Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Mount Everest and the limits of play

Posted 17 Jul 2012 / 2

The traditional spring climbing season has come to an end in the Himalaya and 2012 has turned out to be a pretty deadly year. On Mount Everest — the most storied and trafficked Himalayan peak — ten people have died this season. Only the years 1996 and 2006 have seen more deaths. While death on Everest is both likely and potentially random, larger numbers of inexperienced mountaineers now flock to summit in an increasingly-smaller window of favorable weather, which may be leading to more deaths. Many of this season’s deaths have occurred when individuals delayed by summit traffic chose to push past reasonable summit times; the deceased saw the summit but never made it down to the bottom.

Death on Everest is macabre. Within short periods of time, dead people freeze. Depending on the location where people die, corpses can become fixed landmarks which future climbers must pass en route to the summit. This year a Canadian climber named Shriya Shah-Klorfine died above 8000 meters after ignoring pleas from her guides to turn back before summiting: her body was reported to be frozen solid along the route, her headlamp still aglow the next day. Most bodies get left up on the mountain because rescue at elevation is so dangerous, but Shah-Klorfine’s body was successfully recovered by her guides several days later. Those not recovered become part of the “Rainbow Valley” of colorfully-adorned corpses that line the route along the “death zone” above 8000 feet.

As I have discussed before, I am interested why people push limits, especially as such limit-pushing relates to our evolved instinct to play. I am willing to entertain the idea that many risky behaviors can be considered playful and therefore should not be considered maladaptive. While play has its risks, it can also yield great rewards: the personal and social advances that some risk-taking can yield may outweigh the potential costs of play-gone-wrong. How do we determine where the boundary is between playful risk-taking and self-destructive risk-taking?

It is possible to argue that mountaineering, even at the extremes presented at elevations above 8000 meters, is a form of play behavior. Clearly climbing mountains has no immediate instrumental value, and many who regularly pursue summits will tell you that they do so for the pure joy of the climb. Experienced mountaineers push their limits through incremental achievements, working within a small zone of discomfort as they build skills. And clearly mountaineering is something done in the ‘relaxed field’ by those who have already met their own basic needs for economic sustenance. All of these characteristics suggest that mountaineering, despite seeming fairly crazy to most people, might be characterized as a form of play. And like all forms of play displayed by humans, mountaineering has the potential to produce strong social and personal benefits to its practitioners.

So are all summit attempts playful? Looking at the extreme — climbing Mount Everest — can we look at the large death tolls racked up in the past and still call this endeavor playful?

Increasingly, I believe that the answer is “no”. While a few people still manage to climb 8000 meter peaks in the spirit of play, increasingly summiting these dangerous mountains — particularly Mount Everest — has become something else. Here are some reasons why it is not appropriate label most Everest summit attempts “playful”:

  1. Everest is beyond the limits of phenotypic plasticity: The crux of any Everest climb is the final push into the death zone above 8000 meters. What distinguishes this zone from other parts of this and other mountains is that no level of acclimatization can allow a human being to survive under these conditions of low oxygen for long. One of the chief benefits of play is that it allows players to harness the power of their own phenotypic plasticity: through playful exploration, the player becomes more adept, conditioned, or skilled. Within limits, high-elevation climbing does condition one’s body to better absorb and transport oxygen, so one could easily argue that the acclimatization afforded by mid-elevation climbing is beneficial. But the highest peaks demand respiratory performance beyond the limits of human phenotypic plasticity. At high elevations, there are no adaptive benefits of play;
  2. Most Everest climbers seek immediate benefits: So-called ‘summit fever’ could be playful in nature. Anyone who gets deeply into a play state of mind can become fixed on an arbitrary goal which propels them forward to exceptional performance. But on Everest, this goal-seeking is not ‘for its own sake’ but for perceived or real direct payoffs. Wealthy power-brokers seek to increase their influence by being able to claim an Everest summit. Some even push on simply for the sake of getting those fame-producing summit photos, which often can be their last. While the inexperienced seek the status that comes from a summit, those who lead them have an analogously direct motivation for bringing their clients to the top: big-mountain guiding has become big-money business;
  3. At high altitude, the collaborative nature of play is absent: The 2006 death of David Sharpe, who froze to death as dozens of climbers passed him by, underscored the very different rules of high-elevation mountaineering. Whereas mountaineering shares with many forms of play a strong component of social cooperation, once the elevation gets extreme the endeavor can become tragically individualistic. This is not just because people become obsessed with summiting above all else: extreme elevations also make cooperation cognitively and logistically difficult; and
  4. The risk of death on Everest is just too high: There is always some risk involved in play, as taking small risks is the means by which play reaps rewards. But beyond a certain limit, the risks just outweigh the potential benefits. Even by conservative estimates, the risk of death to an Everest summiter is about 1 in 20. These odds are just too slim to call this behavior playful, as even incredibly high payoffs could not offset this risk of death.

