I have been asked a number of times over the past few days about my views regarding the difficulty of the world's most high-profile expeditions. This is particularly due to the media storm surrounding the recent glut of Everest summits by people of, amongst other things, a very young age. Some of the news articles were ill-judged and childlike whilst others were thought-provoking. Within just a few days, both a 22 year old novice and a 13 year old American boy had stepped onto the world's highest point. Combined with this each year are a number of reports of increasingly 'unlikely' people skiing to the North and South Poles. Inevitably, questions begin to trickle in along the lines of 'is it easy then?'.
The first thing to say before anything else is that no climb or expedition is more 'worthy' than any other. There is no governing body available to compare and rank expeditions as neither are sports in the classic sense. That is no bad thing in my mind and the way things should remain. It is therefore left to the community to decide what is good and what is not.
The one glaring fact when looking at the modern era of expeditions to the remote regions of the world is that more people are setting their eyes on only the big, symbolic and glamourous prizes - Everest..South Pole..North Pole. These people, through no fault of their own, are not experts in these environments and most have busy day jobs. They naturally gravitate to companies who offer guided expeditions to complete their dream in a neat, single-fee package. There is without doubt a mind-set in recent years that nothing is beyond the average person - big mountains and Poles are no longer seen as the sole preserve of grizzled old explorers with toes missing. On one hand I cannot bring myself to condemn this ambition and big-thinking. On the other I think it is unbelievably dangerous and devalues the entire business. Quite a contradiction and one without a simple answer.
I believe passionately that many are simply peaking too soon. The men and women who have become legend in the exploration world have spent their lives in the mountains and polar regions, becoming experts in their field. They do it out of love for the environment, not the ability to brag at a Christmas party. These true mountaineers and polar travellers have been sadly overshadowed over time by the high-profile commercial clients who queue each year to add a peak or Pole to their tick-list. I have spoken to many Alpine International Mountain Guides, a qualification that takes years of hard work and talent to achieve, and most say they have no interest in Everest, 'it's not a climber's peak any longer'. What a sad state of affairs for the world's best climbers to lose interest in our planet's highest mountain.
The truth of the matter is that, whilst avoiding the pointless task of setting 'rules', the exploration community and more importantly the general public should have the facts at their disposal:
- The teenager who was led a short distance across good-quality ice to the North Pole from 89 degrees North is NOT the same as the two staggeringly tough and capable Russians who reached the North Pole from Russia (full-distance) in the polar winter night in 2008.
- The clients who are hauled up Everest each year by guides are NOT the same as Messner and Habeler reaching the summit in 1978 for the first time without supplementary oxygen.
- The dozens of people who have travelled from the false-coast at Hercules Inlet to the South Pole are NOT the same as the handful who travel the full distance from the coast; where water meets ice.
Again it is important to stress that no-one is in a position to judge the worthiness of someone else's efforts. Rather, it is simply vital to make sure that everyone has the raw facts in front of them. This will perhaps put an end to the tiresome stream of 'surely it's easy these days' comments.
Please do leave a comment and contribute to the discussion!