Everyone else should stay home

For some reason last week’s headline about traffic jams on Mt. Everest really appalled me — why on earth would anyone do this?

Is it to get bragging rights? That’s a long way to go, a lot of money, and hassle (not to say danger) just to be able to say afterwards that you did it. Isn’t the idea of climbing mountains to pit oneself, alone or with a few chosen companions, against the elements? What does one find out about oneself if the experience is more like climbing the stairs in the subway station at rush hour than exploring uncharted wilderness?

My idea of a good time is more in tune with Eric Newby, an English author and adventurer in the long tradition of amateurs who wanted “to shun the celebrated spectacles of the tourist and without any concern with science or politics or commerce, simply to set [his] feet where few civilized feet have trod.”

Newby belonged to that generation who fought in WWII and then went on to great things. According to Wikipedia, he served in the Black Watch and was captured during a raid on Sicily in 1942. They later awarded him the Military Cross for the raid, so he must have done well. He escaped from the POW camp, hid in the Slovenian countryside, but was recaptured in 1944 by the Germans. After the war, he married the Slovenian woman who helped hide him (there’s even a movie about that love story!). After working for a few years in the fashion industry, he chucked it all in (the job, not the wife) and took off with a friend to a remote corner of Afghanistan to climb mountains, though neither of them had much experience. He wrote about their adventures in the immensely popular and typically humorous, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush: 

“I was heavily involved on all fronts: with mountaineering outfitters, who oddly enough never fathomed the depths of my ignorance; possibly because they couldn’t conceive of anyone acquiring such a collection of equipment without knowing how to use it…”

His story makes one long for the days before tourist buses and fancy gear. Well, I may not be able to live it (indeed, would not be capable in any case) but I can stay home and read about it. Let’s hope more people turn to books!

If you’re interested, you can read his  obituary, which, since a modern journalist wrote it, is not very flattering.