of times. Singaporeans lead coddled lives. And when life is so safe, mistakes are inconsequential, hence life is artificial. Our actions in daily life mean nothing, and hence life is meaningless itself. Darling, where should we eat for dinner? Or what brand of toilet paper I should get? Which car drives best (read: expensive tin can)? Children are wrapped in layers of wool, insulated from the innate harshness of life, and are fed delusions of stabilty and comfort. And they grow up into pampered unchallenged normal cookie cutter factory-made adults that speak the same language of the establishment: they talk about how everything is fine and what they want to buy at the next shopping trip to the mall.

There is no danger is such a life, and a life without a degree of risk and open-endness extinguishes the spirit of man and the meaning of life. Danger creates a heightened sense of existence and opens one to the possibilities of life. It is a form of electro-shock treatment that pushes one out of the comfortable numbness of domestic existence, and jolts the senses to work harder than before. The danger-seeker sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes everything more, harder, and more truthfully, and this translates to a life lived with more colours, smells, tastes, feelings and emotions.

Do I feel sympathy for those who climb Everest without having developed adequate mountaineering skills yet? Some of the expedition members on the ill-fated trips of 1996 are novices who have barely any experience and dared to challenge the harsh environs of the Himalayas.

I do not. Sympathy suggests pity and a degree of sorrow. I don’t pity people who has the guts to do what is meaningful and to take up challenges. A life led to the end in pursuit of a dream that most people won’t even dare to take the first step outside of their coddled lifeless existence for is a noble, worthy one. There is something intrinsically worthwhile to take that one big risk in life, to challenge oneself to something new and worthy and to direct one’s energies wholeheartedly towards the fulfillment of this challenge. If nature takes it forfeit, at least death is embraced with smiles of contentment, without regrets of what-might-have-been. This is life led truthfully.


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