I think that it is important to recognize that modern human culture creates some pretty distorted versions of play. Animals frequently play, but within very strong boundaries based on their physiology, anatomy, and life history. Humans have greatly expanded their boundaries of play: first by becoming cognitively flexible and advanced like no other animal, and second by developing culture. It is our cognitive plasticity that allows us to conceive of all manners of sports, games, and other social ventures that we can easily see as ‘playful’. Culture and the technology it enables has further allowed us to expand the boundaries of what we call play, as humans propel themselves across air, land, sea, ice, and sheer cliffs in pursuit of that playful high. But it is the very combination of cognition and culture that also allows us to push past our boundaries into spaces where we have no business being. Everest is clearly one of these places, where playful instincts go to die.

If you are interested in reading more about this year’s Everest “disasters”, check out some of these articles:

MacLean’s Everest: ‘The open graveyard waiting above’“: nice overview of the state of affairs on Everest (traffic jams, economic incentives for allowing too many people to climb Everest, policies for permitting from the Chinese and Nepalese sides of the summit, the macabre reality of climbing past frozen corpses on the way to the summit, the costs to those who try to help unfit climbers).

Outside Four Confirmed Dead in Two Days on Everest“: This article provides a good sense of just how insane things have gotten on Everest, and how abusive climbing Everest is to the minds of even those who make it down alive. This article also differentiates between the current problem on Everest — a traffic jam of poorly-prepared climbers — and bad weather, the source of previous disasters.

OutsideEverest Explained“: The obsession with “summit photos” — and how it leads to unnecessary deaths — is well-explained in this interview. Two critical quotes in this one: a) “No, no, no, I have to make it to the top. I have to get the summit photos.”; and b) “I think that holds a certain cache for a lot of people to go back to their lives being an Everest summiter”.

Outside TRAGEDY AT 29,000 FEET: THE 10 WORST DISASTERS ON EVEREST“: Think that Everest is a playful place? Here are 10 incidents to wipe that idea out of your head.

CBC News Reclaiming the dead on Mt. Everest“: The simultaneously frank and macabre assessment of this veteran climber suggests that there is nothing playful about summit attempts on 8000+ meter peaks.

The StarMount Everest: Sherpa set to bring back body of Canadian woman“: This article gives you a sense of what it costs to go to Everest and fail, particularly when superstitions about corpses compel further risk to live human beings.

a sea of lead, a sky of slateAbandoned on Everest“: if you want a better sense of what Everest is really like, this article provides the pictures and commentary to explain the “Rainbow Valley”, including the David Sharp incident. It also outlines the ridiculous environmental extremes present on Everest.

CBC News Canadian climber’s body taken off Everest“: provides a detailed account of the extreme measures required to remove Shriya Shah-Klorfine’s body from Everest.

A Major Post, Cultural Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Human limits, Memetic Fitness, Mismatch theory, Play, Survival

2 Comments to "Mount Everest and the limits of play"

Chris Jensen 24th April 2014 at 6:35 am

It is one thing when people testing their limits as a “hobby” end up dying, but something entirely different when the workers who make that hobby possible perish. This week’s avalanche highlights the fact that there is a part of Everest climbing that is always work, not play. Making climbing possible for inferior mountaineers is the job of the Sherpa; their labor and skill allows more people to push the envelope because they bring the envelope closer.

After the death of 16 of their own, the Sherpas are done working for the year:

I am glad to see that the Sherpas are standing together to question their exploitation for wealthy people’s playful flights of fancy. If the Sherpas stop rigging Everest, it will return to being the forsaken place it once was, and only real mountaineers will climb it.

I do hope that this tragedy marks the end of the high-traffic era on Everest, although it is profoundly sad that such devastation might be required to bring this change.

Chris Jensen 28th June 2019 at 9:36 am

Checking back in on this post, and realizing that things are getting worse rather than better:

This article makes me realize just how much Everest has become a symbol of the individualistic and narcissistic elements of our society.

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