During the holiday break, while enjoying some snowfall in Vermont, I read through Part I of Freddie Wilkinson’s book One Mountain Thousand Summits. I’m further along now, but the first part — first third of the book, really — was not at all what I expected.
In a unique way, Wilkinson covers the 2008 tragedy on K2 where 11 alpinists lost their lives. I was expecting something akin to a play-by-play of the events on the mountain through one of the expedition teams or through interviews looking back. Instead, he reviews critically, and what feels like “real time,” the events that occurred on the mountain and what their family, friends and the public did in reacting to the news on an August weekend. He considered the role of blogs, journalism, sources and the general way information and news was received by the various audiences.
One thing I kept in mind that Wilkinson eludes to — and this is something I have certainly learned to be true while working in government and politics in my nation’s capital city — is that people’s perception of reality is their reality. Also, we are subject to the power of suggestion. This means if someone we believe to be an authority says that there is a reason to worry or be upset about an issue we likely will obey to some degree depending on our level of interest. Knowing this, and that only a handful of surviving climbers from the tragedy came forward to be sources for the media’s reports, the story is told from only their perspective. Collectively, it said mountaineering was a vainglorious endeavor.
This made it easy for the public to be critical of the climb, climbing and the tragedy. It was mere foolishness in life or death proportions. The public was influenced by the pundits and those identified as the subjects on the matter. Even Reinhold Messner and Ed Viesturs fueled, even if unintentionally, the media and public’s criticism.
Wilkinson points out that the shift from climbing as a noble pursuit (such as the first ascent of Mount Everest) to being part of selfish quests started after the 1996 Everest Disaster. This was when it became widely known that the only qualification need to take a stab at Everest was a hired guide and some level of good health. Climbers know — though the public does not universally acknowledge — that the skills and capabilities of guided climbers at that level vary widely but are not necessarily unqualified. (Respect for that style of climbing is a different subject altogether.)
Wilkinson puts the public’s criticism into historical context as well: “Since the polar feuds of the 20th Century, media controversy was an intrinsic part of exploration — but back then, few seriously questioned whether climbing mountains or traversing continents was worth it.” (It’s also notable the Wilkinson covers a lot of ground to make his points, and I have to hand it to him and his editor for having the courage not to retell the full story of each climbing incident he uses as an example. Clearly they recognized that either the resources to pick up the pieces exist or that there is a sophisticated audience — probably a little of both.)
Part I also considers the current context and the reality of what happens but he does so more through previewing his comments for later in Parts II and III. He leaves Part I with what is the informational equivalent of a cliff hanger. Just for the anthropological and social media view, it’s a very worthwhile and insightful read.